We Considered Ourselves to be a Powerful Culture


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Zachary Whalen, Copy Editor

Nuclear waste can remain deadly for up to ten thousand years after its creation. This poses a unique challenge for scientists overseeing the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico, and its sister location in Yucca’s Mountains, where tens of thousands of tons of deadly nuclear waste are stored beneath the earth. 

The presence of this waste demands the question: How can we ensure that knowledge of these sites will remain available to those in the far future? How can we prevent them from succumbing to an invisible foe they may not understand?

At first, the question seems simple: just leave instructions for those future dwellers! But language changes vastly over time- Shakespeare will give almost anyone a headache, and he only dates back about four hundred years. 

Once ten millenium go by, our eloquent scripture may as well be cave drawings. Even the nuclear warning sign has little chance of outlasting the danger it is meant to prevent- only six percent of the world population can recognize the yellow and black symbol. 

Furthermore, while technology spoils us now, it is fragile. Two hundred years from now, an intern could trip at the Pentagon and all records of nuclear waste sites will be gone. We have no way of knowing if our archaic files will even last that long- or if technology will. No matter how much we document nuclear waste sites online, the core message to the future must be independent from technology all together. 

The other obvious answer would be to assign a certain group of people to track where nuclear sites are- akin to what we do today. Perhaps a branch of the United States government? These sites are on their land after all. Or the Catholic Church? Religion has lasted for several milenium already, and there’s no sign of it’s influence, power, or ability to keep track of scripture stopping anytime soon.

However, giving a nuclear boost to groups with a long history of misusing their immense power could prove disastrous.

If the United States government was deemed the sole keeper of nuclear information, could they be trusted to not offer it up as a Native American reservation in a couple hundred years? If the Catholic Church was given this power, might they suggest the land as a Synagogue, or the best place to hold a pride parade?

Apart from intentional sabotage, leaders have a long history of ignoring ancient messages- Japan is dotted with disregarded stones that hold centuries old warnings, urging people to not build past the markers. A stone labeled “Always be prepared for unexpected tsunamis. Choose life over your possessions and valuables” stood above the seaside town of Kenennuma for years before the town was wiped out in the 2011 tsunami. The Japanese government ignored that shout from the past- what is to say the American government won’t ignore this one?

In any case, while it is likely- not assured -that the Catholic Church will survive into the distant future, one look at Rome suggests that America may not be able to keep a ten thousand year streak. 

So, the warning must be accessible to all people, not just those in power. Furthermore, it must not rely on technology, and be simple enough that no culture or language changes will prevent people from understanding. Finally, it will have to stand for at least a decamilenium. So, what are some modern solutions? 

Ideas range vastly. One, proposed by Brian Wilson, takes the original concept of entrusting the Catholic Church and debatably makes it even more problematic by proposing a ‘nuclear priesthood.’ This priesthood would feature a panel of nominated experts who would be in charge of passing down nuclear information through the priesthood, and then informing the governments of their age. 

The second aspect of Wilson’s plan would be for the nuclear priesthood to create a pseudo-religion around nuclear waste and radioactivity. Wilson suggests passing down ‘atomic folk objects-’ folk stories, rituals, myths, all meant to convey the danger of radioactive material. David Barrowclough describes his work as, “[m]eticulous illustrations of a fantastical world juxtaposing industrial mine shafts, nuclear power stations with a prone mummified body and dangerous wolf, all illuminated by an eerie yellow glow; a series of photographs featuring a smartly dressed, yet masked, man in unexpected situations next to a prehistoric standing stone, within a Neolithic stone circle and seated in an armchair in an underground cavern…” 

The idea is certainly fantastical, and while a panel of experts is appealing, this idea has the exact same problems of entrusting the Cathoic Church- or any select group of people. This ‘priesthood,’ could lie to the people, lie to their governments, use this information to seize power, the list goes on. Furthermore, while many folk stories and rituals have stood the test of time, fully entrusting oral traditions seems too risky to truly be safe.

So, what else is there to try? The concept of using the landscape has cropped up- genetically engineering the surrounding forest around WIPP and other waste sites to be blue, or creating a massive marker on the ground that looks like “a scar that will never heal” were two suggestions. They hailed from an art competition the French nuclear waste agency Andra held on the topic. 

