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Nuclear Semiotics: Conveying Danger Across Eons (Possibly Via Cats)
May 23, 2014 7:58 AM   Subscribe

26 miles east of Carlsbad, New Mexico and 2,150 feet underground, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) brings new meaning to the phrase "built to last". The world's third deep geological nuclear waste repository, WIPP was designed to house radioactive material for 10,000 years. The primary challenge (keeping hazardous waste IN) was tackled by engineers. But for the secondary challenge - keeping living creatures OUT - the goverment recruited a team of geologists, linguists, astrophysicists, architects, artists, and writers. The job description included the words "the knowledge necessary to develop a marker system that will remain in operation during the performance period of the site - 10,000 years". Stymied by inevitable linguistic and orthographic drift, the group has discussed a wide array of ideas, some more fabulously demented than others (artificial moons, a nuclear containment-centric priesthood, a landscape of massive granite thorns). They intend to submit their final plan by 2028.

They're not the first group to grapple with the task of sending a warning across ten millenia. Finland's challenges in creating a meaningful marker system for the spent fuel repository Onkalo inspired an entire movie. The U.S. government has periodically attempted to tackle the issue, resulting in a series of official documents with delightfully wistful titles ("Reducing the Likelihood of Future Human Activities That Could Affect Geologic High-Level Waste Repositories", "Preservation of Records, Knowledge and Memory Across Generations").

However, the great-granddaddy of the weird, wonderful field of "nuclear semiotics" is probably the Human Interference Task Force, convened in 1981 "to reduce the likelihood of future humans unintentionally intruding on radioactive waste isolation systems". Two members of this group, French authors Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri, proposed an idea that is half-genius, half-insane and entirely-awesome. In their paper "Katzen Augen und Sirenen" (Cats, Eyes and Sirens), the duo suggested that humans breed a species of cat that changes color when exposed to radiation, and that cats' importance be encoded in the collective consciousness via fairy tales and myths. While chameleonic cats haven't yet arrived, at least one band has kept their myth alive.
posted by julthumbscrew (87 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite

 
Mr. Yuk is mean. Mr. Yuk is greeeennnn.
posted by wensink at 8:08 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]


I was thinking that just acres and acres of all kinds of bones ought to suffice.

But no, that's an attractive source of calcium and phosphorous, they'd get eaten (I've watched squirrels consume bones in the forest, usually nursing mothers in particular grind away at them).

Maybe fake bones made out of glow-in-the-dark glass or something.
No, people would take those for the illumination.

It's hopeless ...

Oh, wait -- cover the site with solar panels and moisture collectors, and provide free power and warm water takeoffs. Make it too valuable to disturb!
posted by hank at 8:12 AM on May 23 [2 favorites]


Huh, I just remembered, the first thread on this topic was the first thing I ever read on Metafilter in detail.
posted by The Whelk at 8:15 AM on May 23


I am all for the nuclear containment priesthood. ( and priestesshood, of course)

I'm not sure what it says about me that my first two thoughts were

1- bene gesserit
2 - omg that's a GREAT theory for GoT
posted by sio42 at 8:16 AM on May 23 [9 favorites]


I like the idea of the solar panels and the moisture collectors, but both systems would require constant maintenance for 10,000 years. Stop maintaining them for a few years and they'll quickly become useless and so without any value. It's also debatable if either feature would actually be useful for the length of time discussed, and if the infrastructure needed to maintain them will still exist.

Best option I can think of at the moment is just to make the place as ugly as sin. Not easy though - even the concrete spikes and the like may be valuable to future generations, and so be lost...
posted by YAMWAK at 8:18 AM on May 23


I wrote an article about the WIPP and Yucca warning marker plans way back in 2006. It's curious to see the subject gaining popularity now. It's interesting to think that 10,000 years ago humans were making the first cave wall paintings; and these radiation warnings are intended to effectively last 10,000 years.
posted by Hot Pastrami! at 8:20 AM on May 23


10,000 years? Just write "DANGER" on it and an explanation of what's going on. There's no way historians won't be able to translate basic 21st century English to whatever they're speaking in the year 12014. Present-day historians can read 4,000-year-old Egyptian hieroglyphics -- considering the massive ton of text, recordings, video, etc that we have of modern English, future historians will have no problem.

