Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

An Alert Unlike Any Other

By Aussiegirl

A very interesting article on a problem that hadn't occurred to me -- how to warn future generations that nuclear waste, some of which will remain lethal for over two million years, is buried underground.

An Alert Unlike Any Other - Los Angeles Times

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
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 plutonium.

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?" [....]

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 immoral."

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 in 1961.

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."

1 Comments:

At 8:05 PM, Blogger TJ Willms said...

Ya Know, after reading this article I'm not really very comfortable that these people are responisible for the handling and storage of nuclear waste anyway,good lord they'er kinda dense.

1.) "Once the vault is locked, some of WIPP's advisors want the site left unmarked because any warnings would draw only more attention, Warnings, they argue, would be misunderstood or dismissed."

Do we really know people will stay as ignorant as they are now?

2.) "Such views reflect WIPP's one certainty: No one knows what will happen far in the future."

Do you see what I mean?

3.) "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."

I'll bet it's hanging on the wall in the bathroom belonging to some guy named Cletis.

4.) "No matter what confounded thing we come up with, all it takes is one catastrophic event and it's gone."


Yah, like ole Cletis looking for another sign for the bathroom of his new trailer cause th' old one blowed up!

 

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