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"This Place is Not a Place of Honor"

An interesting story from yesterday's Wall Street Journal on the difficulties of designing a symbol system to last 10,000 years:

Last summer, Congress approved Yucca Mountain as America's first permanent repository for high-level radioactive waste. But before the nation's spent nuclear fuel can be hauled for burial under the 5,000-foot ridge, regulators have ordered the U.S. Department of Energy to design a system of markers and monuments meant to ward off intruders from the site through the year 12,000...

[T]o satisfy the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's licensing requirements, Yucca Mountain officials are supposed to devise warnings and safety barriers that will long outlast today's most ancient relics of civilization...

Yucca Mountain planners say they're drawing from a wealth of research on the markers problem, generated by various federal panels of scientists, artists and anthropologists over the past 20 years. Repository officials have also reviewed a slew of unsolicited suggestions, ranging from the phantasmagoric -- genetically altering Yucca Mountain's vegetation to grow back in an ominous shade of cobalt blue -- to the whimsical: embedding a giant red turkey timer in the ridge to pop up in exactly 10,000 years...

Planners are looking at multiple types of information to build into Yucca Mountain's marking system -- from stick figures of sick people on perimeter walls to elaborate scientific descriptions in sealed "information centers" underground. They're borrowing heavily from the markings system developed in the 1990s for the Department of Energy's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M. -- known as the WIPP -- a repository for midlevel radioactive waste...

The WIPP panelists disagreed among themselves about what markings and messages might endure. One group wanted to erect symbolic archetypes of pain at the site -- such as tall, sharp spikes -- to arouse a sense of fear. Other panelists favored less-menacing symbols to lure visitors to learn more. Most agreed that to convey danger without honor, all monuments must be hewn from common materials and shouldn't be beautiful...

Other suggested markings for Yucca Mountain are on display this month at the Stillwater Hall Gallery in Fallon, Nev., near Reno. Dr. [Abe] Van Luik ["a senior policy adviser, and resident scholar-philosopher at the Energy Department's Yucca Mountain Office in Las Vegas"].says the private exhibit includes several useful ideas, such as an entry called "Plague of Sand," which proposes smothering Yucca Mountain in silicon chips etched with various warnings. But most entries "had no merit," the scientist says, including "Blue Yucca Ridge," the one calling for genetic color modification; "Poppin' Fresh," which deploys the turkey timer, and "The Big Stink," which would bury Yucca Mountain in the world's feces.

Excerpts from the WIPP panel's report on markers can be found here. From the report:

The design of the whole site itself is to be a major source of meaning, acting as a framework for other levels of communication, reinforcing and being reinforced by those other levels in a system of communication. The message that we believe can be communication non-linguistically (through the design of the whole site), using physical form as a "natural language," encompasses Level I ["something man-made is here"] and portions (faces showing horror and sickness) of Level II ["something man-made is here and it is dangerous"]. Put into words, it would communicate something like the following...

This place is not a place of honor.
No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.
Nothing valued is here.
This place is a message and part of a system of messages.
Pay attention to it!
Sending this message was important to us.
We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.
In preparing this entry, I read through the report excerpts more than once. At first, my reaction was one of curiousity and dispassion. With each subsequent reading, though, my reaction became more emotional. There's something distinctly unsettling about reading a message of warning for the future -- not the hopefulness of the Pioneer plaque and Voyager record, not the optimism of the Clock of the Long Now, but a message of danger, of something deadly and long-lived.


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Your reaction suggests to me that the message is working exactly as intended, the material is dangerous, deadly, and long lived. Hence the precautions and warnings.

Of course if some future society wants to unearth some of these materials to extract more energy from them, and this would suggest they know how to do so safely, there is no problem. It is the inadvertent intruder we need to warn off, and the better way to warn them is to appeal to their emotional side and strongly suggest this is bad stuff, stay away from it.

I suppose the good news is that the material decays to about the same toxicity level as the original uranium ore from which it was derived, in about 50,000. --abe--

50,000 years that is. Of course. --abe--

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