Give our future selves some credit.
posted by chasing at 8:22 AM on May 23 [7 favorites]


Give our future selves some credit.

Good safety planning doesn't rely on people doing things correctly.
posted by Etrigan at 8:27 AM on May 23 [21 favorites]


Huh, I just remembered, the first thread on this topic was the first thing I ever read on Metafilter in detail.

As soon as I saw this, I was expecting it to be deleted as a double, because I remembered reading about it on Metafilter before. But I thought that was sometime last year, not almost six and a half years ago.

I am getting old.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:29 AM on May 23 [5 favorites]


> Good safety planning doesn't rely on people doing things correctly.

Yeah, but compared to color-changing cats and fields of glow-in-the-dark bones, just laying out in simple terms what's going on seems like the best way to prevent misinterpretation.
posted by chasing at 8:31 AM on May 23


Dang it, I thought I searched the site pretty thoroughly beforehand... I THOUGHT WRONG! *sobs* The 99 Percent Invisible and Mental Floss links are a delight, though (as are the mythical cats... they really liven up any party).
posted by julthumbscrew at 8:31 AM on May 23


There's no way historians won't be able to translate basic 21st century English to whatever they're speaking in the year 12014

Today we have ancient languages that are only a few thousand years old that no one can translate Linear A for one.

Yes, if our society is still around in 10000 years and keeps advancing technologically a written language would probably work...if society collapses for what ever reason and is eventually able to recover it would be nice of us to try and let them know "this area is bad" in some way they can grasp so they don't decide to build a town on the site.
posted by Captain_Science at 8:32 AM on May 23 [2 favorites]


Yeah, but compared to color-changing cats and fields of glow-in-the-dark bones, just laying out in simple terms what's going on seems like the best way to prevent misinterpretation.

No one is suggesting that weatherproofed "HEY GUYS DON'T COME IN HERE IT'S RADIOACTIVE" signs aren't going to be used as well. It's just not going to be the only thing they're planning.
posted by Etrigan at 8:33 AM on May 23


In a recent thread about Chernobyl, Monochrome linked to a fairly long but fascinating piece by Gregory Benford, a phycisist and sci-fi author who was tapped to join a US government committee addressing the 10,000 year problem.
In 1989 I got a call which at first seemed normal, from a fellow who said he was from Sandia Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Then I sniffed a definite, classic odor of ripe crank.

?Did I hear correctly?? I asked. ?The House of Representatives has handed down a requirement on the Department of Energy. They want a panel of experts to consider a nuclear waste repository, and then numerically assess, with probabilities, the risks that somebody might accidentally intrude on it for...?

?That?s right, for ten thousand years.?

I paused. He sounded solid, without the edgy fervor of the garden variety crank. Still...

?That?s impossible, of course.?

?Sure,? he said. ?I know that. But this is Congress.?

We both laughed and I knew he was okay.

So it came to be that a few months later I descended in a wire-cage elevator, clad in hard hat with head lamp, goggles, and carrying on my belt an emergency oxygen pack.
It starts in the tone of an 80's sci-fi novel, but it's a fascinating piece that describes a trip into the WIPP, and then explores the committee's thought processes and recommendations during his tenure.
posted by metaBugs at 8:33 AM on May 23 [8 favorites]


...just laying out in simple terms what's going on seems like the best way to prevent misinterpretation.

The problem is that it isn't a crack team of archaeo-linguists that is sent to the site when the government locates it in their grand survey of the territories. It's some asshole who steals the DANGER sign and whatever else he can get his hands on, brings it back to Shady Sands to sell and suddenly half the town is missing their hair and teeth.
posted by griphus at 8:34 AM on May 23 [11 favorites]


Dang it, I thought I searched the site pretty thoroughly beforehand... I THOUGHT WRONG! *sobs* The 99 Percent Invisible and Mental Floss links are a delight, though (as are the mythical cats... they really liven up any party).