Another suggestion was encoding a warning in song- the idea being that if “ring around the rosey” was passed down from the Black Plague, and biblical music has lasted even longer, perhaps so could these foreboding tunes? However, that idea instantly poses the question of how to put “these rocks shoot death rays!” to music, and once again, oral tradition is not always the most reliable. 

Perhaps the most creative idea involved cats. It was voiced by Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri, and was created on the basis that humanity’s love of cats can be traced all the way back to Ancient Egypt. With this in mind, is it so far-fetched that our feline friends will remain loyal for the next ten thousand years? If that is the case, could these same cats not then be used as warning signs, time capsules into the future?

The basic idea would be to genetically modify a select breed of cats to change colors when in the presence of radiation- similar to how scientists have engineered rats to glow under blue light. Coupled with stories and songs about how the air turns deadly when cats glow, perhaps that would be enough to ward people away from nuclear sites. Ironically enough, the proposed “Ray Cat Solution” has garnered enough attention from the public that a website, merch, and several songs have been created about the idea- so perhaps these scientists weren’t too far off.  

There’s no question that this idea is whimsical at best and ridiculous at worst. Nevertheless, it is amusing to picture a reality where scientists had to decide whether humanity’s love of cats or the United States government would last longer…and then decided to stock up on Fancy Feast.

However, just in case the cats of the future decide to treat humanity like a glass on a table and knock us all off, the “Future Panel” in charge of preparations for the WIPP facility did manage to come up with a somewhat more realistic solution.

Their finalized idea was based off of a prototype message from a Sandia National Laboratories report, which stated that any message intended to hold its meaning ten thousand years in the future would have to meet several criteria. 

The words needed to be as rudimentary as possible- to ensure anyone of any education could decipher the message, and to make sure the core meaning survived as many changes in language as possible- the simplest Shakespearean words are still recognizable today, after all. 

It also needed to be redundant- so the message could be understood with the smallest understanding of present day English possible. Finally, the warning needed to strike a delicate balance between frightening and interesting. Too dull, and future generations may dismiss it, too extreme, and risk takers and scientists would be prowling the site in weeks. 

This is the example Sandia National Laboratories put forth.

“This place is a message…and part of a system of messages…pay attention to it! Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture. 

“This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here…nothing valued is here.

“What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.

“The danger is in a particular location…it increases towards the center…the center of danger is here…of a particular size and shape, below us.

“The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours. 

“The danger is to the body, and it can kill.

“The form of the danger is an animation of energy.

“The danger is unleashed only if you disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.”

It is unlikely exact warning will be included in the WIPP facility plans, but it is a good example of what they will be hoping to create. Massive spikes were also considered in order to give the site a sense of foreboding that would be recognized by any culture- and to ensure that the warning wouldn’t be stolen- but that idea was rejected due to costs.

          So, what ended up being the solution? 

The finalized version of the plan relies on “defense in depth,” or layer upon layer of redundant information, assuming that at least one will last long enough to warn the future. 

Four berms- jagged hills of dirt- will form a square around the WIPP site. Large granite pillars will mark each corner, with warnings inscribed high enough to protect them from the elements, in every language recognized by the UN.

Beneath the granite pillars there will be concrete rooms that contain the periodic table, maps, and astronomical charts that pinpoint the day the facility was sealed. There will also be a roofless information room in the center of the site with written and pictorial messages engraved on the walls. 

Additionally, two storage rooms with the same information of the main room will be included- one underneath the berm, and another just outside of it. Finally, smaller “time capsules” (clay frisbee-shaped disks) will be scattered around the site with further warnings inscribed. They may even contain wood samples that a future society could carbon date. 

So, those are the ideas for warning the future about our present danger. Ray cats, priesthoods, massive piles of dirt- which, if any, will prove successful? Will these radiation sites be forgotten by the future, and then make their presence known again in the worst possible way? Have the weapons we’ve developed not taken their last lives? Was tampering with something with a lifespan so endlessly beyond ours a mistake? 

At the end of the day, all we can do is hope that our feeble warnings will be enough to protect those future dwellers…and understand that we are doomed to never know if a single one succeeded.