How Do You Make a Warning That Lasts 10,000 Years?

Picture 4Years ago I read about the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. From Wikipedia:

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, is the world’s first underground repository licensed to safely and permanently dispose of transuranic radioactive waste that is left from the research and production of nuclear weapons. It is located near Carlsbad, New Mexico. Waste is placed in rooms 2,150 feet (655 m) underground that have been excavated from a 2,000 foot (600 m) thick salt formation that has been stable for more than 200 million years.

WIPP presents an extremely long term problem. I was recently reminded of this issue in Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us:

The US Department of Energy is legally required to dissuade anyone from coming too close [to the site] for the next 10,000 years.

The Only Way to Survive Over The Long Run

That’s the thought experiment. How do prevent future farmers, developers, miners, terrorists and archaeologists from digging up a bunch of highly toxic waste? You can’t use language because, as Weisman points out, “human languages mutate so fast that they’re almost unrecognizable after 500 or 600 years.”

I may have first read about WIPP in Stewart Brand’s book The Clock of the Long Now, based on Danny Hillis’s fabulous essay. It’s actually a similar thought experiment, imagining the hows and whys of building a clock that will last 10,000 years. Here’s how he recommends you make things that last:

The real problem is people. If something becomes unimportant to people, it gets scrapped for parts; if it becomes important, it turns into a symbol and must eventually be destroyed. The only way to survive over the long run is to be made of materials large and worthless, like Stonehenge and the Pyramids, or to become lost.

So What’s the Actual Plan?

In the early nineties, the folks in charge of this project assembled two ‘expert panels’ to think about and solve this peculiar challenge. Experts from sundry disciplines–architecture, anthropology, linguistics, astronomy, environmental engineering, archeology and so forth–were gathered. A report (PDF) describes the research and recommendations they offered, and, to its immense credit, cites Shelley’s Ozymandius.

The plan, as outlined in this subsequent, tedious 58-page report (PDF), is to erect a series of 25-foot-high granite monuments with messages in seven languages–English, Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese, Arabic and Navajo. There will also be a bunch of nine-inch markers made of fired clay and aluminum oxide buried at random locations and depths throughout the facility.

There will be three rooms–two buried and one information centre on the surface–which will provide more detailed information about the site. Lastly, the whole thing will be surrounded by a 33-foot-high berm in a square shape. It will be laced with radar reflectors and magnets to “alert future populations that something out of the ordinary is present at this site when aerial or other surveys are performed”.

The links in the last two paragraphs go to diagrams taken from the aforementioned government report. You can see the complete set, if you’re so inclined.

Some Alternative Strategies

Having read and talked about the actual plan, my wife and I devised some alternative strategies. Why don’t just hand the thing over to the Catholic Church for safe-keeping? They’ve demonstrated that they can protect secrets in the longterm. It’s a pity that can’t just bury all that waste under the Vatican, eh?

Along similar lines, create a secret society or cult to oversee the project. You’d probably have to manufacture some back story so that it didn’t seem like a really fresh cult. It’s got to feel steeped in history and influential in world events. I suggest this because secret societies have apparently lasted longer than nations and kingdoms.

Lastly, you could fund an annual storytelling contest associated with the site. Offer sizable cash prizes, and get people to write songs, poems, short stories and produce films and plays about the site. With any luck, one of them will prove timeless. This is actually a pretty lame idea, because you’d need to find a Shakespeare to make your story of warning to last even five hundred years.

How would you keep people away from this future nightmare in the New Mexico desert?


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