Totally agree. Mythical cats make this undeletable, in spite of ancient warnings about the dangers of doubles.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:34 AM on May 23 [2 favorites]


This problem is a great one to bring up as an assignment for graphic design students. It brings up all sorts of issues about language barriers, visual communication of concepts, etc.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:36 AM on May 23 [3 favorites]


As soon as I saw this, I was expecting it to be deleted as a double, because I remembered reading about it on Metafilter before. But I thought that was sometime last year, not almost six and a half years ago.

And so we've learned the effective half-life of threads on this topic.
posted by nubs at 8:40 AM on May 23 [9 favorites]


Today we have ancient languages that are only a few thousand years old that no one can translate

See also Rongorongo
posted by Hot Pastrami! at 8:40 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]


Security through obscurity. Bury it so deep no one could find it without high technology. Then bury with it some stone writing describing the situation. The assumption being anyone with the technology to dig that deep must also be smart enough to read English. It seems inconceivable English would ever be lost knowledge, short of a nearly complete loss of civilization and humankind, in which case they won't have the technology to dig down and find it (and if they did they'd probably have radiation detectors). Having all these Stonehenge type warnings will just attract attention to it.
posted by stbalbach at 8:41 AM on May 23 [4 favorites]


Just provide housing for the resident Morlocks, they'll keep out the rest of the delicate descendants. Well or eat the foolish that try to enter.
posted by sammyo at 8:42 AM on May 23


This problem is a great one to bring up as an assignment for graphic design students. It brings up all sorts of issues about language barriers, visual communication of concepts, etc.

I recall this being assigned to first year grad students by Peter Waldman (?) at UVA school of architecture back in the early '90s.
posted by wensink at 8:43 AM on May 23


It seems inconceivable English would ever be lost

Perhaps we should also have an ongoing project to bury some modern rosetta stones around the world?
posted by sammyo at 8:44 AM on May 23 [2 favorites]


How about a giant titanium middle finger salute?
posted by No Robots at 8:48 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]


pffffft! I love thinking about the problems of warning folks in the future, but 10,000 years? I sincerely doubt anybody that can read will be alive for that.
posted by agregoli at 8:48 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]


future historians will have no problem.

That's all well and good other than that for the vast majority of the region's human occupation, it has been by societies that have not had the complexity of job differentiation to support roles like "historian" or "paleographer". Civilizations collapse a lot more often than once every 10,000 years, it would be wishful thinking not to plan for the possibility.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 8:50 AM on May 23 [2 favorites]


Maybe build lots of housing atop the site -- sized suitable for large spiders and cockroaches.
Large, scary, radioactive, aggressive, vicious spiders and cockroaches.

Oh, wait, that's begging the question, sorta ...
posted by hank at 8:54 AM on May 23


If we found one of these right now on the Moon (vide The Sentinel), we'd dig the hell right out of it no matter what was painted on the outside.

Of course we would. And so will they.
posted by Devonian at 8:57 AM on May 23 [22 favorites]


Fantasy dungeons as the repositories for the nuclear waste of a civilization the current one has forgotten it was descended from. Toss in the artifacts from the STALKER series and presto: you have yourself a premium gaming franchise right there.
posted by Slackermagee at 9:00 AM on May 23 [2 favorites]


I think the most logical solution is that we begin plans to move everyone off-planet and smash the earth into the sun.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:01 AM on May 23 [2 favorites]


Perhaps we should also have an ongoing project to bury some modern rosetta stones around the world?

Being worked on. See here:Here
posted by YAMWAK at 9:02 AM on May 23


... geologists, linguists, astrophysicists, architects, artists, and writers ...

Pfft! I say there's an easy way to ensure that adequate warnings are in place for 10,000 years: just authorise a law firm to send a written "notice to vacate" to anyone they can find on the site over the next 10,000 years, and tell them they can charge you (or your successors, heirs and assigns) at their hourly rate.

Law firms' desire for billable hours is a force far, far stronger than death; and we all know that lawyers and cockroaches will survive any apocalypse. So you (or your successors, heirs and assigns) will be guaranteed to be getting invoices regularly up to 12,014 AD - and the lawyers will definitely be speaking whatever 121st-century language will irritate their victims the most.

That's my professional advice, and by reading it you have agreed to my standard terms and conditions of service. Please check your memail for my itemised bill, which is payable within 30 days.

