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This is not a place of honor (energy.gov)
450 points by erubin on June 7, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 280 comments

Holy shit. Dieter Ast was my landlord in college. This explains so much about my basement.

To those who haven't read the article yet, the real title is Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Prof Ast was the material scientist on one of the multidisciplinary teams tasked to design warning symbols for 10,000 year nuclear waste storage sites. He used to go around collecting old lab computers that were going to be thrown out and resurrect them with Windows 2000 or Puppy Linux installs.

… your basement was plastered with iconographic warnings against entering due to interminable life-ending substances contained within?

did you enter?

>This place is not a place of honor.

>No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.

>Nothing valued is here.

"But I just need to use the laundry machines."


Brilliant. This just reads like a conversation with Death in a Terry Pratchett novel.

And was there one saying "beware of the leopard"?

Hello, fellow Dieter tenant!

I was one of his last tenants in 2013. I always enjoyed conversing with him.

I'm never understood this marker system. Graves have been marked in a threatening manner so that they would not be plundered. It doesn't work.

The point is to hide the waste. The system should be designed to progressively unveil warnings if some future man starts digging. Otherwise, you're just asking for them to dig it up.

Another thing not mentioned is to design the container so that anyone who plans to excavate will think they have hit rock bottom... like Pharoahs' tombs or a multi-level pirate cache.

Or even better, put something horrible and poisonous twenty feet down. It might be better to obviously poison a couple people if they start digging this up. That would be easily understood and eventually avoided.

Remember the radioactive sign in the Star Trek episode where Data gets shishkabobed? They made jewelery...

I thought it was pretty interesting that they weren't really talking about making the site "threatening", but making it "repulsive". Poor craftsmanship, ugly terrain, uncomfortable heat, low value materials, etc. Some of their design photos were very different from what I'd assumed, and pretty much immediately triggered my "eww" response. Not intimidating exactly, just uncomfortable.

This is used today in the high security vault industry.

Safes often include rubber pellets in the concrete pour between steel casing layers. Cutting into the safe with a torch or plasma cutter will cause these rubber pellets to burn and fill the room with noxious odors and thick smoke.

It doesn't necessarily increase the physical resistance to entry, but it makes the environment extraordinarily unpleasant.

They attempted to go with "repulsive" for a nuclear waste disposal site in Finland, there's a really cool documentary:


Thank you for this. I've only watched a little so far but it's a great documentary.

Another recommendation, it's quite a lovely film.

Outstanding documentary. Thanks.

I really like going the repulsive route. Disgust is a primal instinct, and the reaction is ubiquitous for all humans- leave the disgusting thing alone.

I also like the breakdown they have of the different levels of communication. I can easily see it being mapped to product design- easy to digest information at the top of the funnel, more detailed/important information as you approach the bottom of the funnel.

You're not thinking on the 10.000 year timescale. So you hide it, after 1000 years someone starts digging there and finds it anyway, they see the messages and stop, and then the site is left unhidden for the next 9000 years, what should it look like?

Also even if poisoning people was ethical, how would the poison last 10,000 years? And how would you prevent people from using the poison as the potent weapon it clearly is? And what would the message be for those who defeat the poison to find the treasure that's obviously hidden by such a potent weapon?

We still haven't opened the tomb of the first emperor of China, which has been closed for more than two millennia. One of the main reasons is the presence of enormous amounts of mercury. Whole rivers of it, according to tradition. There's your poison.

Throughout the 10K years from now on, hazardous atmospheres probably won't be an issue, because of robotics - which wasn't even an imaginable option for the most part of the last two millenia (and now we're rapidly getting good at this stuff, so I somehow doubt Qin Shi Huang's tomb would remain unexplored for long).

If you assume we'll have robotics, then this whole question is simplified - they'll probably have some easy way to lookup standard iconography of this era.

This question is hard because you can't assume we'll be a technologically advanced society; for all we know, we'll be living with stone age technology.

From my understanding, the reason it hasn't been opened yet is to preserve whatever's inside, not so much out of fear for mercury poisoning. For instance, the terracotta army was actually painted before it was excavated [1], but the paint curled and flaked off within minutes of opening the mausoleum, leaving us with a sea of drab stone statues. I think they're just waiting until they have the tech to properly preserve the interior.

[1] http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2010-09/09/content_112783...

Even if we could enter the Qin emperor's tomb unharmed, we should leave it untouched out of respect for the dead.

