More than 2,150 feet below the New Mexico desert, a monstrous cavern was slowly excavated during the 1990s. The purpose of this exercise? It wasn’t for exploration or to find resources; instead this would be the home for some of the most dangerous nuclear waste produced in the country and would remain that way for 10,000 years. This is one of a growing number of such sites across the world to handle the rather large repository of nuclear waste humanity has accumulated. Be it fallout from the testing and use of nuclear weapons or the byproducts of the generation of nuclear power, there is an ever-growing body of nuclear waste to sweep under the carpet.
The irksome thing about nuclear waste is that it remains dangerous for a long, long time. As countless generations of humans live and die and millennia of history pass by, fuel rods and slag piles will continue to glow away and emit their radioactive products. In this way, nuclear waste is an atypical threat – we can be absolutely sure that the threat will remain for our distant ancestors.
The solution is in theory very simple – just don’t go near the dump sites. That is easy to say now, but how can we be sure that we as a society remain as wary of the dangers presented by these sites for millennia to come? Some radioactive materials will remain a danger as far in the future from us now as we are from periods when mammoths still roamed the Earth. How then can we ensure that an awareness of the dangers of radioactive waste is maintained for such a long period of time, with no guarantee about the state of language, society and human development? This is where the field of nuclear semiotics comes in.
This weird and wonderful field exists for one reason: for the preservation of memory across generations. Those involved in the field have a near-impossible question to consider – just how will humanity progress over the next 10,000 years, and how will we be able to communication with our distant descendents? Some suggestions are pragmatic, some thought provoking and others downright bonkers:
Can’t We Just Use Signs?
Warning signs like these have been used ever since humanity entered the atomic age. They are used universally and nearly everyone on the planet will know what they signify. The problem with committing to using signs long into the future is that we cannot be sure that the same symbols and language will predominate in years to come. After all, the Sumerian language, used predominately in the Middle East around 5,000 years ago, is yet to be fully understood. How can we expect English or any language as we know it to last and remain understood?
Exploring The Nature of Linguistics
Thinking about this problem allows for an interesting relationship between science and the arts to develop. With numerous linguists and authors involved in the process, some solutions come through the consideration of how language will inevitably change. One of these linguists, Vilmos Voigt, suggested that we still use warning signs, but place more and more of them in concentric circles as language evolves. This provides both the ability to understand the sign in the language of the time and to understand the older languages, through translation of the newest sign.
A Nuclear Priesthood
Now that’s what we’re talking about. One the more banal suggestions had been ruled out, it is fair to say that the suggestions became slightly more left field. First suggested by the author Thomas Sebeok, the ‘nuclear priesthood’ was a suggested panel of experts and scientists that would be routinely refreshed over the years, ensuring that the message of danger at these sites would never be forgotten. The basis for this model was that the Catholic church had ensured that continuation of its ideals for over two millennia, suggesting that a similar system could be put in place to solve the nuclear problem.
The problem with basing the passing on of this information on a religious model is that religion contains inherent flaws that would not aid the goal of universal awareness: the church naturally generates hierarchies and sects and it may be the case that the vital information is lost and manipulated by this.
Atomic Flowers and Radioactive Kitties
Some suggestions may sound like they have been plucked straight from the pages of science fiction – that is because they basically have. One solution, presented by science-fiction author Stanisław Lem, involved the production of so-called ‘atomic flowers’. These would be the result of significant genetic modifications and would hence only grow near such radioactive sites. Furthermore, the specific information about exactly what is contained there would be coded into the DNA of these flowers.
Similarly, French authors Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri suggested that the breeding of so called ‘ray cats’ could be the answer. These cats would be genetically engineered to glow in response to radioactivity, essentially providing a living Geiger counter. These authors claimed that cats are a good model, as we have domesticated them for millennia – and hence will probably continue to do so – but also suggested that their solution would be aided by creating myths and legends involving cats, to ensure that they stay important in society.
The field of nuclear semiotics may seem born out of the world of science fiction, but the problem it aims to solve is a very real one and one that governments are keen to address. With repositories such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and the Onkalo Spent Fuel Repository in Finland designed to stay in operation for tens of thousands of years (you can see a film about Onkalo here), we have to try and theorise how society may develop in this time. Without ensuring the continuation of memory, our activities today may be putting our distant descendents in danger.
‘Til next time…