Yours sincerely,

quidnunc kid LLB (Hons)
Cockroach
posted by the quidnunc kid at 9:11 AM on May 23 [17 favorites]


I don't recall the book, but I read some present-day scifi thing where an excavation of some alien-looking tech was revealed to be a waste dump. The aliens' KEEP OUT indicators ended up being "1 = 0" and "2 + 2 = 5" and similar incorrect mathematical expressions. It took the decoder almost too long to figure it out because, duh, their translations weren't making any sense.
posted by Etrigan at 9:11 AM on May 23 [2 favorites]


Security through obscurity. Bury it so deep no one could find it without high technology.

Or, we could do what we do with waste that will remain toxic and dangerous forever, not just for 10,000 years: leave it in big piles open to the air, or just burn it and dilute it into the atmoshere, or dump it into the oceans and hope for the best. Or, at best, pile it up in regular landfills and dump dirt on top of it.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:17 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]


I bet the creators of Stonehenge and Easter Island thought FOR SURE their intent would be blindingly obvious to future generations.
posted by desjardins at 9:22 AM on May 23 [13 favorites]


I've wondered about a related topic, If you wanted to make a site as poisonous as possible for as long as possible, what could be used? I think the original thread inspired me.
posted by Unioncat at 9:29 AM on May 23


Just leave some unshielded fuel assemblies in the storage cave, such that anyone who goes in gets a lethal dose of radiation. I'm sure people will figure out pretty quickly to stop going in there.

You can't build a repository that people can't get into, and all the warnings in the world can be ignored (or worse, will be an attractive nuisance) by people who haven't seen radiation sickness firsthand. The goal ought not to be keeping people out, but keeping radioactive materials in.

Let people wander in and get irradiated, if they really want to. It'll renew the lesson that it's a Bad Place and that the stuff that's in there should definitely not be removed and spread around. That's really the goal: discourage people from digging up the shiny objects and carrying them out into the world. Stopping people from interacting with them entirely isn't reasonable.

Though I guess it might actually be something of an engineering challenge to keep the radiation levels fatally high over a long time. Maybe you'd need to arrange it so that it's actually a natural reactor, like the one in Gabon, or put an assembly in there that goes critical when you open the door and zaps anyone who walks in.

"People who walk into the cave never come out" (or "people who walk into the cave walk out, but lose all their hair, get sick, and die horribly in a matter of days") is a pretty universal warning sign. People don't go frolicking around in boiling hot springs or tar pits or quicksand either, and it's not because they have warning signs posted. It's because the hazards are obvious. So if the problem of radiation is that the hazard isn't obvious, make it more obvious.

Only semi-serious, because I think the whole 10,000-year storage concept is stupid. We'll almost certainly be digging up the fuel assemblies for reprocessing much sooner than that, which is the only reason why underground storage even makes sense in the first place. If we wanted permanent disposal we'd just package them up and drop them into a subduction zone and then they're really gone. But that's a waste of valuable fissionables. The 10,000-year storage requirement is because we're currently too irresponsible to reprocess nuclear waste due to the proliferation risk, and so we do nuclear energy very stupidly.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:29 AM on May 23 [8 favorites]


I remember this being part of a project for some class or other in high school, design a sign to demonstrate danger that would be viable thousands of years from now. I seem to remember part of the lesson being to go through all the various groups' work and find all of the references to things going on currently that wouldn't translate. It was pretty damn difficult as a lesson where we were expected to learn from our absolute failure to create anything viable. I imagine it would be a bit more difficult if this was your job, and you were expected to succeed.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:30 AM on May 23


If we get big colour-changing radiation cats commemorated in folk song as a result of it, then I'm in favour of nuclear power now.
posted by colie at 9:40 AM on May 23 [4 favorites]


In a few 10s or 100s of millions of years, everything that humans created will be squashed into a layer of strata a millimeter thick. It will be visible in the geological record for a long time, a strange disturbance, just very thin. I wonder what color it will be, or what name future geologists will give the hardly perceptible layer. Probably the "6th Great Extinction", which they will be required to memorize for class along with the other 9 events (the 10th one arguably ongoing).
posted by stbalbach at 9:43 AM on May 23


In a few 10s or 100s of millions of years, everything that humans created will be squashed into a layer of strata a millimeter thick.

