When I was a graduate student at University of New Mexico, I went to a talk on “Art and the Environment.” One of the most interesting speakers was a guy who seemed a little out of place. Amidst all the artists who liked to use dirt and feathers in their artwork, there was a scientist who talked about the challenges of designing markers for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
WIPP is a program whereby nuclear waste will be buried deep in the ground. Designing structures and containers to enclose this waste is one thing. Warning people to stay away from it for 10,000 years is an entirely different challenge. They needed to put up signs that would stick around and let people know not to dig or drill there. Let me emphasize: this message has to be conveyed for 10,000 years.
These markers have to withstand erosion, natural & unnatural disasters, vandalism, and intentional destruction. In 10,000 years we don’t know if people will still be able to speak and read English. We don’t know what national borders will look like. We don’t even know what the land masses will look like. Who knows if people will be using the same calendar to track time, or the same measurements we currently use.
These images show some early examples of attempts to define, in pictographs, the symbols for Poison and Radioactive. It’s pretty fascinating. In the depiction of the symbol for poison (at left), the happy person opens the container and looks in, and quickly becomes ill. In the depiction for radioactive (at right), the happy person is near the radioactive material, which, over time, begins to contaminate him, though he still looks happy because he’s blissfully unaware of his condition, and eventually he becomes ill as well. The growth of the tree indicates that time is passing more slowly in this case.
Below is another amazing image from the early concepts. I remember this one from the presenation, even though it was almost 15 years ago. It’s haunting. It’s a little hard to see, but there’s a person, unknowningly standing above the repository. In the second panel, there’s drilling. In the third panel, the drilling has reached the repository, contaimination is rising to the surface and the guy looks upset. In the last panel contamination is everywhere and the guy is dead.
In the end, these concepts didn’t make it into the plan. Neither did the proposals for giant spikey landscapes, intended to physically warn people away from even coming into the area. The very idea of having to communicate something so important to such a completely unknown and unknowable audience makes my head spin.
For more information:
- The official WIPP website includes the plan that was accepted in 2004 and the technical and conceptual background of the decision.
- Excerpts from Expert Judgement on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Sandia National Laboratories report SAND92-1382 / UC-721, p. F-49
- In 2006 WIPP was recertified by the EPA
- Check out articles about it on Wired.com, Salon.com, and The Los Angeles Times