I don't agree with this. My respect for the dead says we should unearth the remains with care and treat the body with respect, but I certainly have no allegiance to having my body remain in the ground indefinitely if future scientists could gain value from it.

I would enter it. (And he wasn't the first emperor. He was the first emperor of the Qin dynasty)

I would enter it.

> even if poisoning people was ethical, how would the poison last 10,000 years?

Leave a fraction of the radioactive unshielded and buried less deeply, to ensure that wannabe grave-robbers die of radiation poisoning before they uncover much of the cache?

Nobody is going to die from radiation poisoning off the 10,000-year water unless they ingest it, and the hot stuff will be too cool in a couple hundred years at most.

The entire premise is that this waste is going to be toxic for 10,000 years. So we're not allowed to posit 'cool in a couple hundred years'.

"Toxic for 10,000 years" does not mean "get radiation exposure for standing next to unshielded waste", not does "cool" mean "non-toxic". The ionizing radiation danger of materials is inversely proportional to their half-life. Stuff that requires inches of lead generally has half-lives in the years or tens of years. Stuff with half-lives in the thousands of years can generally be "shielded" by a thick glass jar.

This, if something's emitting a lot of energy it won't be doing so for long.

Interesting discussion at the tail end of the document:

(a) We have all become very marker-prone, but shouldn't we nevertheless admit that, in the end, despite all we try to do, the most effective "marker" for any intruders will be a relatively limited amount of sickness and death caused by the radioactive waste? In other words, it is largely a self-correcting process if anyone intrudes without appropriate precautions, and it seems unlikely that intrusion on such buried waste would lead to large-scale disasters. An analysis of the likely number of deaths over 10,000 years due to inadvertent intrusion should be conducted. This cost should be weighted against that of the marker system.

> The point is to hide the waste.

The problem is that this was during the Cold War, and the site needed to operate on an ongoing basis, not just be used once and then hidden. They had to prepare for the possibility of a Soviet nuclear attack killing everyone responsible for the site, thus had to design a site which would still serve even if its operators disappeared.

>>a multi-level pirate cache.

I immediately think of Oak Island, Nova Scotia, where a pirate's stash has resisted recovery for an incredible 221 years but has yielded taunting clues:


It would appear that it has resisted recovery because there's probably nothing there.

A most clever ruse, to be sure.

To what end? Tremendous effort for no purpose but to intrigue? Kinda like building an enormous underground labyrinth then filling it with sand, just to get a giggle at how much people will do (long after you're dead) to find the presumed hidden treasure that isn't there.

It seems far more logical at this point that the Oak Island sinkhole is a result of natural phenomena and rumors / myths. I'm highly skeptical that there is anything at the bottom of the pit.

Probably just a lie. No effort.

There are layers of wood, etc, but they're probably just laid down by natural causes over the millennia instead of being a constructed building.

"layers of wood, etc" doesn't do justice to what is in place there: http://www.activemind.com/Mysterious/topics/oakisland/story....

Flagstones, layers of heavy timbers every 10 feet, a stone with carved glyphs at 90 feet, oak chests with coins, a sideways booby-trap well, Layers of blue clay at 130 and 160 feet, a cofferdam, and artifacts dating back 200+ years.

This strikes me as far, far more than an elaborate prank; it is a significant defense system meant to protect _something_

Or, the layers of timbers are trees felled in the same 100y storms, etc.

The flooding tunnel is likely just a normal geological feature, not some super-clever drift tunneling technique.

The stone is likely a fraud. Who would place a cryptic sign 90 feet down, telling themselves (in secret writing) to keep digging? Wouldn't they presumably know that they hadn't reached their treasure yet? Wouldn't they be more likely to place an innocuous sign on the surface, such as a gravestone? It's more likely a way to con investors out of further funds.

It's probably nothing but a rumor.

Contrary to many of the comments here, I think they did a good job of considering what it takes to make something foreboding without sounding like "here be treasure." The pseudo-mystical messages sound hokey, but they're effectively a backup system in case the straight-up "This is atomic waste, here's a description of atomic waste" descriptions are incomprehensible to future generations. And the more primitive communications deserve more consideration, because that's the harder part.

Additionally, I don't think the "no marker, anonymous patch of ground" plan is sound. 10000 years is a long time, which will hopefully be inhabited by peoples more advanced than us, and they could do a lot of digging in that time.