And whatever beings discover it will roll it up and smoke us in a nice spliff.
posted by colie at 9:50 AM on May 23


I can't think of anything that anyone would put up that would beat human curiosity, if language was not a viable option for warning. Better to just plug up the bottom of the shaft with concrete, backfill the hole with dirt, then make it disappear into the landscape. Let the natural remoteness and inhospitability of the environment do the job for you.
posted by Aleyn at 9:51 AM on May 23 [3 favorites]


cf Anathem
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:52 AM on May 23 [4 favorites]


10,000 years? Give it a few hundred before we can economically just stick the stuff in a rocket and fire it into the sun. We can already do it. It's just not cost effective right now.
posted by Talez at 10:12 AM on May 23


And what happens when the Range Safety Officer has to blow up the nuclear waste rocket because it veered off course toward a population center?
posted by Rob Rockets at 10:17 AM on May 23


Can we just throw all our old shit into the sun? Genuine question.
posted by colie at 10:18 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]


The primary challenge (keeping hazardous waste IN) was tackled by engineers.

Only problem is, it hasn't been going that well. You see, a truck caught fire in the underground. 10 days later (in what may well be an unrelated incident), something went very wrong and radiation was released from the repository. The facility is shut down and not currently accepting waste.
posted by zachlipton at 10:21 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]


for realsies. take that, sun!
posted by agregoli at 10:22 AM on May 23


Stupid arrogant sun had it coming.
posted by colie at 10:24 AM on May 23 [5 favorites]


Can we just throw all our old shit into the sun? Genuine question.

From what I've read this is generally agreed to be the best solution, except that you need to be really, really confident that your rocket isn't going to explode, unexpectedly plummet, or otherwise end up scattering its payload over your new flower beds. Spaceflight this reliable probably isn't too far away, but then people have been saying that for 50 years.
posted by metaBugs at 10:25 AM on May 23


Give our future selves some credit.
The Wiki article says warnings will be written in 7 languages. So, yeah, they've thought of that.
posted by pibeandres at 10:27 AM on May 23


Just post these everywhere.
posted by mazola at 10:34 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]


chasing: considering the massive ton of text, recordings, video, etc that we have of modern English, future historians will have no problem.

They may have a well- preserved trove of Modern English, but they'll be at a loss to explain A Flock of Seagulls or Spandeau Ballet.
posted by dr_dank at 10:34 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]


From what I've read this is generally agreed to be the best solution

I don't know, that subduction zone idea sounds pretty good to me.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:38 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]


Can we just throw all our old shit into the sun?

Throwing spent nuclear fuel into the sun would be a spectacular waste of something that might well be a valuable commodity in a while. In much the same way as, at least in the folk history, gasoline was originally a waste product of oil refining.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:41 AM on May 23


A subduction zone is not exactly like a hole you can throw stuff into, a giant geological garburetor.

You'd have to drill really deep, probably from an ocean platform, to even approach a place where stuff is being dependedly sucked downwards towards the mantle - and with unpredictable consequences. Far better to bury it deep in boreholes in geologically stable, well-understood, terrestrial formations like the Canadian shield.
posted by Rumple at 10:44 AM on May 23


10,000 years? Just write "DANGER" on it and an explanation of what's going on. There's no way historians won't be able to translate basic 21st century English to whatever they're speaking in the year 12014. Present-day historians can read 4,000-year-old Egyptian hieroglyphics -- considering the massive ton of text, recordings, video, etc that we have of modern English, future historians will have no problem.

It still didn't stop explorers from going into the tombs and contracting some sort of deadly bacterial illness spread by bat droppings.

Ten thousand years is a long time. Barring global thermonuclear war, I have no doubt human beings will still be around, but it seems rather unlikely our highly complex and therefore highly fragile technological society is going to persist, though.

But, then again, the culture known as "China" has been around for about 4000 years (although they seem really devoted to the idea of making their country fundamentally uninhabitable at the moment), so... why not?
posted by KokuRyu at 10:50 AM on May 23


Just post these everywhere.

