Just how do we warn the future about nuclear waste anyway?

This week the South Australian Royal Commission released “tentative findings” recommending the state take more than 100 tonnes of high-level radioactive waste and store it in the desert for hundreds of thousands of years.

A final report is due in May, but already there has been excitement around the proposal, which the Commission says could generate billions of dollars a year and thousands of jobs for the South Australian economy. The state has the highest unemployment in the country.

Australia has no nuclear power plants and doesn’t generate high-level nuclear waste that needs to be stored for a very long time; it would be imported.

If the facility goes ahead, the designers may consider a problem that has baffled linguists and semioticians (sign experts): how to tell the distant future don’t dig up the dump?

The report notes that the used fuel of nuclear power plants requires isolation from the environment “for many hundreds of thousands of years” and that many countries, including Finland, France, Hungary and South Africa, have developed purpose-built waste repositories.

This is true, but it’s worth pointing out none of these already built repositories are for the final disposal of nuclear fuel. They are either for low to intermediate level waste, which needs to be isolated for several hundred years, or they are temporary, interim solutions to the problem of finding a final resting place that will isolate waste for tens of thousands of years.

Finland is building the world’s first deep underground repository for high level nuclear waste and Sweden is close behind. The Finnish site is scheduled for completion in 2023.

Carlsbad WIPPA better example of the kind of repository proposed for South Australian is the United States’ Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), deep in the New Mexico desert. It’s the only working long-lived nuclear waste repository in the world. It holds barrels of gloves and masks and machines and bomb parts contaminated by nuclear testing. The site is designed to last for 10,000 years.

WIPP is scheduled to close in the 2040s. It will be sealed up and left alone. Centuries will pass and become millennia. On the surface, civilisations will rise and fall.

China, the world’s oldest continuous civilisation, stretches back about 5,000 years. The world’s oldest inscribed clay tablets date from about the same time.

The half-life of plutonium-239, which can produce fatal radiation doses during short periods of direct exposure, is 24,000 years – the time it takes to decay to half its level of radioactivity. In 10 times that period, or 240,000 years, it decays to uranium-234, which is fairly harmless.

Homo sapiens began to evolve about 200,000 years ago.

Atomic priesthoods and ‘ray cats’

In 1991, the Department of Environment hired linguists, scientists and anthropologists at a cost of about $1 million to answer what is basically a conundrum of labelling. How do you warn far-off civilisations or scattered bands of post-apocalyptic survivors that invisible beams of energy emanating from the earth could kill them, and this was not a trick, there’s no buried treasure?

The 351 page report and has the (rather dry) title: Expert Judgement on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Wasteland Isolation Pilot Plant.Here’s some of the problems they identified:

  • Languages evolve too fast to communicate with the future: Few English speakers understand Old English, which was spoken about 1000 years ago.
  • The meanings of symbols is too ambiguous: For example, the physicist Carl Sagan was invited to join the researchers, couldn’t make it, and wrote to suggest they simply use the skull-and-crossbones symbol to signify danger. But this symbol has only been current for a few hundred years, has meant ‘poison’ for the last 100, and is no longer very threatening. It’s on ‘pirate theme’ drink bottles.
  • Even if they understand the warnings, future trespassers might not believe them. Curses associated with the burial sites of the Egyptian Pharaohs did not deter grave robbers.

In 1981 the Department of Energy assembled a gun team of engineers, anthropologists, nuclear physicists, and science fiction authors to figure out how to prevent future access to a proposed deep geological repository at a place called Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

They were known as the Human Interference Task Force and they established the field of nuclear semiotics […]

‘This place is not a place of honour’

The 1990s study for WIPP eschewed ray cats and atomic priesthood in favour of gargantuan architecture, message walls in many languages, and faces contorted in expressions of pain and sickness.


Spikes 2The names of the enormous earthworks proposals are evocative: ‘landscape of thorns’, ‘black hole’, and ‘rubble landscape’, ‘forbidding blocks’ and ‘menacing earthworks’, ‘leaning stone spikes’ and ‘spike field’. There are animated versions of these designs in the documentary Contamination.


Spikes 1The message walls would have the faces as well as simple messages in the six languages of the United Nations (Arabic, English, Spanish, French, Russian, and Chinese), as well as Navajo. There would be a blank area for the message to be inscribed in another language when these other seven languages grow too ancient “to read comfortably”[…]


Read the full article by James Purtill here: www.abc.net.au


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