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.