Of course that's How You Remind people.
posted by colie at 10:50 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]


You'd have to drill really deep, probably from an ocean platform, to even approach a place where stuff is being dependedly sucked downwards towards the mantle - and with unpredictable consequences. Far better to bury it deep in boreholes in geologically stable, well-understood, terrestrial formations like the Canadian shield.

There's also an ethical issue, in that we now know the crust supports life in the form of microbes. Perhaps storage of radioactive waste isn't such a big deal because, theoretically, it's a localized problem, but science fiction, carbon-capture technologies risk tremendous unintended consequences by pumping concentrated C02 into an ecosystem of anaerobic bacteria.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:53 AM on May 23


Gregory Benford is a cool writer, by the way. I especially like his collaboration with David Brin, Heart of the Comet. Ancient science fiction history, though.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:54 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]


Giant sign:

:(

Problem solved.
posted by Fizz at 10:56 AM on May 23 [4 favorites]


One of the linked articles talks about creating an atomic priesthood to transmit the knowledge for 10,000 years, modeled on the Catholic Church, but that raises the question for me: Why not just ask the Catholic Church to be sure to safeguard, transmit, and publicize that information for the next few thousand years? And ask them to attempt to ensure that other similarly long-lived institutions are also encouraged to transmit it? I mean not JUST the Catholic Church alone, but among others?

I mean, if everyone agreed this was a major danger to humanity and very important to the future, we could just ask major religions that authorize scriptural translations to stick an atomic danger map-and-info-page in the back of authorized bibles/qurans/torahs/whatnot, along with the calendars for calculating feast day and the maps of prophets' journeys and things like that.

The reproduction process of scripture is imperfect, but people CARE A LOT about getting it right and one can't really imagine a future with humanity but no religious scholars trying to translate and transmit texts.

(But yeah, I kind-of agree with the people above who say you either need to make it OBVIOUSLY dangerous where people die of radiation exposure, or else you need to make it unnoticeable, because if you stick warning signs on something, that's just like an invitation to come see what's so cool. I mean not for me personally, but in general humanity has those people and always will.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:02 AM on May 23 [5 favorites]


In a few 10s or 100s of millions of years, everything that humans created will be squashed into a layer of strata a millimeter thick. It will be visible in the geological record for a long time, a strange disturbance, just very thin. I wonder what color it will be, or what name future geologists will give the hardly perceptible layer.

It's called the Anthropocene. The strata is uniquely marked world-wide with the fallout from atmospheric nuclear testing.
posted by anonymisc at 11:07 AM on May 23 [2 favorites]


Speaking of cats, apparently you have to use the right kind of kitty litter when storing nuclear waste.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:15 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]


That's why you always leave a note. - J. Walter Weatherman
posted by nestor_makhno at 11:18 AM on May 23 [2 favorites]


It still didn't stop explorers from going into the tombs and contracting some sort of deadly bacterial illness spread by bat droppings.

Really that's it, right there. This problem has no solution because humans are involved. It doesn't matter if we can make a warning sign that will be understood in 10,000 years, because even if we can, it will just make people want to get in there all the more.
posted by mrbigmuscles at 11:45 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]


Could we space-elevator it up to a transfer station then send it into the sun? Would that be safer than on a rocket?
posted by emjaybee at 11:59 AM on May 23


Into Eternity
Highly recommended.
posted by Ratio at 12:10 PM on May 23


Space elevator FTW.
posted by the jam at 12:25 PM on May 23


I recently read Gregory Benford's book Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia. It tells the story of his involvement in this program, as well as thoughts on how to make aliens understand us if they pick up any of our space probes. It's a good read.

One thing that struck me as poignant from the book: one theory is that the best way to get future people to ignore a site is not to draw attention to it. Any giant warning signs or strange-looking buildings will just draw curious folks in. Better to put up temporary signs that crumble in 200 years or so, and then let the site blend in with the scenery.
posted by Triplanetary at 12:26 PM on May 23 [2 favorites]


RobotVoodooPower: Speaking of cats, apparently you have to use the right kind of kitty litter when storing nuclear waste.

To make this a little less vague, here's a quote from the linked article:
A scientist who worked at WIPP until 2010 says he believes a change from non-organic kitty litter to organic litter caused a chemical reaction inside a waste drum, releasing the radioactive isotopes.

...