That said, the approach I'd suggest would just be a big plain monument that's physically obnoxious to get around. Although the insides of the pyramids have been robbed, the pyramids themselves will last another 10000 years, and I doubt anyone will try to mine under them during that time. And experience has shown that the best way to preserve a language is to make sure there's a large enough sample for someone to brute-force it, so these pyramids could contain chambers full of detailed explanations with pictures.

"Additionally, I don't think the "no marker, anonymous patch of ground" plan is sound. 10000 years is a long time, which will hopefully be inhabited by peoples more advanced than us, and they could do a lot of digging in that time."

If these people are more advanced, there's no point to teach them the dangers of radiation as they will be well aware of that already.

Society can lose information as time progresses. Modern medicine is only just starting to re-discover how important state of mind is when packaging, describing and using drugs. That's the case despite the fact there haven't been any large-scale catastrophes that caused the information to be lost. In 10,000 years who knows what we might have forgotten?

To me, it seems like the answer to the problem is to bury the radioactive waste in incredibly deep shafts - say 5000m below ground? Any society advanced enough to retrieve something from that depth would also have to be advanced enough to know about radiation, surely?

Not nuclear waste.

Assuming no civilizational collapse happens.

Consider the dark ages: much knowledge from greek and roman antiquity was lost, only to be rediscovered at the renaissance. It's entirely conceivable that knowledge of ionising radiation could be lost for a similar period of time if, say, a solar flare were to destroy all telecom infrastructure and subsequent wars were to destroy printed works.

Unlikely? Maybe, but certainly possible.

Lets say tomorrow we figure out how to drill down and tap the geothermal from the core of the planet. Pretty much overnight the coal, gas, and nuclear industries become obsolete.

Nobody will be continuing studies in the field of nuclear. Knowledge will be lost.

Heck, 5,000 after the pyramids were built we still don't know how.

> Nobody will be continuing studies in the field of nuclear.

Unless they are interested in powering things that aren't tethered to the surface of the earth. Which, you know, is something humans have been interested in...

Incentives will shift and realign, but nuclear will still have some development. There's a reason it's used in submarines and aircraft carriers, and geothermal isn't going to solve that, even with vastly increased battery technology.

Pretty much overnight the coal, gas, and nuclear industries become obsolete.

Unless you want to drive a car or fly a plane, then gas will still be important.

They might be aware of the dangers of radiation in the abstract, but they might not be able to read our current marking systems to learn that there is a specific threat from radiation at that specific location. 10,000 years is a very long time to try to preserve information across.

If the culture is advanced there are ways we could express the concept of radiation without needing a common language. There are a lot of innate scientific patterns to draw on, like the structure of an atom, the periodic table or a mushroom cloud.

A mushroom cloud just connotes a large explosion near the ground. Atomic structure may be the best to go with, since pictorial descriptions of alpha, beta and gamma radiation are found in every high-school science textbook. One issue with an advanced culture is that they may be rebuilding to the same technological state as we were around 1950, so when they find the site they go: "Cool, radioactive stuff! Might be Uranium! Just what we need to fuel our fission reactors..." Then, they discover it's merely low-level waste after building an enormous open-cast mine on the site, and polluting the countryside for miles around. I believe this was a scenario they considered, with some kind of warning marker seeded in the backfill above the underground chambers. It would show up in the tailings of any exploratory drill-holes, as chips of plastic (?) with a radiation hazard symbol.

The pyramids were covered in a beautiful coat of white limestone, which was robbed within a century of their construction.

(My first, and last, conspirationist comment here.)

Wow, so maybe the Egyptian pyramids were indeed built (or at least - planned) by aliens, so to cover a dangerous site... let's dig under then to see if it's true!


99pi did an awesome about this. I thought the most interesting idea was that culture permeated much deeper than anything else. So seed our world with these stories of cats that changed color near radiation or something like that would do best. Since symbols meaning change but oral tradition or old wives tales last much longer.

Cats that change color as a geiger counter? Shut up and take my money!

One of the many discarded methods of solving Dwarf Fortress's cat population problems. We then had to expend many Dwarf-hours and precious resources safely disposing of the irradiated cat remains. The cats were still angry.

Irradiated Cat-splosion. Stuff that nightmares are made of!

The suffering of animals is amusing entertainment to you?

I had an internship here during the summer of 2010. For the most part it was incredibly boring as there was SO much emphasis on safety (rightfully so).

