Nuclear Waste, Warnings, Symbols, and the Next 10,000 Years

Warning: this is considerably longer than most posts on this blog will be.  Today on the bus home from my field site, I finally finished reading “Wasteland: the 50-year battle to entomb our toxic nuclear remains“, which is both very long and very good.  More politics and science than politics and religion, but one of the aspects of it is the permanence of nuclear waste.   Any storage site has to be safe not only now, but countless generations from now.  The initial requirements was the site needed to be protected for 10,000 years.  Think about it.  The first settled agriculturalists were 10-12,000 years ago.  The Great Pyramid was built around 4,500 years ago.  Moses was probably about 3,500 years or so ago.  Think of all the time between the start of the Roman Empire and today.  Now multiple that by five.  That’s 10,000 years.

However, the two most dangerous long-lasting radioactive elements in the contained in spent nuclear fuel are Technetium-99 and Iodine-129: they have half lives of 220,000 years and nearly 16 million years respectively.  A court ruled that the arbitrary 10,000 year planning frame was just too short.  The court ruled there needed to be a one million year planning frame.  With that frame, suddenly, things like Rocky Mountains turning into volcanoes becomes a concern.   But geological disturbances are only part of what one has to worry about.  There are also human disturbances that must be considered, so in addition to the nuclear physicists and geologists, the Department of Energy:

hired anthropologists to study the history of language—both at Yucca and at the WIPP site in New Mexico—to conceive of a way to communicate far into the future that waste buried underground was not to be disturbed.

But the Blue Ribbon Commission’s report earlier this year calls these abstract time periods a little impractical.

“Many individuals have told [BRC] that it is unrealistic to have a very long (e.g., million-year) requirement,” it reads. “[BRC] agrees.”

That’s all the article says on the subject, but there’s much more to the story.  Let’s just work with the current 10,000 year standard (EPA’s WIPP website).  Think about it for a moment: English has been around for, let’s say, 1,000 years.  English we can easily read has only been around the 500 or so years since Shakespeare.  Latin had a good run of it.  Let’s call it the regional lingua franca from Caesar’s conquests to roughly Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (which I believe is the last major scientific or philosophical text published in a Latin original) and say that’s just about 1,700 years.  Writing of any kind has only been around for about 3,500 years.  What’s clear is, on any kind of markers meant to last 10,000 years, written language cannot be the only way we convey information.  It’s easy to imagine a Canticle for Liebowitz situation, where the future is less technologically advanced than we are today, and people have forgotten scientific concepts like “radioactive”, nevermind the meaning of the current radioactive symbol.  One would think some sort of pictorial message would be our fall back plan, but we have trouble understanding the cave paintings of Ice Age Europe.  If we showed sick people, how would they know it’s a helpful warning and not just an ancient superstitious curse? Think of how effective the pharoahs’ curses were at deterring our adventurers.  What is universally intelligible?  Usually when there’s a guard, there’s something worth guarding.   What could be the universal sign for “Seriously. Do Not Enter.  Honestly. It’s Not Treasure. It’s Death”?

The images to the above right are meant to convey “radiation leads to death” but I’m not sure I would have “gotten” that from pictures alone.

The team originally tasked to solve this problem was called the Human Interference Task Force.  In a lot of ways, their task was similar in scope to the problems of the Clock of the Long Now mixed with those of the plaque on Pioneer 10 and 11/the golden record on Voyager 1 and 2.  Except with much greater potential consequences for failure.  And a message would need to be instantly clear to everyone in all technological circumstances, not just thinkers and scientists who could decode it later at leisure, as in the satellite plaques.  Two different full reports available on the subject can be found here (the original Human Interference Task Force of 1984) and here (a separate group for WIPP site in 1993).  Rather than suffering through those, I recommend just reading the executive summary to the 1993 report.  It is amazing.  If you read only one link from this blog today, make it that one.

