NPF: A DISTANT WARNING

Posted in No Politics Friday on March 4th, 2011 by Ed

I am not often fascinated by the subject of language or semiotics, but if you throw in a few hundred barrels of high level radioactive waste there is a good chance I'll pay attention.

In southern New Mexico the Department of Energy has been running an experimental facility called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). Planning began in 1974 and the storage of radioactive waste began in 1999. It isn't the first time anyone thought of Deep Geological Repository as a means of dealing with the thousands of tons of radioactive waste generated by the Atomic Age, but it might have the greatest chance of success due to the geology of the area. It is 3,000 feet below the surface in a salt bed that has been tectonically stable for over 250,000,000 years. So scientists are confident that the site will remain undisturbed for the 10,000 years it will take for transuranic waste to cease being dangerously radioactive.

This creates an additional problem, though. What are the odds that the United States will be around in 10,000 years? What if there's an ice age for a few thousand years that takes humanity back to the primitive, pre-language hunter-gatherer stage? In other words, how can the people behind the project today make it clear to someone who may or may not speak English or comprehend radioactivity that the site is dangerous and should not be disturbed?

The WIPP has forced the government, which usually does not traffic in long-long-term thinking, to address the kind of question better suited to hypothetical work among academics. DoE assembled a team of a wide range of specialties – linguists, anthropologists, science fiction writers, doctors, hard scientists – to come up with a practical answer. The final report (all of the interesting parts are excerpted here) proved very interesting to anyone interested in language, symbols, communication, and cultural significance. Without being able to rely on written language and the three-pronged "radioactive" symbol, how would you explain that something is dangerous?

Well, that's one way.

The discussion is equal parts amusing – lots of talk about crude cartoon warnings and "menacing earthworks" that say "this is a place of danger" – and fascinating, as it describes the different levels on which symbols can communicate information. The goal here is to communicate danger and fear at the most basic level, and once I contemplated that task it became clear that it's much more difficult than it initially seems.

If these subjects interest you at all, I could think of much worse ways to kill a slow Friday afternoon than checking out the report.