The 10,000-Year Radiation Warning

By Anthony Sfarra on Monday, October 5, 2015
Close-up of a radioactive sign
“This place is not a place of honor. No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here. Nothing valued is here.” —Warning of radioactive material to future cultures

In A Nutshell

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is a deep geological repository used by the US government to store nuclear waste. Once the site is sealed, warnings will be needed that can effectively communicate danger up to 10,000 years into the future. Proposed ideas included threatening architecture, color-changing cats, and even an artificial moon. The final system will involve warnings in several languages on granite pillars, a large wall around the site, and other artifacts.

The Whole Bushel

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is a deep geological repository located near Carlsbad, New Mexico. “Deep geological repository” means that radioactive waste is stored deep underground. At WIPP, the waste is stored 655 meters (2,150 ft) below the surface in rooms carved from a salt bed. WIPP began to receive nuclear waste in 1999 and is slated to do so until 2070, at which point it will be sealed.

The waste inside WIPP will be dangerous for 10,000 years, so warnings will be needed to deter future populations from attempting to enter the facility. That may not be as easy as it sounds. Even if the English language still exists in the year 12,000, no one may be able to read our current form of it. (It’s already hard to read texts that are only hundreds of years old.)

While WIPP was under construction, a panel of scientists, anthropologists, linguists, and science fiction writers was assembled to come up with ideas for how to effectively scare away future generations. Many ideas were tossed around. One involved adorning the area with stone spikes to make it appear threatening. Another involved simply covering the repository in jagged blocks of black stone. It would still be possible for people to walk between them, but the narrow spaces in between would be useless and very hot.

Various carved warnings were another aspect of the plan. Universally frightening and threatening images were considered, such as those of people being wounded. Another idea involved an image that looked very much like Edward Munch’s The Scream. Language barriers aside, a textual warning was also proposed:

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 toward a center . . . the center of danger is here . . . of a particular size and shape, and 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 emanation of energy.

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

Conversely, some panelists felt that nothing would be sufficient to keep future humans from trying to get inside, if our own history is any indication.

Some rather unique ideas were also proposed. One idea involved forming a small society called an “atomic priesthood.” These people would live above the WIPP site and defend the site over generations. Their vague warnings about danger and curses would give the area a creepy reputation with locals. Another proposition involved creating a special breed of “ray cats” that would change color upon exposure to radiation. Stories of such cats would then be introduced into culture and passed down, making the cats a sign to avoid WIPP, even if no one knows what radiation is 10,000 years from now. It was even proposed that an artificial moon bearing a warning be constructed and placed in orbit. Since this moon was meant to be visible from the ground, it would surely have been a massive undertaking.

The final chosen warning scheme will feature a large wall of piled earth around the site. It will be 30 meters (100 ft) wide at its base and 10 meters (33 ft) tall and will be designed for maximum resilience to erosion. There will be two perimeters of granite monuments around WIPP, one at the edge of the government-controlled land and one inside the wall, each standing 8 meters (25 ft) tall and weighing 20 tons.

Warnings about the radioactive waste will be carved on these stones in seven languages. Just above the repository, a roofless building measuring 12 meters (40 ft) long, 10 meters (32 ft) wide, and 5 meters (15 ft) high will be constructed. Its walls will be covered in text warnings and pictographs. Just in case future humans absolutely have to dig something up, there will also be two buried rooms featuring the same information as the granite blocks, and 23-centimeter (9 in) discs will be buried all around the site, also carrying warning messages.

A final measure to ensure that WIPP is avoided will be to make certain that many sources of information about it will exist. Informational archives will be created and stored around the world, with a warning that they should be preserved for 10,000 years. Also, WIPP’s location will be shown on maps and atlases, and information about it will be readily available in encyclopedias, educational texts, and dictionaries.

Show Me The Proof

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant: About WIPP; Message to 12,000 A.D.
WIPP: How Will Future Generations Be Warned?
Mental Floss: Ray Cats, Artificial Moons and the Atomic Priesthood: How the Government Plans to Protect Our Nuclear Waste