Jim Conca, who worked with WIPP from 2000 to 2010, said last week he believes a chemical reaction involving the kitty litter caused a small explosion inside a waste drum. New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn confirmed on Monday that he has heard Department of Energy officials discuss the possibility that kitty litter may have been to blame for the radiation leak. Flynn said it is just one of many theories the DOE is exploring and nothing is certain at this time.
This investigation followed a minor radiation leak, in which 13 employees were exposed to increased radiation levels. From the larger public perspective, the leak was said to be at "concentrations remain well below a level of public or environmental hazard."

The kitty litter was used to absorb moisture.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:35 PM on May 23 [2 favorites]


Why we'll probably never build a space elevator
posted by KokuRyu at 12:57 PM on May 23


The sun thing will probably never happen. It really isn't a good idea. As mentioned, getting rid of stuff that will potentially be useful in the future is a bad idea, for starters. There's a good chance we'll eventually have a use for it, so it being totally gone is a bit of a problem (long term).

The absurd cost involved definitely knocks it out of the running for the foreseeable technological future. Pre space elevator or similar tech getting the stuff INTO space is right out. Risky, obviously, but just mind numbingly expensive as well. We're talking lots of very dense stuff; getting even a small amount into orbit would be a cost nightmare. There's a lot of very heavy waste to deal with, and we just can't lift it all up.

If we CAN get it into orbit we now have to get it TO the sun. That's an absurd amount of delta-V, which again becomes more of a problem when we're trying to take incredibly heavy stuff.

All this kind of points towards it being best to just go another route for storage/disposal. The sun thing isn't IMPOSSIBLE...but it might as well be given the technical and financial hurdles to doing so.
posted by Stunt at 1:04 PM on May 23


10,000 years? Just write "DANGER" on it and an explanation of what's going on. There's no way historians won't be able to translate basic 21st century English to whatever they're speaking in the year 12014. Present-day historians can read 4,000-year-old Egyptian hieroglyphics -- considering the massive ton of text, recordings, video, etc that we have of modern English, future historians will have no problem.

It still didn't stop explorers from going into the tombs and contracting some sort of deadly bacterial illness spread by bat droppings.


Has anyone found the cat breed closest to what the Egyptians would've had around them in ancient times and tried subjecting them to radiation and/or Tutankhamun's Curse? Maybe they tried to create the cat culture to warn us and accidentally stepped on a butterfly and it just turned into a general reverence...
posted by DynamiteToast at 2:16 PM on May 23


The other problem with a big sign saying "DANGER," beyond linguistic drift, is that some clever asshole will immediately assume that there's something unbelievably valuable beyond the sign, something that the ancients wanted to keep in the grave of their god-king for all eternity. You need something explaining why everything beyond the sign is "DANGER," which then gets you into complex sentences with specialized vocabulary. Given the number of dictionaries of classical Chinese - a well-attested language like that remained in use for centuries - that have entries like "object made out of jade or something I guess" and "probably some sort of fish," it's hard to have a lot of faith that something like "Pu-238" will make it through the millennia intact.
posted by bokane at 2:21 PM on May 23 [2 favorites]


Deep Time

That is a very bad book cover.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 3:30 PM on May 23


Sounds like a job for the killer robots. Give them enough resources to repair and build copies of themselves for 50,000 years. They'd be nuclear-powered, of course. Any future archaeologists well-equipped enough to defeat the robots will be clever enough to read some simple hieroglyphics that describe what they're guarding. That should do the job, unless civilization collapses before we can build self-replicating war robots, or the robots are wiped out in World War VII (in which case the future would probably have worse environmental problems to deal with). Just make sure to program the robots not to bide their time for thousands of years and then decide to take over the world and kill all humans.
posted by sfenders at 4:50 PM on May 23


It's might be hard to warn future generations, if we can't even remember that this got posted last September.

