By Rae Avery
Imagine you have an enormous tank of radioactive nuclear waste. You've buried it in the backyard and now you need to make sure no one digs it back up for at least 10,000 years, or the impending massive destruction of the human race is on you, buddy. Think carefully, otherwise it may become the new nursery location for some post-apocalyptic human nomads. Surely no one wants that on their conscience. How would you warn earth's future citizens?
This hypothetical situation is actually a reality at a number of locations, including New Mexico, at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, 26 miles northwest of Carlsbad. Half a mile underground, toxic nuclear waste is being contained in a plant surrounded by natural salt deposits.
Here's where the problem comes in. Nuclear waste is dangerous for a long, long time. It will be lethal to humans, animals and plants that come in contact with it for the next 10,000 years. At that time you, and I, and every scientist living today will be long gone, and it stands to reason that a basic knowledge of the dangers of toxic waste may be gone too. As long as it stays buried, it should be just fine, but as our world's history has shown us, archeology digs on. Human beings will always have the unquenchable thirst of curiosity, and will always have an urge to excavate the past. So how do you warn people to stay away?
This is the question a panel of experts teamed up to answer. Thirteen professionals with backgrounds in linguistics, art, astrophysics, writing, architecture, and geology came together to form a nuclear semiotic think-tank, called the Futures Panel, with one objective in mind: how to craft a message that someone could understand long after we're gone. A sophisticated “KEEP OUT” signs if you will.
Keep in mind that languages evolve and change over time, and Standard English may not even exist in 10,000 years (Sanskrit, anyone?). Case in point, the literary Anglo Saxon classic Beowulf, was written just 1,000 years ago, in the language English originally came from, and few native English speakers today can understand it without a translation. At any rate, a written warning was decidedly not going to be enough, though it would certainly be included, just in case.
Many of the ideas the Futures Panel members came up with were fascinating to say the least. One idea was to cover the area with 50-foot spikes. Another was a Lego-like city of forbidding black blocks that would be hot to the touch. In 1981, Germany had a similar nuclear storage issue, and their team came up with ideas even more outrageous, including launching an artificial moon and engraving a warning there (yes, on the synthetic moon), the thought process being that the moon would provide a durable and universal surface. Another somewhat batty idea was an “atomic priesthood” who would, generation after generation, scare people away from the site with tales of supernatural danger. But perhaps the craziest proposition of all was breeding a species of “ray cats” whose fur would change color with radiation exposure, and down through the ages, people would hear of the oddly colored cats and know to stay away from the site.
The Futures Panel, thankfully, entertained concepts far less ridiculous, and settled on a geologic and informational solution. Giant, foreboding “earthen berms” (large, protruding mounds of dirt), in jagged shapes are what one would come upon first when approaching the site in the future. There will be many of these berms, meant to convey a feeling of dread (thus the jagged, pointy shapes), and four larger central ones, each berm 33 feet tall and on the corner a large square. The size and shape of these mounds had been calculated precisely to be enduring and to resist natural erosion. Should future explorers dig into these berms, they would find special concrete rooms containing advanced information engraved on stone – maps, the periodic table of elements, the exact chemical compounds of the waste buried far beneath, and star charts noting the date that the facility was sealed.
In the middle of the berm formations will be large informational monuments. Giant, curved slabs of granite, each inscribed with a detailed warning (the messages to be placed up high in case the desert sands threaten to bury them), are to be erected in each of the six United Nations official languages (English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Arabic and French, and additionally one written in Navajo, the indigenous language local to that area), and will contain information on the dangers of the waste buried half a mile below. Altogether, there will be 48 monumental structures, weighing approximately 100 tons each. Total cost for these granite messages is estimated to be $30 million (and you thought your kitchen counters were expensive). The message they decided on is this:
“This place is a message, and part of a system of messages. Pay attention to it! Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture. This place is not a place of honor. No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here. Nothing valued is here. What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger. The danger is in a particular location. It increases toward a center. The center of danger is here. Of a particular size and shape, and below us. The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours. The danger is to the body, and it can kill. The form of the danger is an emanation of energy. The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.”
The language is kept simple and the information is plainly laid out, yet said humbly and genuinely enough that hopefully those who read it will believe it. Sporadically across the site will also be buried small “time capsules,” made of clay, glass, and aluminum oxide, that will contain additional warnings and also pieces of wood the discoverers could use for carbon dating the site in the future.
An additional waste repository site was planned for Yucca Mountain, although operations were effectively shut down there when funding ran out. This facility can store waste temporarily, but the changes necessary to make it a permanent waste solution would be very costly. It may not be off the table completely, but for now it's not a viable option.
Though the plans for the WIPP site aren't completely “carved in stone” (pun definitely intended), the nuclear site message team has a bit more time to revise the details if they should for any reason change their minds. The final plans are to be submitted in 2028