How Can We Hope to Warn Future Humans of the Poison We’ve Buried in the Ground?

On the Attempting to Imagine the Unimaginable

By  Matt Jones

In 1959, a badger burrowed through the security line surrounding the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State. The site had been established in 1943 as a part of the Manhattan Project and was home to the first ever full-scale plutonium production reactor. The plutonium manufactured at Hanford was used in the first nuclear bomb tested at the Trinity Site in New Mexico and the Fat Man Bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. Despite the site’s high level of security, the burrowing badger was not the first or the last creature to breach Hanford’s security line. Over the years, both while the site was active and after it was decommissioned, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation also had trouble with wasps, ground squirrels, pocket mice, and rabbits that spread hundreds of curies of radioactive waste over thousands of acres through their droppings. Tumbleweeds also proved to be a particular nuisance due to their root systems that grew up to twenty feet, reaching down into the contaminated soil, taking up radioactive material like strontium-90, and then breaking off to “blow around the dry land.”

Two years later in 1961, an experiment called Project Gnome was carried out in southern New Mexico. Project Gnome was “the first of twenty-seven domestic nuclear detonation experiments conducted under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission” and also held the distinction of being the first weapon test to be completed outside of the Nevada Test Site since Trinity in 1953. The closest cities to the detonation site were Loving and Carlsbad, and for the special occasion, buses brought in more than 500 people to witness the experiment. While the test was billed as an entirely contained explosion, a radioactive vapor vented up through the ground and into the atmosphere within minutes of the detonation, not that anyone saw it, of course.

Today, the old Project Gnome site is marked by a concrete pedestal. The marker includes limited information about the original test done back in 1961 and makes no mention of the potential for residual radioactivity. Over the last 57 years, cattle have used the marker as a scratching post, not only wearing down the message, but also shifting the sign several feet from its original location.

Animals also caused unforeseen havoc in 2013 when the Oskarshamn nuclear power plant in Sweden was forced to shut down due to a massive influx of moon jellyfish clogging the plant’s intake piping. Interestingly, this wasn’t the first time the “world’s biggest boiling water reactor and the largest nuclear facility in the Nordic region” had closed unexpectedly. The same thing had happened before, in 2005. Blooms of moon jellyfish had also clogged the USS Ronald Reagan’s condensers while the carrier was docked in Brisbane, Australia, in 2006, and halted all operations at the Sual coal-fired power plant in Luzon, Philippines, in 1999.

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In his 2015 essay “Infectious Connectivity,” the futurist John A. Sweeney describes these massive blooms of jellyfish capable of shutting down everything from major nuclear power plants to warships with “the tactical capability to engage a small country” as a sign that we are living in what he calls “postnormal times.”

While the traditional field of Future Studies is often divided into scenarios of “near future, medium future, and far future,” Sweeney explains that, “in postnormal times, futures are divided into the black elephant, the black swan, and the black jellyfish.”

There was a society of “livestock keepers and river-bottom farmers.” A society of mole miners. A society dominated by women “through the selection of girl babies.”

The black elephant is part of the “extended present” and only includes the next 15 to 20 years. The black swan “exists beyond the next 15 to 20 years yet has no definite time horizon.” If a black elephant is essentially part of the foreseeable future, in many ways predictable, then “black swans in the Familiar Future(s) are not perceptible or articulated, even by experts, which is to say that they can and might appear seemingly ‘out of the blue,’” but they make a certain amount of sense in hindsight. The third type of tomorrow, the “black jellyfish,” refers to what Sweeney calls the “Unthought Future(s).” The Unthought Future(s) is filled with more questions than answers and “is a radical space of pure possibility—it is not unthinkable . . . but rather a space populated with seemingly infinite alternative futures.”

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Life in the nuclear age is synonymous with the postnormal condition precisely because the atomic era teems with unthought and unexpected futures: uranium-laden rabbits, invisible plumes of radioactive vapor, though it was only in the 1970s that the US Government officially passed a law and created a task force to contend with the infinite unknowns of a nuclear reality.

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In 1979, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) was authorized as a research and development facility “to demonstrate the safe disposal of radioactive wastes resulting from the defense activities and programs of the United States.” Located about 25 miles east of Carlsbad in southern New Mexico, the plant consists of 16 square miles surrounded by a guardhouse and safety fencing. The WIPP site is a deep geological repository, meaning it has a stable geologic environment deep beneath the earth’s surface where nuclear waste can be stored. In this case, that environment is a 220-million-year-old salt bed 650 meters beneath the earth’s surface. The WIPP site is the world’s third deep geological repository to ever receive a license to permanently dispose of radioactive waste for a period of 10,000 years.

