[FoRK] [LAT] WIPP warnings over the "Long Now"
Rohit Khare <
khare at alumni.caltech.edu
> on >
Thu May 4 13:59:52 PDT 2006
v. impressed to see this in a mainstream publication -- though
disappointed it doesn't have the "LA" angle of interviewing Applied
Minds' Hillis on the insights it led to re: Long Now and the
millennium clock, or even the (great!) book Deep Time. --Rohit
From the Los Angeles Times
An Alert Unlike Any Other
A nuclear waste vault in New Mexico will long outlive our society.
Experts are working on elaborate ways to warn future civilizations.
By Charles Piller
Times Staff Writer
May 3, 2006
CARLSBAD, N.M. — Roger Nelson has a simple and unequivocal message
for the people of the year 12006: Don't dig here.
As chief scientist of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Nelson
oversees a cavernous salt mine that is the first geological lockbox
for the "fiendishly toxic" detritus of nuclear weapons production:
chemical sludge, lab gear and filters laced with tons of radioactive
Nearly half a mile underground, workers push waste drums into
crystalline labyrinths that seem as remote as the moon. A faint salty
haze glows in powdery beams from miners' headlamps and settles on the
lips like a desert kiss. Computer projections predict that within
1,000 years the ceilings and walls will collapse in a crushing
embrace that seals the plutonium in place.
But plutonium remains deadly for 250 times that long — an unsettling
reminder that some of today's hazards will outlast the civilizations
that created them. The "forever problem," unique to the modern
technological age, has made crafting the user manual for this toxic
tomb the final daunting task in an already monumental project. The
result is a gargantuan system that borrows elements equally from
Stonehenge and "Star Trek."
Communicating danger may seem relatively straightforward, but
countless human efforts to bridge the ages have failed as societies
fall, languages die and words once poetic or portentous become the
indecipherable marks of a long-forgotten scribbler.
To future generations, warnings about Nelson's dump may seem as
impenetrable as the 600-year-old "Canterbury Tales" are for all but a
few scholars today.
"No culture has ever tried, self-consciously and scientifically, to
design a symbol that would last 10,000 years and still be
intelligible," said David B. Givens, an anthropologist who helped
plan the nuclear-site warnings. "And even if we succeed, would the
message be believed?"
The Energy Department predicted such a problem when it began planning
for the $9-billion waste dump, dubbed WIPP, in 1974 and for a similar
repository in Nevada at Yucca Mountain, near Las Vegas. That site has
not yet been opened. Eventually it will store highly radioactive
spent fuel from nuclear power plants as well as high-level waste from
the weapons program.
Trying to communicate across 500 generations posed an unprecedented
challenge of linguistics, semiotics and materials science, so the
government first asked scientists, futurists and historians to
envision what the far-distant future might be like.
Their report combines dry analysis and projections worthy of sci-fi
disaster films, including massive climate change and feminist
corporations that disbelieve WIPP warnings because they were written
by men. Civilization is so interdependent and fragile, one panelist
grimly noted, "that any massive global catastrophe might lead to
reversion to at least a preindustrial era." Greed or desperation
could give rise to legends that WIPP holds buried treasure —
apparently confirmed by surface warnings to keep out.
In a sense, they're right. Oil and gas deposits lie thousands of feet
below the plant. In 100 or 5,000 years, an energy-poor government,
company or gasoline-addicted tribe in a ruined society, like those
depicted in the film "The Road Warrior," could adopt a "drill first,
ask questions later" policy — piercing the repository and pulling
death to the surface.
Others predicted the invention of self-guided robotic "mole miners"
that would penetrate the site from the side or below. In a scenario
set in the year 11991, robotic slaves are infected with a computer
virus that compels them to override their safety programming as they
compulsively drill and construct mine shafts.
Opportunities for WIPP to fail, the experts agreed, are limited only
by the imagination.
The government formed a separate panel of scientists, linguists and
artists to create a warning scheme to counter the pessimistic
projections. That group immediately rejected digital or paper records
— only a solution cast in stone could hope to solve a problem for the
If Egyptian pyramids have lasted more than 5,000 years, today's
monuments should fare better — if built from prosaic materials, such
as ultra-hard concrete. Scavengers stripped the pyramids bare for
their once-shimmering marble skins.
The trefoil symbol for radioactive material might seem a natural
alternative to text, but experts doubt that it will be understood by
future societies any better than today's English. Consider the
swastika, first used on pottery by European tribes in 4000 BC. It was
adopted by ancient Troy and later became a holy icon of Hinduism.
When the Nazis claimed it, the symbol became widely reviled.
The panelists also considered the plaque on the 1972 Pioneer space
probe, now headed for deep space. It pictures a nude man and woman, a
schematic drawing of the craft escaping our solar system and a basic
interstellar map. They soon rejected it as a model, said Jon Lomberg,
an artist who designed the plaque with the late astronomer Carl Sagan.
