See Inside December 2009

Readers Respond on "What Now for Nuclear Waste?"

Letters to the editor: Neandertals; GM Crops

Terrible Thing to Waste
One of the most important messages in Matthew L. Wald’s “What Now for Nuclear Waste?” is that we really have several options for handling nuclear waste. All the options, whether aboveground storage for a couple of hundred years until we decide on the next step, reprocessing fuel to remove the long-lived isotopes to be burned in a fast reactor, or even the original plan for burying spent fuel will have little to no impact on future generations or the environment. There are no plausible scenarios for controlling climate change that do not require use of nuclear energy. Apart from hydroelectricity, it is the only base-load source that does not require burning fossil fuels. For this country, there are no new major hydro sources available. Unfortunately, as Wald notes, the process for deciding how we ultimately handle nuclear waste has been driven largely by politics and not science. It is time, however, that we mature past the disingenuous arguments about nuclear waste as a roadblock to any new nuclear plants and build the facilities we need.
William H. Miller
Nuclear Science and Engineering Institute
University of Missouri–Columbia

In a Parallel Universe ...
It’s such a shame the Neandertals had to leave us, as Kate Wong recounts in “Twilight of the Neandertals.” Imagine sharing the planet with another race of stocky people like Tolkien’s dwarfs! What I can’t grasp is why we need to explain them away as anatomically inferior evolutionary dead ends. Maybe in some parallel universe, things went the other way. The Neandertal would be studying our bones and talking about how we were built weaker, had smaller brains, and were poorly adapted to the cold during an ice age. Of course we died out!

Our own history has seen plenty of civilizations go extinct while others have expanded to fill the void, and we are all built the same way. So why did we luck out over the Neandertal? Who knows? Maybe we had developed a higher level of social organization? Maybe when you get started in a more agreeable climate, you have time to experiment with higher concepts like extended tribal networks and such? We may never know what gave us an edge, but I’d rather not jump to conclusions about our mental or physical superiority.
Edward K. Chew
Kingston, Ontario

Why do your close-up illustrations of supposed Neandertals show them as overweight, aging, puffy-skinned, sparsely bearded guys with bad hairstyles? Where is the archaeological evidence for any of these traits in representative Neandertals? Okay, they may have had heavy browridges and big ears, but so did Clark Gable, so why not use him as your model? The Neandertal guys were probably very proud of their neatly trimmed pencil moustaches—consistent with the real evidence for bone tools, blades and decorated bodies.
Peter Brooker
West Wickham, England

THE EDITORS REPLY: Wong’s “Who Were the Neandertals?” (April 2000) featured an attractive female Neandertal gazing into a mirror.

The ongoing debate on genetically modified crops, as espoused in “A Seedy Practice” [Scientific American Perspectives], is not about stopping public relations efforts by these companies. Companies market products, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Nor is it about whether I or anyone else thinks genetically modified foods are good or bad. The problem is that today these claims are mostly opinion, because independent research is not available to properly inform discussions.

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