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How to Warn the Future About Toxic Waste?

Radioactive Cats and Nuclear Priests: How to Warn the Future About Toxic Waste, Motherboad, DANIEL OBERHAUS, May 7 2017 

Nuclear waste can remain toxic for tens of thousands of years. How do you warn the future that they’re standing on nuclear waste when there’s no one around to translate?

This is a series around POWER, a Motherboard 360/VR documentary about nuclear energy. Follow along here.

In 1999, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant outside of Carlsbad, New Mexico accepted its first deposit of mid-level nuclear waste. A massive network of tunnels extending nearly a quarter of a mile into the Earth, WIPP is tasked with safely storing the United States’ growing stockpile of nuclear waste for the next million years.

Due to the timescales involved when handling nuclear waste, designing deep geological repositories like WIPP is one of the most challenging engineering problems ever faced by our species. But, as it turns out, the main problem has less to do with engineering, and more to do with linguistics: namely, how to design a warning message about the repository that will be intelligible to future generations of humans who might happen across it hundreds of thousands of years from now.

The solution isn’t as simple as it seems. Humans have only been writing for about 5,500 years, and many ancient languages have forever been lost to history. The idea of using a language to write out a warning message that would last 200 times longer than the most ancient languages seems improbable at best. Even conventional warning symbols like the skull and crossbones are far from universal.

As for building giant, foreboding monuments to scare people away? One need only look to the great pyramids to see how well that worked at keeping people out. Another idea was simply to bury the waste and forget about it, which raises a significant ethical issue: Do we have an obligation to warn future generations about our nuclear waste?

In 1981, the US Department of Energy convened an eclectic panel of experts to design a warning message that would last millennia. Known as the Human Interference Task Force, the group was led by the renowned semiotician Thomas Sebeok.

The group’s message was being designed for Yucca Mountain, a controversial high-level waste repository in Nevada that is still not open for business, largely due to the extremely complex nature of designing a million-year nuclear vault.

Following the initial call for ideas, a poll was conducted by the German Journal of Semiotics between 1982 and 1983 that asked for proposals addressing the question of how to communicate the dangers of a nuclear waste repository to people 10,000 years in the future. The most compelling was Sebeok’s plan for a nuclear priesthood, which would pass on information to future generations through myths and rituals. It was based on the idea of the Catholic Church, which has managed to transmit its messages for nearly 2,000 years.

Less formal styles of oral tradition, such as Icelandic family sagas, have also been shown to retain a high degree of accuracy after 1,000 years.

Other ideas were slightly more outlandish. Stanislaw Lem, a Polish sci-fi writer, suggested periodically putting satellites into orbit that would transmit information about the sites to Earth for hundreds of years at a time. A similar proposal was put forth by Philipp Sonntag, who advocated for “an artificial moon in the sky” as the safest place to store information about the repository. Another of his ideas was to encode information about the site into the DNA of plants, which would then be planted around the repository opening.

 In a similar vein, the Italian semiotician proposed breeding “radiation cats” that would change color when they came near radioactive sites. The thinking was that, based on the long history of human-feline cohabitation, there was a good chance that this would continue into the future and our feline friends could warn us of the danger.

After two years of deliberation, the Human Interference Task Force issued a large technical report for the Department of Energy containing their final recommendations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, neither ray cats nor radioactive flowers made the cut. Instead, the task force proposed creating a large monument over the site, consisting of several stone monoliths inscribed with information in all human languages, as well as a subterranean vault with more detailed information, and a number of earthen walls making access to the site intentionally difficult.

Furthermore, the group recommended dispersing detailed information about the site to libraries around the globe, to prevent some sort of cataclysmic, Library of Alexandria-type of information loss should a disaster strike one of the sites………


May 8, 2017 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, wastes

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