This is a bit of a monster post, but it’s pretty interesting, I promise!
How do you leave a message to ancestors more than 24,000 years in the future?
That’s the challenge of nuclear semiotics – human communication across nuclear time – the attempt to create long-term warnings on nuclear waste facilities that will tell far-future generations the radioactive danger that lies ahead.
And 24,000 years is actually an underestimate, that’s only the half-life of plutonium-239. One work group in Germany concluded that nuclear waste must be separated from the biosphere for up to one million years – about 30,000 human generations.
It’s a surprisingly difficult problem. Written languages are probably a no-go, when only a few scholars today can understand the untranslated Beowulf, which was written a mere 1,000 years ago.
The classic trefoil symbol for radioactive material might seem a natural alternative to text, but without previous knowledge about what it’s meant to stand for, it’s unlikely you’d realise the threat it denoted. And symbols’ meaning isn’t fixed – the swastika was a holy icon of Hinduism before the Nazis claimed it, the skull and crossbones has only become a symbol of death since pirates flew it in the 1700s.
The culture of earlier centuries becomes incomprehensible when it is not translated into new languages every few generations and national institutions do not exist longer than a few hundred years – there are currently few, if any, continuous lines of communication across the spans of time required.
So in 1981, a team including engineers, anthropologists, nuclear physicists and behavioural scientists called the Human Interference Task Force was convened by the U.S. Dept. of Energy and the Bechtel Corp (the largest civil engineering company in the U.S.) to reduce the likelihood of future humans unintentionally intruding on radioactive waste isolation systems.
Unsurprisingly, given the enormity of the undertaking and the diverse specialities of the team members, some dramatically different proposals emerged:
The Atomic Priesthood
Linguist Thomas Sobel’s approach was to create an Atomic Priesthood; a council of experts whose members would be replaced by nominations, and who would preserve the knowledge about the locations and danger of radioactive waste by creating and sustaining rituals and myths.
Based on the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, an institution which is already two millennia old, the priesthood would reinforce the idea of off-limits areas and the consequences of disobedience, (i.e. sin and damnation).
As anyone who’s played a Fallout game (or read a history of the Catholic church) will tell you though, there are some rather large potential pitfalls:
- An atomic priesthood would gain political influence based on the contingencies that it would oversee.
- This system of information favours the creation of hierarchies.
- The message could splinter, or be split into independent parts.
- Information about waste sites would grant power to a privileged class. People from outside this group might attempt to seize this information by force.
Despite these pitfalls, the Atomic Priesthood has a lot of strengths – it doesn’t rely solely on written communication, oral traditions and ceremonies can last huge spans of time, and it’s based on a model with a proven track record (the Catholic Church).
Philosophers Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri also came to the conclusion that the most durable thing that humanity has ever made is culture: religion, folklore, belief systems. They may morph over time, but an essential message can last across millennia.
However, rather create a priesthood to remind people of the severity and location of the radioactive danger, Bastide and Fabbri took a slightly different approach:
As cats have had a long history of co-habitation with humans, (they were domesticated about 12,000 years ago), it is a reasonable assumption that their domestication will continue indefinitely.
Bastide and Fabbri proposed that we genetically engineer a species of cat that changes colour in the presence of radiation, and release them into the wild to serve as living Geiger counters.We would create folklore and write songs and tell stories about these Ray Cats, with the moral being that if ever you see these cats change colour, run far, far away.
I’ve no idea how practical this idea is – the cat in the picture is a real cat with bioluminescent jellyfish genes inserted, but could you link those genes to radiation exposure, and would interbreeding with non-ray cats dilute the effect? – but it’s easily the most fun proposal. I also really like the way it intertwines the strengths of science and mythology.
Hostile architecture is a controversial aspect of urban design that focuses on constructing public spaces to discourage certain types of behaviour, such as anti-homeless spikes or angular benches designed to prevent rough sleeping.
Landscape artist and architect named Mike Brill applied these principles to keep people away from the radioactive sites, by making people scared of being in this dangerous place. He envisioned huge needles jutting up from the ground – a “landscape of thorns.”
But there’s no way of knowing that this ominous landscape won’t become an attraction in itself and actually invite people to explore it. It reminds me a little of the Holocaust Memorial, which has been designed to evoke an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, yet is still a tourist attraction.
The technology barrier
As with much in life, the approach that seems most likely to work is also the most boring. Unsurprisingly, it was suggested by a Swiss physicist.
Emil Kowalski proposed that waste storage locations be constructed in such a way that future generations could reach them only with a high technical ability. The probability of an unwanted breach would then become extremely small. Furthermore, cultures able to perform such excavations and drillings would most certainly be able to detect radioactive material and be aware of its dangers.
It’s pretty unexciting, but burying waste so deep and sealing it in with so much concrete and steel that no one could reach it is both the best approach and the one that best fits with current technology and approaches.
The need for solutions to this problem isn’t too long way off. In Yucca Mountain, New Mexico, is the U.S’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Almost 2 million cubic feet of radioactive waste is buried half a mile deep in the 250-million year old salt deposit. The plant will continue to receive nuclear sludge from around the country until 2070, when it will be sealed up for good.
In light of some of the other potential solutions, the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to reduce the dangers to future humans does feel a bit half-hearted. They plan on surrounding the plant with obelisks containing messages in Spanish, Navajo, Chinese, Latin, Hebrew, and English, presumably hoping that these messages will be added to in the languages of the time, as the millennia pass.
Realistically though, given people and their government’s reluctance to spend money on infrastructure projects with lifespans of mere decades, it’s highly unlikely that you would ever get the funding for the more out-there approaches.
But that leaves us in a world without mythologically-laden, radioactive, bioluminescent cats, and we’re all the poorer for it.