Beijing time on August 7 news, we have a warning in front of us. “This is not a sacred place, ” you read, “there is no memorable dead… There is nothing of value here. Everything here is dangerous and repulsive. This message is a warning about danger. “It sounds like a curse that you might find at the entrance to an old mausoleum.
However, this message is in fact a “long-term nuclear waste warning” for the Waste Pilot Isolation Project. Built in a stable rock beneath the New Mexico desert at a depth of 610 meters, the project uses vast and complex tunnels and caves to house the U.S. military’s most dangerous nuclear waste.
The lethality of these nuclear wastes can last more than 300,000 years, longer than the history of Homo sapiens’s activities on the Earth’s surface. WIPP is currently the only licensed and running deep geological repository in the world. By the mid-2020s, Finland will be operating similar facilities.
In the next 10 to 20 years, when WIPP’s facilities are fully stored, their tunnels and caves will collapse and be sealed off with concrete and soil. The huge complex that is currently a symbol of the site will be erased. Instead, it will be “the largest attempt by human society to consciously cross the abyss of time to communicate”.
The plan will mark the outer boundary of the entire base (10 square kilometres) with a 7.6-metre-high granite pillar. Within this perimeter, there will be a 10-meter-high and 30-meter-wide earth embankment, marking the actual size of the warehouse. Inside the earthen embankment, there will be another square area of granite columns.
At the center of this huge “no entry” sign is a room containing information about the site. To prevent this information from being readable, the project also has an alternate information room that stores the same information. One room is buried 6 meters deep underground, while the other is buried under a earthen embankment. The details of WIPP will be written on special paper and stored in numerous archives around the world. The paper is marked with a directive that must be kept for 10,000 years, which is also the length of the storage facility’s licence – which seems quite random.
Welcome to the world of nuclear semiotics. The grand vision for WIPP is partly influenced by science fiction. Nuclear physicists, engineers, anthropologists, sci-fi writers, artists, and others have entered this very broad and esoteric field of study into the ways in which future humans – and any intelligent life that emerges after human severance – will be warned about these deadly legacies.
Unfortunately, the idea of covering storage sites with huge concrete “thorns” was not accepted. It has also been suggested that we can create an “atomic priest” that can make itself permanent, creating a sense of fear around the site with legends and rituals. Of course, this idea is not accepted. In 1981, the linguist Thomas Sibok first used the term “nuclear priesthood”. There’s also a more bizarre suggestion: raising a cat that is exposed to radiation that changes color, the concept of the so-called ray cat. The cats are like the “Star Man Geiger counter”, and for thousands of years, if they change color, it is equivalent to warning humans to “run away quickly”. Obviously, the idea is too whimsical, but ironically, there has been a “ray cat movement” that has now been introduced with T-shirts, songs and documentaries.
There is a bright, modern conference room in the Oxfordshire countryside of England, which is not reminiscent of the new Mexico desert or the topic of “atomic priests”, but in reality they are much closer than we think. It is home to the British Atomic Energy Authority and the Callum Nuclear Fusion Energy Centre (CCFE), which served as an airport during World War II. CCFE is the UK’s nuclear fusion laboratory. In 1947, Britain was also the first nuclear reactor in Western Europe to operate, at the site of an airport in Harwell. It is also the headquarters of the Ukreto Radioactive Waste Management Limited (RWM).
Professor Cherie Tweed is RWM’s chief scientific adviser, and subject matter expert James Pearson is working on how to select the right markings for the UK’s nuclear waste storage. The facility will take 200 years to plan, build, fill and seal. Like other similar institutions around the world, RWM is obliged to consider marking options for any proposed location.
On the screen of the conference room, pictures of Silbury Hill, a huge prehistoric man-made hill near Stonehenge, are displayed. “It’s 340,000 cubic meters in size and more than 4,000 years old,” Pearson said. Is it an ancient marker? Can we do better? Should we give it a try? At 39.3 meters high, Silbury Hill is the tallest prehistoric man-made mound in Europe, but its purpose remains a mystery.
The Human Interference Task Force was established in 1981 to find viable ways to reduce the likelihood of future humans inadvertently breaking into radioactive waste isolation facilities, mainly the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage facility near Las Vegas, Nevada. It is widely believed that the working group has pioneered the field of nuclear semiotics. Today, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) continues to work in a new way, even though the latter is long gone. NEA launched the “Intergenerational Preservation of Records, Knowledge and Memory” program in 2011 and released its final report in 2019. THE NEA is an intergovernmental body dedicated to promoting cooperation among 33 countries with advanced nuclear technology infrastructure.
“The purpose of the RK-M program is to develop effective means to reduce the possibility of human inadvertent invasion of geological repositories,” said Gloria Kwong, a former deputy director of the NEA Radioactive Waste Authority and now head of the IFNEC Technical Secretariat of the OECD nuclear energy agency. “
The RK-M program offers a number of recommendations on how to help future humans make informed decisions, such as building libraries, space-time capsules, and physical markers. “Physical markers can be individual, like obelisks, or many cluster-like spiked objects, in storage or pointing to the site,” said Dr. Elle Carpenter, convenor of the Nuclear Research Group and associate professor at Goldsmiths College, University of London. They can even use scattered artworks, such as Roman coins. “
Even in human-perceived times, this is a daunting task, not to mention geological time. Even today, only about 6 percent of the world’s population recognizes the “clover sign”, a pattern of three black leaves on a yellow background, a sign of ionizing radiation, a study by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Another study found that in northeastern Japan, while the significance of the Millennium Tsunami Stone is still understood, some locals have chosen to ignore warnings and build homes in tsunami-prone areas. They paid a heavy price for the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
For logos to stand up to the test of the future, they need to be “part of some kind of nuclear culture with their own monuments, symbols and rituals,” says Cecil Massat, a visual artist in Brussels, Belgium. All we see at the moment is radioactive symbols. “
In her work, “The Lab,” Massat envisions a creative laboratory that is housed in a series of metal cones and domes built on nuclear waste storage. “It will bring together a generation of musicians, archaeologists, writers, economists, artists, biologists and poets to study the marks needed to pass memory on to the next generation,” she said. “
In 2011, American artist Brian McGovern Wilson and Robert Williams, a professor of fine arts at the University of Cumbria in the UK, went further. “In Cumberland Alchemy, we explorethe the power of atomic folk objects, clothing and rituals to create an oral tradition around the Cumbria n’shore so that they will never be forgotten,” Williams said. For example, we can imagine a “atomic priest” dress inspired by the clothes worn by Robert Oppenheimer (the father of the atomic bomb). We can then photograph the atomic priest at the archaeological site of a nuclear waste storage facility in Cumbria to test their ideas (and Thomas Sibok).
“Artists can easily be seen as subversives by the nuclear industry, ” Massat said, “but now some engineers, directors, and enlightened and cultural leaders have come to realize the value of art.” “
“Discussions about the nuclear industry are usually directed at a particular location, ” Carpenter said, “but as artists, we’re more interested in a global view of the nuclear industry.” Instead of focusing on a part of it, it’s about the whole process, and then there’s a complete tag system. “
Finally, the idea of “systems is the solution” is proposed in the RK and M plan. “No one dares say it’s a magical place,” says James Pearson, who was involved in the project. This means that you will have a deep defense. If an archive is not maintained, or a fire is on, a backup is available. “
These systems are also trying to integrate nuclear waste storage facilities into the future society, rather than scaring people away. “You don’t have to scare people away with intimidating expressions and dangerous symbols, as WIPP is currently planning,” Pearson said. You need to try to tell people what’s there so they can make informed decisions. “