How to communicate the dangers of nuclear waste to future civilizations.
How to communicate the dangers of nuclear waste to future civilizations.
News and commentary about environmental issues.
Nov. 16 2009 11:50 AM

Atomic Priesthoods, Thorn Landscapes, and Munchian Pictograms

How to communicate the dangers of nuclear waste to future civilizations.

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As for the problem of actually getting these essentials across, the report proposes a system of redundancy—a fancy way of saying throw everything at the wall and hope that something sticks. Giant, jagged earthwork berms should surround the area. Dozens of granite message walls or kiosks, each 25 feet high, might present graphic images of human faces contorted with horror, terror, or pain (the inspiration here is Edvard Munch's Scream) as well as text in English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese, Arabic, and Navajo explaining what's buried. This variety of languages, as Charles Piller remarked in a 2006 Los Angeles Times story, turns the monoliths into quasi-Rosetta stones. Three rooms—one off-site but nearby, one centrally located, and one underground—would serve as information centers with more detailed explanations of nuclear waste and its hazards, maps showing the location of similar sites around the world, and star charts to help intruders calculate the year the site was sealed. According to 1994 estimates, the whole shebang would cost about $68 million, but that's just a ballpark figure based on very incomplete data.

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Proposals for the "earthworks" component demonstrate that the whole project of communicating with the future is really a creative assignment, more dependent on the imagination than on expertise. What'll really scare off 210th-century tomb raiders? The report proposes a "Landscape of Thorns" with giant obelisklike stones sticking out of the earth at odd angles. "Menacing Earthworks" has lightning-shaped mounds radiating out of a square. In "Forbidding Blocks," a Lego city gone terribly wrong, black, irregular stones "are set in a grid, defining a square, with 5-foot wide 'streets' running both ways. You can even get 'in' it, but the streets lead nowhere, and they are too narrow to live in, farm in, or even meet in."

The Sandia panelists were not the first to devise a several-thousand-year warning system. In the early 1980s, the semiotician and linguist Thomas Sebeok wrote a paper for the U.S. Office of Nuclear Waste Management titled "Communication Measures To Bridge Ten Millennia," which proposes a folkloric relay system to pass along information: "The legend-and-ritual, as now envisaged, would be tantamount to laying a 'false trail,' meaning that the uninitiated will be steered away from the hazardous site for reasons other than the scientific knowledge of the possibility of radiation and its implications; essentially, the reason would be accumulated superstition to shun a certain area permanently." Sebeok further suggested a Dan Brown-like "atomic priesthood" of physicists, anthropologists, semioticians and the like who would preserve the "truth."


Sebeok's concept for an artificial myth is, in a word, silly. Indeed, he acknowledges the shortcomings of the system himself: "Folklore specialists consulted have advised that they know of no precedent, nor could they think of a parallel situation, except the well-known, but ineffectual, curses associated with the burial sites (viz., pyramids) of some Egyptian Pharoahs." Given that even organic religious movements have trouble imparting site-specific information—scholars continue to debate whether Moses parted the Red Sea or the Reed Sea, a large lake close by—it's unlikely that eggheads could devise a myth haunting enough to turn the Carlsbad site into a permanent no-man's land.

We've seen this before—or, at least, we have on screen. In Alien, the crew of the Nostromo picks up a transmission from a derelict spacecraft. Only after deciding to investigate do they realize that the transmission is a warning signal. But by then it's too late; the Nostromo is well on its way to becoming a maternity ward for extraterrestrials. All the attention paid to the site seems as likely to encourage unwanted visitors as to ward them off, since surely future anthropologists, or just Mad Max dystopia types, will be curious to explore a spike field in the middle of the desert. The proposed systems are imaginative, but that's all. They depend, necessarily, on the intruders' willingness to decipher messages laboriously before simply acting—drilling to find oil, say, or precious metals.

There's also something oddly short-sighted about this far-sighted project. Radioactivity causes cancer and a host of other medical problems—that much is certain. But the report fails to note that we may find cures for these ailments in the next century or, perhaps, even earlier. In that case, should the EPA convene a new panel to communicate the most advanced chemotherapy technique? Ultimately the option of doing nothing—of leaving the site devoid of markers— seems like the most elegant solution of all. It may at first appear callous, lazy, and irresponsible, but at the very least, this relaxed approach is cheaper than erecting spiked granite monuments and building fancy information centers—not to mention commissioning additional panels to work out all the details.

Juliet Lapidos is a staff editor at the New York Times.

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