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EPA Expected to Issue Million-Year-Long Regulation

In the coming weeks, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to issue a regulation that will extend 1 million years into the future.

The timescale of the regulation, which deals with the disposal of power plant nuclear waste, is unprecedented territory for the EPA.

"This will be the only rule that applies for such a long duration into the future," says Elizabeth Cotsworth, the EPA director of radiation and indoor air. "Most EPA rules apply for the foreseeable future -- five or six generations. This rule is for basically 25,000 generations."

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In 2002, after Congress and President Bush approved plans to store power plant nuclear waste material inside Yucca Mountain, Nevada, the EPA was placed in charge of laying out the repository's building codes, designed to last 10,000 years.

"We thought that [10,000 years] was generally the limit of scientific certainty in our ability to predict with confidence," says Cotsworth.

But opponents of the Yucca Mountain plan filed a lawsuit which argued that the regulation did not extend far enough into the future. After the courts agreed, the EPA extended the regulation by 100 times, to 1 million years.

The agency doesn't know if there will be anyone to protect 1 million years from now. No one does.

One way to get a sense for what can change over a million years is to look back into the past. Scientists do know that life has changed dramatically over the past million years. For example, our ancestors had skulls that were a third smaller that ours. They had not harnessed fire or started to make clothing. Neanderthals were still in the future.

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Rick Potts, director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, says not to underestimate what can happen in a million years.

"A million years ago is an exceptionally long time," he says. "Even though I study [the time period] 1 million years ago and what [that] means, it takes me time to get my head around it."

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