NPF: A DISTANT WARNING

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.

23 thoughts on “NPF: A DISTANT WARNING”

  • The way I read that is: Man brings picnic box to picnic. Eats yummy pie. Has pie in stomach, takes nap.

  • anotherbozo says:

    Amusing that their Level II sign sports a line version of Munch's "The Scream," which is as close to a pictogram of a horror expression as we have and one I immediately thought of. Don't recognize the other face.

    I guess calling it the Ronald Reagan Memorial Diamond Mine would be meaningful for only a few generations, though it would attract the kind of people I would like to see irradiated.

    More thoughts as I read on.

  • "250,000,000 million". Umm, that's quite a bit older than the age of the universe (14 billion years, or 14,000,000,000, or 14,000 million), not to mention the age of the earth (about 4.5 billion years).

  • Entomologista says:

    It kind of amazes me that this project looked as far ahead as 10,000 years. Normally the government doesn't even give a shit about what happens past the next election cycle. In comparison to the vast sweep of time, we have lives like mayflies and attention spans that are even shorter. I'm pretty sure that the only thing that is going to make more of us care what happens even 50 years from now are longevity treatments. For example, the Republicans want to gut funding for renewable energy research and pretend we'll have fossil fuels forever. Most of the people in power are probably counting on dying before we really have to worry about being in a post-oil society, so they give exactly 0 shits about how we are going to deal with it. They only think about the short term, which means appeasing their base for re-election is more important than dealing with looming shortages.

  • Jacob Davies says:

    Another good one is this:

    https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Arecibo_message

    and there's this which I hadn't seen before:

    http://www.activeseti.org/images/evpatoria_2003.jpg

    in which I particularly like the Pythagorean theorem in pixel art.

    The WIPP document gets a bit arty-farty high-concept for me, and the problems with sealing radioactive waste against anyone stupid enough to try to dig it up more easily solved with a few thousand tons of concrete, but the problem of communicating with people very distant from us is of course very interesting.

    I think that it will only be a century or so before the outlook of the 20th/early-21st century will seem not just obsolete but completely insane, deranged, as bizarre and sick and inhuman a society as Sparta or the way Moloch-worshippers are depicted in the Bible. Hell we already see that half of this country thinks the other half is literally out of their mind. (Well, it's more like 1/3 and 1/3, and the other 1/3 are too busy watching The Real Housewives of $X to have an opinion.) We already have such a failure to communicate that a simple statement like "I wish fewer people were in chronic pain" gets read as "I wish to institute a Leninist communist dictatorship".

  • Good catch, Francis. Obviously I should have deleted "million" after writing out the full number.

    For the record, I believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old.

  • "The goal here is to communicate danger and fear at the most basic level [..}"

    My intuition seems to be whispering this profound message into my ear, or gut, or wherever anthropomorphic intuition whispers to: the Dept. of Energy needs to let go of the scientific model and hire some fear-based marketing execs. Some of the publicists for the War on Terror must be looking for jobs, right? We need experts in the field of communicating panic and peril working on this in order to rest assured that future generations will be scared silly by our waste management model.

  • Fifth Dentist says:

    What a waste of money. Ten-thousand years is nearly twice the age of the universe. And with Rapture Jebus coming any day now, I think that money could have been better used by giving more tax breaks to the Koch brothers.

  • I gotta say, the guy in the pictogram looks more sleepy than sick or dead, at least at that size. But, I do like the use for the growing tree to indicate 'this will kill you slowly.'

    Out of the proposed menacing architecture options, I don't see anything that won't attract the goth teenagers of the future, or come across as some sort of fucked-up society's stonehenge. I can't think of any way to convey 'this place is bad news' architecturally that can't come off as 'the long-dead people who built this were fucking creepy. Let's go check it out!'

  • The only thing approaching an absolutely, genuinely foolproof system with this aim I've ever seen described was in a book called The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. The protagonist, his friend and their robot at one point briefly travel to a world covered in large, perfectly smooth white domes, and when they approach within a few paces, some sort of automated far-future technology causes the thought of "DANGER – COME NO CLOSER" to appear unmistakably in their minds (or causes an overriding "stop" command in the robot).

    Even this wasn't enough. They soon come across the wreckage of a spaceship and the graves of some of its crew, and evidence that they had either deliberately ignored the warning or accidentally parked their ship over one of the domes, and suffered the explosive consequences.

  • Love this blog! Hope you don't mind, I excerpted (and properly credited, I hope) some of this for my company's blog… hope that's cool, I'm new to this and am NOT aware of all internet traditions :)

  • The interesting assumption that whatever signs and symbols that might be erected would last for hundreds or thousands of years after literacy disappears strikes me more than a lot overly optimistic. "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings," etc.

  • Some of the publicists for the War on Terror must be looking for jobs, right?

    Not when the Republicans have a Senate and White House to win back.

  • Tomb robbers and seekers after the secrets of the ancients. There are certain types of people who will ignore the strongest warnings. Obscurity and lots and lots of concrete.

  • With today's technology, anti nuke = pro coal. BTW, The Bill is investing in Terra power's , that can be a waste container after the fuel's spent.
    http://online.wsj.com/article/
    SB1000142405274870440900
    4576146061231899264.html?
    mod=WSJ_hp_LEFTTopStories

  • @Francis: That is one stable salt mine… jobs for everyone.

    The idea is an interesting thought experiment, but flawed. For the course of history, the direction has been, for lack of a better word, forward and there is no real reason to believe that would change. The idea that humans would go all Eloi is, most likely, a non sequitur. A more likely scenario would be if there are no humans to interpret the warning, there would be no humans.

  • Too make sure no one thinks its pie, add a few buzzards… one on the ground, waiting patiently (as buzzards do) and a few circling above…
    Oh darn… they may like pie too.

  • Future Farmer of Post-America:

    "Whatever that symbol is, it shows that it makes the trees get bigger. Good stuff for agriculture, I imagine. Let's put some on the radishes and the rest on the carrots and see how this stuff works."

  • There is no good way to plan 10k years in the future. Any plan will be imperfect. We should accept that some people will probably die, but we apply such a massive discount to lives 10k years in the future that we don't mind too much. Given these premises, we should just make sure that the region is well marked with distinctive symbols. A couple people will get sick and die, and the rest will quickly associate the meaning with the symbol.

  • I was driving around today for work and I saw that some mom and pop cleaning agency has the radioactive symbol for their moniker. Weirdest fucking thing I've ever seen. Who would want to hire radioactive cleaners?

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