The intention of the WIPP plant is to bury waste in rooms 650 meters underground “that have been excavated within a 910-meter-thick salt formation.” Once these hidden rooms are filled with waste, storage caverns will be collapsed and sealed within 13 layers of concrete and soil. Given the nature of the salt rock formation, the salt itself will act as a sealant that fills any cracks and fissures surrounding the casks of waste. Once 75 years have passed, the waste will be deemed officially isolated. Then comes the challenging part, because after the waste is isolated, it continues to live on, degrading very, very slowly.

In a 1990 letter written from Carl Sagan to Dr. Richard Anderson of Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, the popular American astrophysicist attempted to articulate the primary challenge facing projects like the WIPP. Sagan wrote, “Several half-lives of the longest-lived radioisotopes in question constitute a time period longer than recorded human history. No one knows what changes that span of time will bring. Social institutions, artistic conventions, written and spoken language, scientific knowledge and even the dedication to reason and truth might, for all we know, change drastically. What we need is a symbol invariant to all those possible changes.”

Essentially, the WIPP plant needed to not only successfully isolate radioactive waste for a period of at least 10,000 years, but also to mark the site of that waste in order to warn future generations of the dangers hidden beneath the soil.

Having already foreseen the monumental nature of such a task, the Department of Energy had convened the Human Interference Task Force back in 1980. According to the DOE report released in 1984, the Human Interference Task Force was designed to “determine whether reasonable means [existed] (or could be developed) to reduce the likelihood of future humans unintentionally intruding on radioactive waste isolation systems.” Whereas sites such as the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the Oskarshamn nuclear power plant in Sweden had or would be faced with intruders like moon jellyfish and rabbits, the HITF was concerned with potential human interlopers. The task force was charged with devising a “method of warning future generations not to inadvertently intrude upon the site of a nuclear waste repository.” In essence, while the first challenge at the WIPP was one of burial, the second was primarily one of language. Specifically, the WIPP needed to discover and design the symbol Sagan spoke of, the one that could somehow be understood in all possible unthought future scenarios.

To accomplish this seemingly impossible feat, two advisory committees were assembled. The first was the Futures Panel, assigned with developing “scenarios of future environments within which the warnings would have to operate successfully.” The second was the Markers Panel which was responsible for recommending “marker strategies that coincided with the environmental criteria suggested by the Futures Panel.” In other words, one group was charged with dreaming up potential unthought futures while the other was entrusted with designing messages for each possible scenario.

The Futures Panel was divided into four teams, each of which included a social scientist, a decision analyst, a physical scientist (usually a physicist), and a futurist. Over the years, linguists, semioticians, science fiction writers, anthropologists, folklorists, sociologists, engineers, and climatologists also contributed their skills. In the creation of each future scenario or unthought future, factors such as “institutional memory, predicted changes in language and cultural makeup, forms of written communication, patterns of regional migration population density, technological advancements, resource use and availability, and developments in the physical environment” were considered.

These Futures Panels imagined a number of broad-scale future scenarios. Inherent to each of their potential futures was the understanding that “scenarios for future societies can be exhaustive only in trivial categorizations such as ‘a technologically more advanced society’ vs. ‘a technologically less advanced society.’” Panels made assumptions about literacy, the continuity of human existence, and about whether or not future societies would even know what the WIPP was.

Then those broad potential futures were broken down into an almost infinite number of hyper-specific future scenarios. There was a society of “livestock keepers and river-bottom farmers.” A society of mole miners. A society dominated by women “through the selection of girl babies.” A United States “replaced by a new State of Eastlandia, which establishes prison mines in New Mexico.” A 2991 civilization in which a 2,000-foot underground high-speed transportation tunnel between Houston and Los Angeles slowly disrupts the architectural integrity of the WIPP through construction and vibrations. There was even a future in which the expansive growth of the maquiladora industry in northern Mexico, when combined with “massive immigration from Mexico and Central America during the preceding centuries,” creates the Free State of Chihuahua. A 1994 report prepared for the Committee on Technical Bases for Yucca Mountain Standards of the National Research Council found that, “At this level of embellishment and detail there is an endless number of scenarios and thus no hope of listing them exhaustively.”

Too many reminders desensitize the listener, rendering the potential danger something of a myth or fairytale itself.

While some or perhaps even most of these future scenarios seem absurd, unlikely, or impossible, it is worth pointing out that the architects of the USS Ronald Reagan and the Oskarshamn nuclear power plant in Sweden likely never imagined that their creations could be brought to a halt by a swarm of meddlesome moon jellyfish. And therein lies the essence of unthought futures: as Sweeney writes, “they remain outside the framework of current thought.”

What is ultimately interesting to me about the project of creating a warning that can last at least 10,000 years into the future is not whether it can be done successfully, because in all likelihood, it cannot. Though a number of scientists believe themselves capable of creating a message that could physically endure the passage of such a substantial amount of time, many more question whether or not the message would be able to be interpreted correctly if at all.

No, what is interesting about a project designed to communicate 10,000 years in the future is that we think it can be done. That we even try. That we cling to hope of success.