For example, people would have to be cleared from an area in order for janitors to vacuum an area, so that no one would trip on the power cord.

I did get to go down into the salt shaft which was incredibly cool (also literally cool, which was a relief because it was the summer in New Mexico).

For the most part I upgraded some software systems and helped with some hardware upgrades.

The engineers were all characters. Several of them were preppers convinced that I was silly for going into computer science and not stocking up on gold.

I guess that's not very surprising. If you're used to thinking 10k years out, you recognize the inevitability of catastrophe in a way that others wouldn't.

Wait, can we all just take a minute to relish the extreme nominative determinism in Ward Goodenough being involved in this project? This man was born for this role.

good eye! if I could up vote you a thousand times I would.

Any marks would only attract people's attention. I can't come up with a single historical example where some marks would successfully keep people away. Even now we keep digging once forbidden and sacred places like pyramids, graves, temples, plague victims' burial grounds. Furthermore, a "menacing earthworks" example from the article looks like a treasure is buried inside that square. Why not bury it deep enough in an unmarked grave (for example, put it in the tunnels inside a mountain then blow all entrances up) so no primitive civilization could dig it up? If civilization is sophisticated enough to dig deep enough, they must be well aware of radiation as well.

I wonder if we can develop some kind of system that continually emits foul odors for 10000 years - it's not likely our sense of smell will evolve away in that time.

Putting the technical difficulties of constructing such odor emitting system that works for thousands of years aside, wouldn't you be intrigued to find out what smells so badly down there..? Don't underestimate curiosity of humans.

The primary requirements for waste disposal are geological stability and political expediency. These factors are hard and determine the site. Ability-to-mark doesn't influence the site choice.

Geological and political stability are concerns for both marked and un-marked sites, I don't see how marking would solve any of these.

Sure. I should have been clearer in what I wrote. From your earlier post, "put it in the tunnels inside a mountain then blow all entrances up".

With the geology, you want a place where you can firmly reason about what's going to happen over a long period of time. Maybe there would be sites where you can do the thing of putting it into mountains. But mountain geology is not necessarily stable. Consider how mountains are formed.

Your limited choice of sites is more likely to be flat country. (And it'll be desert, in order for the politics to work.)

I didn't mean to downplay the difficulty. I understand that despite marked/un-marked choice it's still very difficult engineering problem, but from the cultural point of view, I believe, it's safer to keep such things hidden away as possible and un-marked to avoid any attention than to hope that the future civilizations will take our advice to stay away.

I'm not so sure. Primitive mining in e.g. Røros, Norway goes back to 1740. Dynamite were introduced to the mine in 1870. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R%C3%B8ros

Only 40 years before the invention of the Geiger counter. If future primitive people have dynamite, it probably won't be long before the know about radiation too. This whole project seems to be being treated as far more important than it really is. It's only to protect a very small group of people in a very narrow window of technological advancement and only if civilization had somehow already been destroyed yet there were enough of us around that living in the desert seemed like a good idea.

I agree. If you missed it in the article, it's even bigger than that. The last sentence is most telling:

"This panel member therefore recommends that the markers and the structures associated with them be conceived along truly gargantuan lines. To put their size into perspective, a simple berm, say 35-m wide and 15-m high, surrounding the proposed land-withdrawal boundary, would involve excavation, transport, and placement of around 12 million cubic meters of earth. What is proposed, of course, is on a much greater scale than that. By contrast, in the construction of the Panama Canal, 72.6 million cubic meters were excavated, and the Great Pyramid occupies 2.4 million cubic meters. In short, to ensure the probability of success, the WIPP marker undertaking will have to be one of the greatest public works ventures in history."

Plus, as interesting as this project is, I can't imagine coming across a gargantuan spike field in the middle of the desert that I would not want to explore.

> This whole project seems to be being treated as far more important than it really is.

That's an excellent point. It does seem to have been a component of the overall exaggeration of the cost of nuclear power.

...assuming it's still a desert in 10,000 years.

Mining is much, much, much older than 1740. Basic cave mining dates back to prehistory, organized tunnel mining dates back to Ancient Egypt and Greece, and the Romans used sophisticated large-scale hydraulic-mining techniques with the use of pumps to drain water from deeper mines. By the medieval period the Germans were hitting really tremendous depths - by 1700 or so many mines were hitting depths of 300+ meters.

Imho, that's still solvable easier than creating marks readable for 10000 years in the future. Simply choose a mountain that contains no valuable metals/minerals and is made of rock that's too hard for primitive tools.