One of the guiding principles they came up with was “redundancy must play a preeminent role in the marking system design. The designs considered here have redundancy in terms of message levels, marking system components, materials, and modes of communication.”  Another principle was that the architecture of the site itself would have to help convey the core message (using only materials of intrinsic value that would never be looted).  In both linguistic and non-linguistic ways, they sought to convey the following chain of ideas:

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 report sets to work on four different levels of communication.  Level I (rudimentary): something man made is here.  Level II (cautionary): something man made is here and it’s dangerous.  Level III (basic information): the details of nuclear waste you might find on a single plaque.  Level IV (complex information): more advanced scientific information, housed in special places.  Non-linguistic communication can really only get you through Level II, and so they spend a lot of time designing the site so that, even 10,000 years from now, it will convey some part of both “man-made” and “dangerous”.  The first thing aspect a visitor would encouter is a massive set of “jagged and rough” earthworks (about 1/2 mile in diameter) meant to be “suggestive of energy radiating from the central area”, but still allowing access to the site.  The corners will provide vantage points of the whole area, as well as room preserving warnings filled with Level IV information (the logic behind the vantage point is interesting, and I suggest you read the report).  There can be nothing in particular in the center, as that would suggest “dig here”.  As one goes towards the center, there will be various stone message walls made of hard-to-repurpose material (the walls will be curved, for instance, because that will make them less appealing as building material) and protected from weathering by concrete barriers. The message walls will include a Level II message (the picture above; they “decide[d] to include faces portraying horror and sickness”) and a Level III message, which reads (according to the 2009 Slate article that originally got me interested in the subject, the message would be in English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese, Arabic, and Navajo creating a sort of Rosetta stone that would ease later interpretation):

These standing stones mark an area used to bury radioactive wastes. The area is … by … kilometers (or … miles or about … times the height of an average full-grown male person) and the buried waste is … kilometers down. This place was chosen to put this dangerous material far away from people. The rock and water in this area may not look, feel, or smell unusual but may be poisoned by radioactive wastes. When radioactive matter decays, it gives off invisible energy that can destroy or damage people, animals, and plants.

Do not drill here. Do not dig here. Do not do anything that will change the rocks or water in the area.

Do not destroy this marker. This marking system has been designed to last 10,000 years. If the marker is difficult to read, add new markers in longer-lasting materials in languages that you speak. For more information go to the building further inside. The site was known as the WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) site when it was closed in …

One of the main problems of the site is how to convey that this is simultaneously important and of no value.  Everything needs to be simultaneously open (so that it is clear nothing of value is hidden) but ominous and uninviting (so that no one settles there).  They present a series of site designs (some of which I’ve put on the sides here; there are more on the executive summary’s website) because so much needs to be conveyed by the architecture alone, as language may become unreliable and, as the report notes, pictorial messages “may even convey the opposite of what is intended”.  Among the the elements suggested (but not detailed in the executive summary) is leaving the existing “hot cell” (a thick walled concrete building).

The “hot” cell may be put to symbolic use by incorporating it into the site’s design, as a mute artifact suggesting something “strong” that needed to be contained, although from its large door size, a thing that had to be easily accessible and thus was (probably) not treasure. And because the “hot” cell’s openings are randomly placed, rather than symmetrical, it would tend not to be mistaken for an honorific or privileged structure. If the “hot” cell is kept, it should not be located in the geometric center of any open space, which would symbolically elevate its importance.

I’m not sure if, visiting the site, I would “get” that particular symbolic reading, but it shows how complex the whole question of universal symbols becomes.

The report ends:

To design a marker system that, left alone, will survive for 10,000 years is not a difficult engineering task.  It is quite another matter to design a marker system that will for the next 400 generations resist attempts by individuals, organized groups, and societies to destroy or remove the markers. While this report discusses some strategies to discourage vandalism and recycling of materials, we cannot anticipate what people, groups, societies may do with the markers many millenia from now.

I remember reading in another article an argument that perhaps it was safest  simply to leave the site in the desert completely unmarked (on the surface at least) so that no one would ever consider digging there because, “Oh jeeze what is this huge monument of rough hewn stones?  There must be something here.”

