The Future’s So Bright, ‘Cause They’ve Got All Our Waste

Juliet Lapidos in Slate:

Since that time, “deep geological disposal” has replaced shallow trenches as our preferred nuclear-waste-storage technique.’There’s still intense debate over where, exactly, this disposal should take place. The Obama administration has soured on a proposal to make Nevada’s Yucca Mountain the site of a national repository for nuclear waste and has yet to submit an alternative plan. Meanwhile, Republicans in the Senate have called for the construction of 100 new nuclear reactors by 2030, and the Senate climate bill introduced in late September endorses the “continued development and growth of a safe and clean nuclear energy industry.”’,But another, more abstract problem—raised by the Hanford message in a bottle—remains unsolved: not how to store waste but how to label it. Not what container to use or where to bury it but how to explain the long-term dangers of what’s inside to a trespasser. This seemingly simple conundrum (just use a radiation hazard symbol!) is complicated by the fact that such a trespass would prove lethal if it took place not only in 60 years but in 10,000 or 100,000. China, the planet’s oldest continuous civilization, stretches back, at most, 5,000 years. And the world’s oldest inscribed clay tablets—the earliest examples of written communication—date only from 3,000 or 3,500 B.C. It’s impossible to say what apocalyptic event might separate 21st-century Americans from our 210th-century successors. Successors, mind you, who could live in a vastly more sophisticated society than we do or a vastly more primitive one.

Communicating the dangers of nuclear waste to unfathomably remote descendents may seem like a topic best left to third-drink philosophers in dorm rooms. It’s actually been left to the most humdrum of all Cabinet-level departments after commerce, agriculture, and the interior: the Department of Energy, which oversees the disposal of radioactive trash at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M. According to government guidelines, DoE must plan for the continuing safety of the site over the next 10 millenniums.

‘Spent nuclear waste from commercial and military reactors will be dangerous for much longer than 10,000 years—100,000 is more like it. According to some scientists (PDF), the government uses the shorter time span as a bureaucratic convenience.’,Yet the summary report, dryly titled “Expert Judgment on Markers To Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion Into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant,” is a bizarrely fascinating read. Since its publication in 1993, there have been sporadic flurries of media interest in its existence—notably in 2002, after the Senate voted to authorize Yucca Mountain as a permanent waste repository—but few considered assessments. The paper takes seriously the quixotic goal of warning far-off civilizations and ultimately proposes a system as elaborate as it is futile.

Matthew Yglesias:

The good news is that insofar as we manage to avoid a major civilization-collapse and the attendant loss of knowledge, future people will probably be able to figure out that the danger is real. And if we can’t avoid a major civilization-collapse, then the collapse, rather than the post-collapse nuclear waste incident, is the really the main problem.

Megan McArdle:

Slate ponders how to communicate the danger of radioactive waste to the far future.  The problem is, if they can’t read English, or recognize the radiation trefoil, anything you do sounds more likely to intrigue future anthropologists than to warn them off:

Even if future trespassers could understand what keep and out mean when placed side by side, there’s no reason to assume they’d follow directions. In “Expert Judgment,” the panelists observe that “[m]useums and private collections abound with [keep out signs] removed from burial sites.” The tomb of the ancient Egyptian vizier Khentika (also known as Ikhekhi), for example, contains the inscription: “As for all men who shall enter this my tomb … impure … there will be judgment … an end shall be made for him. … I shall seize his neck like a bird. … I shall cast the fear of myself into him.” It’s possible that the vizier’s contemporaries took Khentika at his word. But 20th-century archaeologists with wildly different religious beliefs had no reason to take the neck-cracking threat seriously. Likewise, a scavenger on the Carlsbad site in the year 12,000 C.E. may dismiss the menace of radiation poisoning as mere superstition. (“So I’m supposed to think that if I dig here, invisible energy beams will kill me?”) Hence the crux of the problem: Not only must intruders understand the message that nuclear waste is near and dangerous; they must also believe it.

The report’s proposed solution is a layered message–one that conveys not only that the site is dangerous but that there’s a legitimate (nonsuperstitious) reason to think so. It should also emphasize that there’s no buried treasure, just toxic trash. Here’s how the authors phrase the essential talking points: “[T]his place is not a place of honor … no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.” Finally, the marker system should communicate that the danger–an emanation of energy–is unleashed only if you disturb the place physically, so it’s best left uninhabited.

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.

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.”

I know I’d want to get to the heart of the mystery if I came across any of those setups.

Tyler Cowen:

How can we solve this problem?  Similarly, if an attractive woman tells you “You don’t want to go out with me” do you believe her and act on that?  What other problems have this structure?

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