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To get a sense of how a message might last long into the future, it is not only important, but necessary to probe the past. For instance, the fifth-century BC sarcophagi of the Phoenician king Eshmunazor II of Sidon bares an inscription that reads:

Even if men tell you to, do not listen to them, for every ruler or
commoner that opens this resting-place or takes away this sarcophagus . . .
or that carries me off from this resting-place—may he have no
resting-place among the Rephaim, and may he not be buried in a grave, and
may he have no son or seed to come after him, and may the holy gods extradite
him to a powerful ruler who shall rule over him, to cut him off, every ruler
or commoner that opens this resting-place, or that takes away this sarcophagus,
and the seed of that ruler or of those commoners. May there be for him
no root below or fruit above or living shape under the sun.

Eshmunazor’s sarcophagus was originally discovered in 1855 and can now be found in its latest final resting place: The Louvre. Which is all to say that, despite the king’s gruesome warnings, his sarcophagus was still opened and carried away from Lebanon.

In another instance, survivors of the tsunami responsible for Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011 began to discover “gnarled stone tablets” shortly after the catastrophe, some of them hundreds of years old, placed by ancestors at particular points along the shoreline to mark high-water points. One stone unearthed after the tsunami was from 1933, and it read:

Houses built on hills will bring peace to the children and grandchildren. With the thought of devastation of the great tsunami, Remember never to build houses below this marker. Both in Meiji 29 and Showa 8, the waves came to this very point. And the entire village was destroyed; only two survived in Meiji 29, and four in Showa 8. No matter how many years may pass, do not forget this warning.

Residents of the Sanriku coast had forgotten about the stone warnings over centuries. “They did not remember that this coastline has been plagued with the angry waves as long as written words have existed,” though forgotten is probably the wrong word, because the stones existed. The warnings impressed upon them were legible, though over time those warnings had lost their potency.

Peter van Wyck, a professor in Concordia University’s Department of Communication Studies, asks, “What is the threshold—the semiotic dosage—in the present, to ensure [a message’s] transmission to the future?” In the case of a fable like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” too many reminders desensitize the listener, rendering the potential danger something of a myth or fairytale itself. On the other hand, not enough reminders ensures that any message will soon be forgotten.

In addition to the frequency and urgency of a warning, there is the matter of designing a message that can actually be interpreted by future humans. The inscription on Eshmunazor’s sarcophagus was translated from Phoenician, a language that was thousands of years old and no longer spoken. For modern humans to even begin to conceive of what language might look like thousands of years in the future, they must first consider what it would be like to travel back in time and hold small talk in the Stone Age. In that prehistory of 10,000 years ago, goats and cattle were just being domesticated, wheat and barley were first being cultivated in northern Mesopotamia, and megafauna like the cave lion, saber-toothed cat, and megatherium still roamed the earth.

Even the language of 1,000 years past is often unintelligible to the most learned scholars. This is no better evidenced than within the opening lines of Beowulf: “We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrymgefrunon, hu ðaæþelingasellen fremedon. Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum.”

While Beowulf has been translated into Modern English time and time again, the fact remains that there is no absolute translation of the epic tale’s opening line from Old English. Such is the nature of language. Over time, it degrades, or at least evolves. Later, when it is reconstructed in the hope of finding meaning, much of the derived message depends on who is doing the deciphering. Is the translator one of the Human Interference Task Force’s predicted mole miners? A scientist from the Free State of Chihuahua? As late as 2013, the translation of the opening line of Beowulf was called into question by Dr. George Walkden of the University of Manchester who determined that a single word had been mistranslated for the last 200 years.

Even Pandora’s Box, one of the most recognizable creation myths of ancient Greek culture, has been mired in debates over the translation of individual words that give the story entirely different meanings. For example, the “box” in Pandora’s Box was originally a large jar—a cornucopoeia, a pithos (meaning an “immovable storage jar”), or a pyxis (a “small portable vessel”). It is difficult to know which vessel for sure because Erasmus of Rotterdam is thought to have translated “pithos” to “pyxis,” perhaps by mistake. Some tellings of the myth also do not state whether it was Pandora who opened the box or Epimetheus, the brother of Prometheus. The most widely disputed translation in the myth, however, revolves around the word that is at the very heart of the story itself: “hope.”

Common retellings of Pandora’s Box explain that, in retaliation against Prometheus for stealing fire, Zeus sends the first human woman down to earth: Pandora. With her, he sends a large jar that contains all the calamities and ills of the world. When Pandora inevitably opens it, all manner of terrible things fly out and she shuts it just in time so that only one thing remains inside: hope.

Matt Jones
Matt Jones
Matt Jones has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama. His prose has appeared in the Southern Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Atlantic, Post Road, Ruminate, Chicago Tribune, and various other publications. He has received support from the Ohio Arts Council, the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, the Leopold Writing Program, and the Willowtail Springs Nature Preserve and Education Center.





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