Other alternative solutions are listed on the Wikipedia page for “nuclear semiotics”.  One involves genetically engineered cats that change color around radiation (cats have lived with humans for millenia).  Another involves simply making the site very, very hard to break into, and assuming that people with the technology to break into it would also be able to understand radiation (which makes me think of the Goiânia, Samut Prakan, and other, similar accidents involving radiation and scrap metal).  The proposal that has gotten the most attention is strikingly different from the suggestions of the 1993 WIPP report. Linguist and semiotician Thomas Sebeok suggests creating an “atomic priesthood” who will forever be vigilant and guard the site through the generations.  The priesthood would be a new cultural institution formed around “information [to] be launched and artificially passed on into the short-term and long-term future with the supplementary aid of folkloristic devices, in particular a combination of an artificially created and nurtured ritual-and-legend,” with different levels of information given to the uninitiated (legend) and the initiated (the details of nuclear science).  They will be able to guard the site even if the scientific reasons for their duty are forgotten. Which is to say, serious A Canticle for Liebowitz territory (or DiVinci Code territory or M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village territory, perhaps, for those less familiar with classic science fiction).  He says the messages at the burial site itself should only be design with the next three generations in mind (our great-grandchildren) and that:

This message, however, would have to be supplemented by a meta-message — coded in the same combination of familiar verbal/averbal signs — incorporating a plea and a warning that the object-message at the site be renewed by whatever coding devices seem to be maximally efficient, roughly, 250 years hence. That future object-messages should, in turn, incorporate a similar meta-message for the generation 500 years from now to act comparably, and so on, and on, up to 10,000 years ahead.

Sebeok’s full 1981 report (published in 1984) for the U.S. Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation is called “Communication Measures to Bridge Ten Millennia” and is available online. There’s a critique of the whole idea here, which points out that the whole premise relies on “secrecy, manipulation and deceit” and makes certain assumptions about human nature.

Compare Sebeok’s approach and the 1993 proposal can be contrasted in this way: the massive earthworks approach seeks to use linguistic communication and a universal symbolic vocabulary to convey their message.  Sebeok’s approach dispenses with that, eschews universal symbols, and seeks to, like religion, create a symbolic vocabulary that can be taught and adapted from one generation to the next.

It makes sense, if we take this transmission of knowledge approach, to make it highly adaptable.  Look at the evidence we have.  The religious symbols we know today are, in terms of each religion, quite new.  Despite Judaism’s antiquity, the Star of David only dates back about 1,000 years.  Before that, the six-armed Temple Menorah was the most common symbol of Judaism (for instance, on the Roman Arch of Titus as well as on Hasmonean coins).  The Cross was not a early symbol of Christianity; instead, the earliest representations of Christianity I know of involve the chi-rho, the icthys, and whales (Jonah spent three days in the Whale, Jesus was dead for three days before the resurrection).  Islam and Buddhism both started out as anti-iconic to differing degrees before adopting the symbols we know today centuries after their founders’ deaths.  Early Muslim flags were solid colored (green, black, or white–you’ll still see Salafists using green and black flags), and the Star and Crescent was only really popularized by the Ottoman Empire.  Following Buddhism’s aniconic period (where symbol’s like Buddha’s footprint or the dharma wheel were common), the representations of Buddha that we know today were innovated after contact with Greek civilization.  Wikipedia (citing unconvincing evidence) states the Om-syllable is “present in all the Upanishads”, which implies it is not clear in the Vedas.  The Om-symbol (as opposed to syllable) assumes a certain level of literacy so was probably not present in Hinduism’s earliest history.  The swastika apparently rose to prominence in Hinduism only after the decline of Indian Buddhism, and is a perhaps the greatest example of how drastically the meanings of symbols can change over the longue durée.

Which all gets to the question: how the hell do you communicate anything over 10,000 years?  What assumptions about the future and human nature can we make?  Is it best to try to tap into necessarily vague universal symbolism supplemented by written warnings?  Or would we be better off focusing on ways to transmit a specific, invented set of symbols and warnings?  Do current institutions (not just governments, but religious organizations) have any hope of transmitting a message 10,000 years into the future?  If I were to make an atomic priesthood, I would not try to just invent it out of the whole cloth, but rather, I’d suggest working to graft it onto existing local, long lasting religious institutions, in addition to designing the site itself along the lines of the 1993 WIPP report.  Can you think of a better way communicate “danger” 300-400 generations into the future?

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  1. […] cap our proposed nuclear waste dumping sites in the mountains of the west (see an interesting blog here).  Oh, and it had to last a minimum of 10,000 years, and it could not be language-based or […]



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