"You'd think it would be easier to communicate with humans" than
extraterrestrials, he said. "But the [Pioneer] spacecraft will never
land, so it's only going to be found by some highly developed
technological culture. All we can guess about the future inhabitants
of the area near WIPP is that they are human — unless they are
cyborgs…. Once you have people with augmented brains or genetically
engineered minds with enhanced perceptions, you can't be sure how
human they will be."
There are at least two universally understood pictographic forms. The
human stick figure has survived nearly unchanged from Stone Age cave
drawings to the doors of modern public restrooms. And the sequential
panel, or comic strip, was developed independently by ancient
Egyptians, American Indians and medieval Japanese.
They also are far from foolproof. The South Africa Chamber of Mines
learned this when it used a simple picture sequence to train
illiterate miners to clear rocks from mine tracks. Instead of
improving, the rock problem worsened.
"Miners were indeed reading the message, but from right to left,"
said Lomberg, a former WIPP advisor. "They obligingly dumped their
rocks on the tracks."
Nelson considers such concerns far-fetched, citing 30,000-year-old
"I understand those cave drawings and I don't speak Neanderthal….
He's killing a bison, 'bison — food!' I can do pictographs just as
well," he said. "I can convey an absolute sense of danger."
Yet the same Stone Age caves contain markings and handprints whose
meaning remains obscure.
"The scribbles, we have no idea what they are…. The handprints — is
that the artist's signature?" Lomberg said. "We don't know. Of course
the big difference is that these were not intended as messages to the
future — so far as we can tell."
With so many ways to fail, WIPP's planners opted for the classic
American approach: Think big and leave no stone unturned. The plan
will take more than a century to implement.
To grasp the scale of the warnings, start with the Great Pyramid in
Egypt, built from more than 6.5 million tons of stone covering 13
acres. Multiply that mass by five, and you have the first warning
layer: a 98-foot-wide, 33-foot-tall, 2-mile-long berm surrounding the
site. That's just to get the attention of anyone who happens by.
"Size equates with importance. The bigger the animal the more that
animal is to be reckoned with," Givens said.
Powerful magnets and radar reflectors would be buried inside the berm
so that remote sensors could recognize the site as purposefully and
It would be surrounded by 48 granite or concrete markers, 32 outside
the berm and 16 inside, each 25 feet high and weighing 105 tons,
engraved with warnings in English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese,
Arabic and Navajo, with room for future discoverers to add warnings
in contemporary languages. Pictures would denote buried hazards and
human faces of horror and revulsion.
The same symbols would be printed on metal, plastic and ceramic disks
with abrasion-resistant coatings, 9 inches in diameter, that would be
buried just below the surface.
Three information rooms would archive detailed drawings of WIPP's
chambers and the physics of its hazards on stone tablets. They would
also provide a world map showing all other known waste repositories
and a star chart to calculate the year the site was sealed.
One such room would stand in the center of the site. Another would be
buried inside the berm, its only entrance a 2-foot hole to inhibit
theft of the tablets, sealed with a 1,600-pound stone plug. The third
room would be off site — perhaps inside the nearby Carlsbad Caverns.
The final thing WIPP needs is a kind of Rosetta stone, a pictorial
dictionary to aid in translation.
The markers will take decades to build and test, to help ensure they
stand the test of time. But there's no hurry. WIPP won't be full
until 2033. It would then be guarded by the Energy Department for 100
years until it is abandoned; no one who designed the markers would be
alive to see them succeed for even a single day.
Inspired by so long a view, one of the site's expert panels, in an
epigraph to its report, quoted Rabbi Tarfon, a Jewish sage who lived
1,900 years ago:
"You are not obliged to finish the task, nor are you released from
Once the vault is locked, some of WIPP's advisors want the site left
unmarked because any warnings would draw only more attention, they
say. Warnings, they argue, would be misunderstood or dismissed, the
same way ancient grave robbers ignored curses inscribed on the tombs
of Egyptian pharaohs to seize the riches inside.
Leave it bare, they contend, and the site will melt unseen into the
harsh New Mexico desert.
"Any monument would become a tourist attraction," said Gregory
Benford, a UC Irvine physicist and former WIPP advisor. "People come;
they need hotels. Hotels need water. They drill for water and break
into the vault. 'No marker' is a strategy, but people regard it as
Such views reflect WIPP's one certainty: No one knows what will
happen far in the future.
"I have to assume that the divine creator is going to take care of
most of this stuff," said Steve Casey, the WIPP engineer charged with
overseeing construction of the warning system. "No matter what
confounded thing we come up with, all it takes is one catastrophic
event and it's gone."
That so much time and effort are spent even thinking about how to
warn future generations reflects a significant shift in nuclear
attitudes. The past still can be glimpsed a short drive from WIPP at
a site where an atomic warhead was detonated 1,151 feet underground
Two corroded plaques glued to a 4-foot concrete slab commemorate the
test, dubbed Project Gnome. The monument has been nudged several
yards over the decades by cattle that use it as a rubbing post. Spent
rifle shells crunch underfoot; the pockmarked shrine is favored by
locals for target practice.
A third plaque was pried off, perhaps as a souvenir. According to
earlier visitors, it read, in plain English, "This site will remain
dangerous for 24,000 years."
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