Mining, dynamite or otherwise, has to be for something. So why would people dig super far down in the desert through sand and worthless rocks?

Prison colony / hard labor punishment

To get at the radioactive materials.

It's really interesting to me to see architecture used for its typical antithesis. It is typically used to bring a sense of bring out positive emotions, to inspire, to bring facility to humanity, to sanctify. Here it is being used to desecrate, to decrease utility, to ward away.

As a hacker, I'm used to the thought of "what is the worst possible way I can make this UI", but it's cool to see it applied in an entirely different field.

> It is typically used to bring a sense of bring out positive emotions, to inspire, to bring facility to humanity, to sanctify. Here it is being used to desecrate, to decrease utility, to ward away.

Not that uncommon. I have known 2 architects who used architecture against probably what they learned in school or dreamed of building.

One was designing casinos. Apparently they did "dark patterns" before computer UI people did it. Think about open places, to inspire and generate positive emotions and so on, well their guidelines was to entrap, confuse, isolate and promote whatever kept people playing longer. She eventually quit and became a housewife.

The other one, lost their job where they designed office buildings, and the only job they found in their town was building prisons. Talk about soul crushing. Well, they said they didn't care it was just a job. But, I know it would bring me down if I was building that.

> Think about open places, to inspire and generate positive emotions and so on, well their guidelines was to entrap, confuse, isolate and promote whatever kept people playing longer.

> She eventually quit and became a housewife.

I think she ended up working for IKEA.

Dark patterns aren't uncommon, sure. But I feel like in trying to design a nuclear waste site they are using antipatterns, purposely trying to avoid or subvert every common pattern in design. Or in terms of the computing metaphor a dark pattern would be a website that splits content across several pages. An antipattern would loading MBs of webfonts and polyfills to display a single word and a link saying "Click here for the next word." (At least as I'm trying to use the word "antipattern").

I do not really know much about architecture personally, so I appreciate the input. I do feel sorry for the people who do the soul crushing work like that, making the world just a little worse in order to survive. We all have a choice, even if we can't see it now.

You can usually tell whether an airport is state funded or private sector by how confusing it is. Privately funded airports are optimised to get you past the maximum number of shop fronts with other distractions minimised. The tend to be labyrinthine and inward looking. This is because landing fees make up a small percentage of their revenue.

I started my computer services business because the place I worked at doing tech support had good people but bad business practises. It felt like I was given a great opportunity to learn new skills, which I did, but then put them to such diluted use that it did our customers a disservice. I suppose that's a sign that you don't just want a job, but something to work for as part of who you are.

> It is typically used to bring a sense of bring out positive emotions

I'm not quite sure about that.

Lots of architecture is used to intimidate, to signal power and that you should be afraid.

Definitely the Nazi* architecture does that. I remember seeing thee very intimidating military towers in Berlin. It was like the tower wanted to start a war itself. (*Yes I said the magic word, it is now one of THOSE threads!)

Hitler was a fan of gigantic architecture. The military towers are less of an example of that than the civilian structures that were built and planned, often heavily inspired by Roman architecture but scaled up quite a bit, with massive statues and flags.

Speer's plans for Germania, the world capital that was supposed to be built on top of Berlin, were pretty impressive and pretty insane.

Albert Speer had some truly amazing work. Though it was used for a terrible end, the technical innovations behind it were very impressive.

I'm guessing that you saw some of the flak towers [1].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flak_tower

Ha ha yes maybe it was Vienna. Been on too many trips.

> It's really interesting to me to see architecture used for its typical antithesis.

I dunno, I can think of a modern architect or two who could design a dystopic hellscape intended to deter humans from entering for 10,000 years in his sleep …

> It is typically used to bring a sense of bring out positive emotions, to inspire, to bring facility to humanity, to sanctify.

I certainly wouldn't attribute those purposes to, say, the Brutalists.

I don't have to think too hard to make a bad UI. It comes naturally.

It's the difference between incompetence and intentionally making things look bad.

If a child draws like a child, that's probably not worth mentioning.

If a brilliant artist draws like a child, that's pretty damn impressive.

Honestly, reading this, I kept thinking to myself, "Man, this is just waiting to be turned into science fiction short story." It could go in different directions, future humans discover such a site, humans discover an alien analogue of such a site on $planet, aliens discover such a site crafted by humans on $planet, etc. Either way, there's potential for a good story there.