(Alternative title - "Metafilter: We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.")
posted by ntk at 10:42 PM on May 23 [3 favorites]


Radioactive kitty litter may have ruined WIPP
posted by Bwithh at 2:28 AM on May 24


Okay, here's my next idea. Create some really beautiful books in several different long-lasting materials (some in vellum and leather and ink, some in modern materials with modern inks. Rosetta stone them in all your UN languages, and briefly and simply explain radiation and what's buried and where it is. Leave big wide margins (so people can mark them up), and begin the book with an injunction to copy and translate the book so the information in it is never lost. Then ask some major libraries to put these books in their most important rare book collections as an attempt to ensure they're transmitted forward with other important texts. Some will get lost to fire, theft, etc., but texts have transmitted forward in time reasonably well on a 2,500 to 5,000 year scale.

Also today I learned the nuclear trefoil is supposed to be an atom being active or radiating. I always assumed it was ... a turbine? or an exhaust fan? Like one might have at a nuclear power plant, I guess. I never really thought about it!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:25 AM on May 24 [1 favorite]


Gotta agree with everyone here. I mean pTerry noted it in one of the Discworld novels, paraphrased, "if you built an impossible cave on an impossible to climb mountain and put in it a big red button saying 'do not touch,' it's guaranteed that within five minutes someone will wander in and push it."

Danger's too attractive.

Make it part of the natural landscape, and bury all the warnings deep and/or carve them into the concrete so they'd show up on radar or sonar or whatever it is archaeologists look into the ground with. That way you're hiding the attractive nuisance, while making sure that any future generation thinking of digging there is pretty much necessarily going to be a civilization that knows what radiation is, and that scientists would be the first to find it.

The religious transmission idea is neat, but then you're also guaranteeing the Catholic Church either power and prominence for the next 10K years, or they get discredited and the book does too. Rare books collections, libraries, copies just everywhere would make all sorts of sense.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:24 AM on May 24 [1 favorite]


The landscape of thorns idea reminds me of the Tsingy de Bemaraha national park on Madagascar, aka "the place where one cannot walk barefoot". It's apparently largely unexplored, because even the ground there is going to cut you.
posted by lucidium at 1:52 PM on May 24



pibeandres: "The Wiki article says warnings will be written in 7 languages. So, yeah, they've thought of that."

I'm surprised they stopped at seven. I would have thought they'd have dozens if not hundreds of translations. Let the warnings themselves acts as rosetta stones.

bokane: "Given the number of dictionaries of classical Chinese - a well-attested language like that remained in use for centuries - that have entries like "object made out of jade or something I guess" and "probably some sort of fish," it's hard to have a lot of faith that something like "Pu-238" will make it through the millennia intact."

But Pu-238 describes a fundamental characteristic of the physical universe and can be described with fairly basic math. We should be able to describe Pu-238 to any society that has discovered a variant of the periodic table with fairly basic pure math. The dictionary writers of 12,000 AD might not be able to describe "charteuse" with any clarity but they should be able to describe the various properties of the element with atomic number 94.
posted by Mitheral at 12:56 AM on May 25 [1 favorite]


"Should" is a much larger word than "will."
posted by Etrigan at 5:53 AM on May 25


But Pu-238 describes a fundamental characteristic of the physical universe and can be described with fairly basic math. We should be able to describe Pu-238 to any society that has discovered a variant of the periodic table with fairly basic pure math. The dictionary writers of 12,000 AD might not be able to describe "charteuse" with any clarity but they should be able to describe the various properties of the element with atomic number 94.

Sure, the physical nature of the universe won't change in 10,000 years but how could you even be sure that the Latin scripts and Arabic numerals we are currently using would even exist? What was "Pu-238" could looks like "π“€€π“€€π“€€π“€€π“€€π“€€" to people 10,000 years from now. How would people 10,000 years from now know that first two letters of π“€€π“€€ stand for a constant and a vowel to symbolized Plutonium. Would their written script even have vowels or would they use same number system as us? Even if an English Rosetta Stone was found and future archaeologists successfully decoded "π“€€π“€€π“€€π“€€π“€€π“€€" -> Pu-238, this could still be meaningless letters if they don't know it stands for isotope.
posted by Carius at 8:23 PM on May 25


Which is why you bury it so deep, and then blend it into the natural landscape, that only a culture which understood radiation could possibly find it.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:11 PM on May 25


I had no idea they had a release at WIPP. Somehow missed what surely should have been all over the news...

/tightens lead-lined tin foil hat
posted by Big_B at 4:00 PM on June 2


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