they established the field of nuclear semiotics……. an “atomic priesthood”
The message walls would have the faces as well as simple messages
Temple of Doom: How do we warn the future about nuclear waste?, Triple J Hack, by James Purtill, 19 Feb 16 This week the South Australian Royal Commission released “tentative findings” recommending the state take more than 100 tonnes of high-level radioactive waste and store it in the desert for hundreds of thousands of years.
……..If the facility goes ahead, the designers may consider a problem that has baffled linguists and semioticians (sign experts): how to tell the distant future don’t dig up the dump?
Atomic priesthoods and ‘ray cats’
In 1991, the Department of Environment hired linguists, scientists and anthropologists at a cost of about $1 million to answer what is basically a conundrum of labelling. How do you warn far-off civilisations or scattered bands of post-apocalyptic survivors that invisible beams of energy emanating from the earth could kill them, and this was not a trick, there’s no buried treasure?
The report runs to 351 pages and has the (rather dry) title: Expert Judgement on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Wasteland Isolation Pilot Plant.
Here’s some of the problems they identified:
- Languages evolve too fast to communicate with the future: Few English speakers understand Old English, which was spoken about 1000 years ago.
- The meanings of symbols is too ambiguous: For example, the physicist Carl Sagan was invited to join the researchers, couldn’t make it, and wrote to suggest they simply use the skull-and-crossbones symbol to signify danger. But this symbol has only been current for a few hundred years, has meant ‘poison’ for the last 100, and is no longer very threatening. It’s on ‘pirate theme’ drink bottles.
- Even if they understand the warnings, future trespassers might not believe them. Curses associated with the burial sites of the Egyptian Pharaohs did not deter grave robbers.
In 1981 the Department of Energy assembled a gun team of engineers, anthropologists, nuclear physicists, and science fiction authors to figure out how to prevent future access to a proposed deep geological repository at a place called Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
They were known as the Human Interference Task Force and they established the field of nuclear semiotics.
One of the team suggested creating an “artificial myth” that a certain area was dangerous and should be avoided. There was no need to explain radioactivity, but just convince people it was dangerous and they should avoid the place.
But how to ensure the myth was preserved? He suggested “a commission, relatively independent of future political currents, self-selective in membership, using whatever devices for enforcement at its disposal, including those of a folkloristic character.”
This effectively meant, he admitted, an “atomic priesthood”……….
‘This place is not a place of honour’
The 1990s study for WIPP eschewed ray cats and atomic priesthood in favour of gargantuan architecture, message walls in many languages, and faces contorted in expressions of pain and sickness.
The names of the enormous earthworks proposals are evocative: ‘landscape of thorns’, ‘black hole’, and ‘rubble landscape’, ‘forbidding blocks’ and ‘menacing earthworks’, ‘leaning stone spikes’ and ‘spike field’. There are animated versions of these designs in the documentary Contamination.
The message walls would have the faces as well as simple messages in the six languages of the United Nations (Arabic, English, Spanish, French, Russian, and Chinese), as well as Navajo. There would be a blank area for the message to be inscribed in another language when these other seven languages grow too ancient “to read comfortably”.
The authors boiled down what they wanted to tell the future to key points, including:
Though it may have been discredited, nuclear semiotics has entered the popular imagination through movies like Alien, Mad Max, The Road, Terminator and even Waterworld.
If the South Australian repository goes ahead, it’s likely it will play into public debate.
It popped up in Finland with the 2010 feature documentary film Into Eternity, about the construction of the country’s new deep geological repository.
These visions of hell – landscape of thorns and walls of screaming faces – are a graphic representation of the fear inspired by nuclear waste, but also of the need to find the safest possible repository.
A potential ‘scare campaign’ cuts both ways.
Most of the world’s high level nuclear waste is currently stored above ground in thick steel and concrete casks. Some say a relay system of these casks will be sufficient.
“The problem I see with dry casks technically is they last for some decades, maybe for 100 years even, but at some point they fall apart and we have to change out the waste into other casks,” says Macfarlane.
“The problem is you’re not sure of the control of this material. You can make the assumption you’re going to have caretaker governments like we have now in the US and Australia, and they’re going to monitor and make sure these don’t leak.”
“But do we have any guarantee of it?
“The institutional control side of things is unknown.”
Temporary storage is only as good as the government responsible for monitoring and upkeep. And as nuclear semiotics proves, you can’t predict the future. http://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/temple-of-doom-how-do-we-warn-the-future-about-nuclear-waste/7181278