In the full report [1], there actually is a sample short story or "scenario" (page F-139, "5.1 Scenario for the marking system (MFK)"). Extract:

> Jo climbed down and walked over, the sand squeaking beneath her boots. She followed Steve’s head around the shape, only to find another shape behind it. The sand had shifted in between the two, but the writing was still clear. She stood next to Steve and looked. There were faces, two of them. And there was writing, in many different forms. “Hey, I think that’s Chinese -- I saw something like it in my ancient history class,” said Steve as he knelt to get a closer look.

> “So send a picture to Cindy in Remote -- you know she likes that old stuff,” shrugged Jo. “What did they want around here? Those faces aren’t scary. That one looks scared and that one looks sick, I’m not impressed. ” She stepped out between the pillars and looked around. They had stopped just before the center. There was nothing there but sand and scrub. She squinted and saw that every passage way was blocked by these little shapes sticking up in the middle. She sighed. All this stuff for... nothing?

[1] http://prod.sandia.gov/techlib/access-control.cgi/1992/92138...

Thanks for the link! The story really helps to show how some future people might regard such a site and all the warnings we might place on/in it.

I think the most interesting thing about this is the underlying assumption that warnings and containment must survive .. the death of our current civilization and States.

These researchers are talking the long path .. how do we warn people who make not have any knowledge our civilization exists in its current form?

Too many people today think this will last forever; that we're in a golden age that we cannot easily return from.

It's a very sobering but realistic thought. Plenty of past human civilizations that were powerful and dominant in their day are now but decayed ruins of varying levels of mysteriousness. I do very much enjoy and benefit from being part of this civilization in this time and place, but I have no delusions that hundreds or thousands of generations from now, assuming the species survives, the works of here and now will similarly be puzzling ruins.

It's especially interesting to see a government body doing this sort of thing. Politicians don't usually care much about what kind of world they're leaving for their own children, let alone random citizens of the far future.

Is anyone actually following these suggestions? My cynical assumption is that they'd be laughed out of the house by the people who actually hold the construction purse-strings.

> Politicians don't usually care much about what kind of world they're leaving for their own children, let alone random citizens of the far future.

Politicians probably care about this a lot much than they are given credit for; while plenty are actually short-sighted and narrowly selfish (just like plenty of non-politicians), no doubt a lot of the perception of that comes from people who disagree with them on what is best for the future portraying the politicians disagreement as disinterest. (This frequently happens when the disagreeing parties are not politicians, as well.)

It's not completely unlike Roadside Picnic, which I highly recommend.

It's actually not that dissimilar from the plot of "Alien". Or "Prometheus". Or "At the Mountains of Madness".

Or 'The Mummy', loosely based on the legendary Curse of the Pharaohs

Not exactly the same set up, but "the Engines of God" by Jack McDevitt is a great example of that idea of future archaeologists trying to decipher an ancient message.

You might enjoy the short story "The Man Who Walked Home" by Alice Sheldon (usually published under her pen name of James Tiptree, Jr.).

The plot/premise of the mmo anarchy online is actually pretty close to this.

I like the comic where the happy man has successfully plundered the nuclear waste. It contaminates him and he is observably less happy, though still exhibiting signs of above-average satisfaction with life. Then in the final frame, his beloved treasure stolen, he sadly dies of what appears to be thyroid cancer. His dying thought is that the person that robbed him of his ill-gotten plutonium squeezings will soon be suffering the same fate. Justice.

If I were watching a movie where the protagonist goes in to get some ancient artifact and this comic showed up on the wall, I would be like "yeah fucking right, some spooooky spirit kills the tomb raider? suspension of disbelief fail!" But of course this is real and is actually what would happen. If the society in 10,000 years is as cynical as me (and has forgotten about radioactivity), this comic will just egg them on!

>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.

>This place is not a place of honor...no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here...nothing valued is here.

>What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.

>The danger is in a particular location...it increases toward a center...the center of danger is here...of a particular size and shape, and below us.

>The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.

>The danger is to the body, and it can kill.

>The form of the danger is an emanation of energy.

Alright! I'm getting close to the superweapon!

I did notice that "video game designer" was not part of the multidisciplinary team.

I imagine a culture, 10,000 years down the road, that reads from bottom to top. Wow, awesome, let's excavate one of these disease absorbing blocks!

Why not stick the waste in an old Uranium mine? Maybe our future descendants will be able to make good use of our radio active waste?

