Imagine for a second, if you will, that you're not just the fabulously wonderful, incredibly intelligent, popular with the opposite sex person that you so obviously are. But you're also a high-muck-a-muck in the American Atomic Energy Commission.
Part of your job is to find a rug big enough to sweep all the nuclear waste that comes into being from the nuclear power industry, or from the disassembling of nuclear weapons under. Big task eh? Up until the mid 1990's, this was really simple. You loaded the waste, in leaky barrels, onto a ship. Then that ship traveled out to an area of reasonably deep water and you just sort of threw it over the side (Well, you didn't do it yourself, that'd be silly, you'd get some local people who you didn't really mind getting cancer to do it for you) But there was this kerfuffle about the temperature of the sea rising and mackerel being born ready smoked.
So, you've got to think of something better, something longer-term using current technology. OK, how about shooting it into space on a rocket? Well, yes, you could. Although it's be pretty difficult to get through the current backlog AND keep up with all the new stuff being created without just having a constant stream of rockets launching 24 hours a day, which would probably knock the Earth off its axis and send us spiraling into the sun or something. And there's the ever present danger of 'launch failure' where a 200ft high metal tube, filled with a thousand tons of rocket fuel goes *BOOM* - Imagine that with a few tons of Uranium 235 on top. Not ideal I think you'll agree.
You could 'reprocess' the fuel in something called a Fast Breeder Nuclear Reactor. These take spent fuel from a normal reactor, use a special process (which is bloody complicated and is freely available for you to Google so I'm not going to go into it here) which generates power AND produces waste that can be used as fuel in the normal reactor again. Brilliant! problems solved! Nuclear power becomes the most powerful form of renewable energy. within months we're all flying around in nuclear powered Jetsons style cars and frying bacon on nuclear frying pans. Yeah, but no. there's a few problems with Fast Breeders. One is that they run quite hot, so hot in fact that they actually use liquid metal to cool the reaction (OK, so some of the metals that they use melt at about 100 deg C, but still, using molten metal to cool something down... Blimey!) They're bloody expensive to build, and if there was an accident where the containment facility was compromised there would be a bang hot enough for our fiery lord Satan to comment 'Flipping heck Adolph, I'm sweating like a 1970's Radio 1 DJ in here, open a window will you?'
At a push, you could pay the Mafia to get rid of it for you... (allegedly) In the 1980's The Italian State Energy Research Agency paid a particular Mafia family to take nuclear waste and bury it in Somalia. Which they did (allegedly) for about 20 years. It seems that they were only found out when they got bored sailing these ships all the way to Africa and decided to just explosively scuttle the ships as soon as they were out of sight of land, just off the coast of Calabria in South Western Italy (allegedly).
So, because you're out of ideas, you bury it under the ground, like all the other cool kids do. But then you think to yourself, 'This stuff's going to be hot for 10,000 years at the very least... How do we stop people like the guys from Time-Team just digging it up before then?'
Think about that for a second... How would you warn someone in the year 12,013AD not to dig a really deep hole where you'd buried your barrels of glowing death? Well, you'd put a sign up wouldn't you? A sign that would last a long time, that people could understand 10,000 years in the future.
If we go 10,000 years into the past and see what the people then have left us to look at. Well, first of all that's the Stoneage we're looking at there.
Remember our old friend Urk, who taught us how money had no value? Well, imagine we're in his cave and we explain the situation to him, what do you think he'd say? After his brain had melted out of his ears that is. He'd probably carve a representation of a lady with large breasts, because they did a lot of that back then given the chance, but if you asked him why, he'd say something like, 'That explain that there are a lot of ray-dee-ay-shuns all over place, you'll have to wear a scaly helmet and something over your dangly-bits.' Which makes sense if you know what he means. But you're more likely to find the little lady back in the 20th Century and go 'Huge boobs no face, obviously some kind of fertility symbol, keep digging lads!'
|A paleolithic nuclear waste warning?|
Which brings us to the WIPP. In New Mexico, about 25 miles outside of the city of Carlsbad there is a deep pit where our colonial cousins have been storing their nuclear waste since the year 2000. The acronym WIPP stands for Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and it's effectively a salt cavern, 2,000 feet under the ground created by the evaporation of a 250 million year old sea. When they've filled it with waste they're going to cover it up and presumably dig another deep hole somewhere else, then rinse and repeat. They're going to put a sign up to let future generations know that they shouldn't just go poking around like The Scooby Gang in an abandoned theme park.
First of all they're marking out a four mile square perimeter, marked by 25 ft high granite pillars, half a mile apart, which surround an earthen wall, 30 feet tall and 100 feet wide. Then there'll be another perimeter of the granite pillars and finally a 15 ft square, roofless granite room, with a warning carved into the walls in multiple languages (including Navajo) with pictograms depicting stick-men running away, skulls and crossbones and bizarrely, the face of 'The Scream' by Edvard Munch... So far, so Egyptian Pharaoh. And I don't know about you, but stuff like that would make me think 'There must be something bloody important under there, let's see what it is!'
But there are people out there who are paid to think of alternative ways to warn our descendants about the many ways that we have blighted their planet with our waste.
It's time to learn a new word kids, 'Semiotics' - It's the study of signs... Not the film with Mel Gibson that puts the willies up me, I mean like, actual metal signs, as you might see by the side of the road, that tell you things like 'Warning, Badgers for the next 1/4 mile'.
So, Nuclear Semiotics is the study of Nuclear Signage, inventing ways of telling people things that they need to know about nuclear waste in the far future. I guess this is the epitome of thinking outside the box, we have no idea how people will communicate that far in the future, so everything is hypothetical, with means the ideas can be as mental as you like, but still be considered. For instance:
Thomas Sebeok thinks that the best way to warn people is by word of mouth, and he suggests an 'Atomic Priesthood' based on the Catholic Church, who would pass down knowledge of these buried waste sites by word of mouth, generation after generation, through rituals and myths.
Stanislaw Lem (the chap that wrote the book Solaris, which was recently made into that hugely confusing film with George Clooney in it) had two suggestions. One was for a series of nuclear-powered satellites that would orbit the earth, constantly transmitting warnings, the other was for details about the nuclear sites to be encoded in the DNA of plants that only grew around the sites themselves. Of course, there's have to be some kind of sign telling you about those signs, which is where the plan falls down in a kind of 'defeating the object' way.
Francoise Bastide (Great name) Suggested that we breed special cats whose fur changes colour when they encounter radiation, then generate some kind of fairy tale about how having one of these 'Ray-Cats' with you when you go exploring can be lucky.
If these things show anything, it's that there are a lot of people with some quite serious mental health problems being given potloads of cash to have ideas whilst they're drunk and/or stoned.
But how would you do it? After all, we're pretending that you're in charge aren't we? Think of something good, and you might be famous for ever, but keep in mind that some of these substances will continue to emit lethal levels of radiation for ten times longer, for 100,000 years or so. So we will need to think of a way of warning people who are as technologically advanced from us, as we are from neaderthals.
And in all honesty, would you, if you could even understand it, take any notice of a warning that a caveman gave you?