Nuclear Semiotics: How to Warn the People of 10,000 Years in the Future

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While nuclear energy has unquestioned benefits, there are some trade-offs. Among the downsides to nuclear energy is the problem of nuclear waste. Nuclear waste can be hazardous to all life for at least 10,000 years. Finding a safe place to store it is certainly an issue. Another problem is how to warn people to stay away.

At first, the warning may not seem like so difficult of an issue. When you consider that the warning mechanisms have to survive at least 10,000 years, it starts to become more problematic. When you also factor in how much language and culture has changed in just the past few hundred years, crafting the warnings so they will be understood 100 centuries from now begins to be almost as complex as splitting the atom.

Nuclear semiotics is an interdisciplinary field of research centered around developing signs and symbols to warn future generations of the hazardous gifts we are bequeathing to them. Beginning in 1983, the United States Department of Energy has been working with linguists, archaeologists, anthropologists, materials scientists, science fiction writers, and futurists to come up with an appropriate warning system. The challenges instantly began to mount. We cannot count on modern languages to survive whatever calamity the future might hold. We also cannot assume that symbols will continue to have the same meaning as today.

Consider, for example, a 21st-century warning sign concerning radioactive material:

The sign is intended to show that radiation is present, can cause death, therefore anyone in the area should run away. That’s what it means for us today, but will it mean the same thing a century from now, let alone 100 centuries hence? The radiation symbol at the top of the triangle dates back to 1946 and a group project among students at the University of Berkeley. It is intended to represent electron activity around an atom. If you didn’t know that, you might conclude that it is a fan. You could also see an angel, with his wings extended. Given the right circumstances, someone could easily look at the sign and come to the conclusion that in that area there is an angel who uses his powers to take a dead person and bring him back to life. Rather than repel the curious from the site, it could actually draw more potential victims of radiation poisoning.

When the United States’ first underground nuclear waste storage facility was built near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) began storing waste in 1999. The plan is to store nuclear waste in vast chambers drilled nearly half a mile into a salt flat where tectonics have been stable for more than 250 million years.

WIPP schematic.

Once the facility reaches capacity, the shafts will be collapsed. Within a century, the waste containers will be completely enclosed in salt. The U.S. government has already authorized around-the-clock security for the facility for at least one hundred years after it is sealed.

Not wanting to rely on human security, (like the time a security guard triggered a massive nuclear disaster by skipping work to go see Herbie Goes Bananas) designers proposed a number of additional warnings to prevent unsuspecting future excavators from unearthing a radioactive nightmare. The design will include “passive institutional controls, ” that will include an outer perimeter of thirty-two 25-foot-tall (7.6 m) granite pillars built in a four-mile (6 km) square. These pillars will surround an earthen wall, 33 feet (10 m) tall and 100 feet (30 m) wide. Enclosed within this wall will be another 16 granite pillars. At the center, directly above the waste site, will sit a roofless, 15-foot (4.6 m) granite room providing more information. On the slabs and pillars will be a host of warnings.

This information will be recorded in the six official languages of the United Nations (English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese, Arabic) as well as the Native American Navajo language native to the region, with additional space for translation into future languages. Pictograms are also being considered, such as stick figure images and the iconic “The Scream” from Edvard Munch’s painting. Complete details about the plant will not be stored on site; instead, they would be distributed to archives and libraries around the world. The team plans to submit their final plan to the U.S. Government by around 2028.

Proposed disk marker to be scattered throughout the quarantined zone.
Proposed warning sign to be placed near the buried nuclear waste.
Proposed warning signs to be placed around the perimeter of the quarantined zone.

Researchers also have to consider the fact that they may actually be encouraging unwanted attention to the hazardous material by the very act of building deterrents. Future generations may see the stone slabs and pillars and conclude that it is a temple or a special mystical place — much as we view Stonehenge today. While research continues on the best way to place future generations on notice, the following has been proposed to be translated into every UN written language:

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 was dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.
The danger is in a particular location… it increases towards 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.

Read about the monument built for Doomsday.

Visit the burial site for the world’s first nuclear waste.