May 24, 2006

This Place is Not a Place of Honor

by Alan Bellows
If you look at it just right, the universal radiation warning symbol looks a bit like an angel. The circle in the middle could indicate the head, the lower part might be the body, and the upper two arms of the trefoil could represent the wings. Looking at it another way, one might see it as a wheel, a triangular boomerang, a circular saw blade, or any number of relatively benign objects. Whatever a person's first impression of it may be, someone unfamiliar with the symbol probably wouldn't guess that it means "Danger! These rocks shoot death rays!"

The U.S. Department of Energy has been grappling with that problem recently, as they designed the warning markers to use at Yucca Mountain and at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) nuclear waste storage facilities. There's no telling who might be around to exhume our radioactive sins in future centuries, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandates that warnings be erected which will warn away potential intruders for the next 10,000 years, whomever those intruders may be.

Ten thousand years ago, early humans were still painting images on the walls of caves. Some of those primitive messages managed to survive ten millennia, and they also remain somewhat meaningful. But of course our ancient cave-painting ancestors weren't attempting to illustrate complex ideas as far as we know.

The offending nuclear waste will be stored far underground at each of these facilities, but there is still a danger that future generations might stumble across it. WIPP is located in the desert outside Carlsbad, New Mexico, and its storage areas are located 2,150 feet underground. Yucca Mountain's facilities in the Nevada desert are intended to house waste at 1,000 feet deep. Between the two, they are meant to entomb tens of thousands of metric tons of nuclear waste, most of which will remain dangerous for centuries. Each of these locations was selected due to its relative geologic stability, theoretically allowing facilities there to contain the waste for the required 10,000 years. The essence of the message itself is simple: Warning, dangerous materials are buried below. But how to communicate this to all possible discoverers using an enduring medium?

To help answer this question during the preparations for the WIPP facility, panels of experts were assembled comprised of individuals with backgrounds in history, future studies, economics, law, physics, sociology, geography, engineering, political science, risk analysis, agriculture, climatology, history, and demographics. This group was called the Futures Panel, and they were tasked with creatively exploring the possible reasons why a future society might penetrate these deep underground storage facilities. They were also asked to advise on how to universally warn away would-be intruders.

The potential causes of future intrusion were imagined to be: water impoundment, resource exploration/extraction, scientific investigations, archaeological exploration, reopening the facilities for additional storage, waste disposal by injection wells, explosive testing, underground transportation tunnels, and weather modification. With these possibilities under consideration, the Futures Panel proceeded with the assumption that intelligent beings would halt any of these activities if the monuments were successful at conveying their warning.


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