The comic shows the tree has grown bigger in the final frame of the comic.

So they'll have to assume it shrinks trees as well as absorbing disease :)

It would never occur to me to interpret it that way, rather than him moving the block closer to the trees. Wouldn't it take a human life time for a tree to grow that much?

Depends on the type of tree. When I was a kid we got a tree cutting at some arbor day event and planted it in the backyard. By the next summer, the tree was as tall as our two-story house.

"Why not stick the waste in an old Uranium mine? Maybe our future descendants will be able to make good use of our radio active waste?"

That was my thinking too. The decision to label it as "waste" for the next 10'000 years seems so narrow-minded to me!

To prevent people from entering, they should place statues of soldiers in front of the entrance. Thousands of them. Each should be sculpted individually from terra cotta.

Or discard of the waste on a small island and erect many large stone statues of scary-looking faces. I expect that, over time, the waste's emanations will kill off all of the local trees but it should serve as strong enough warning :-)

May I suggest two vast and trunkless legs of stone, accompanied by a pithy inscription. Shattered visage optional.

Look on my works, ye mighty, and check ye sperm count.

Disadvantage: tomb robbers who steal the statues will receive radiation poisoning.

Advantage: tomb robbers who steal the statues will receive radiation poisoning.

Surely written warnings, if some future society discovers them, they might be curious enough to have decrypted at least one of our present day languages/methods of communication.

Just have the same concepts relayed in as many languages/ways as possible, and then make the site sufficiently difficult to infiltrate that it would take a sufficiently advanced civilisation to break into it.

You could even tier the messages, and use words that would likely be common and thus more likely to have been recognised based on discovering whatever other shit we've left around.




And progressively more complex and complete messages, etc translated into Chinese, Spanish, Braille, French, pictograms, what the fuck ever.

And if they're too lazy/careless to try and decrypt any of the fucking obvious messages, fuck 'em.

> Surely written warnings, if some future society discovers them, they might be curious enough to have decrypted at least one of our present day languages/methods of communication.

The pyramids were known for their entire duration of their existence, and investigated and/or plundered regularly. But we lost all knowledge of hieroglyphs for a time period of almost two thousand years (until we found the rosetta stone).

And at the same time we were using Uranium to give glass a wonderfully green sheen. And it glowed in the dark, too! Awesome!

If there is an event cataclysmic enough to wipe out all knowledge of nuclear repositories, it will likely wipe out human civilization at large. We can't make really useful predictions how much knowledge will be kept, and at what pace it will be rediscovered.

And yet nobody has yet to dig hundreds of feet under the pyramids to find out what they're really hiding. Also, the thing will be practically made of Rosetta Stone, designed on purpose to help translate.

Really, there is nothing to worry about.

Sure, so what we do is, as the other bit of my post said, make the material sufficiently difficult to get to that it would take a long time and an advanced civilisation to be able to get to it, by which point they would have had plenty of time to figure out what the writing meant.

We're not talking about a bunch of dudes with shovels here, we're talking about colossal industrial machinery or advanced explosives.

And then some far future warlord-in-making sees "The things here make death" and stops reading and starts digging.

And the problem solves itself.


I wouldn't be sure what that meant. They make death what? Great again?

It sounds like a powerful weapon, actually.

It kind of is!

So the person who reads the statement with the predilection for violence, is killed by their own bloodlust.

How one should know that a combination of signs (or a separate sign) stands from "death" not, e.g. "food", "fortune", "treasure", "fame", etc? Regardless of in how many different languages or styles repeated.

How did we figure out any historic languages? We researched them and analysed them. It's not really my field but there are ways of doing this and we've been doing it for thousands of years.

And mostly fail (unless we get some direct translation, like the Rosetta Stone). And if the civilization is gone, it's not unlikely that there won't be much more written record.

I find the "human comes near box with radioactive sign/sign is on human now/human sick" drawing to be a pretty universal warning sign. No matter how many years we're aiming for the message to survive, as long as we're warning against humans, wouldn't using the human form somehow in the message be the best way? Isn't drawing narratives with bipedal stick figures something we've had since the dawn of humanity?

Og came upon a cave and discovered a strange symbol on a strange kind of stone he had never seen before. The stone was flat, and the symbol was neither painted on nor carved. On the strange stone, there were also what looked like people to Og, but the people were strange. They did not look like Og looked. Maybe they weren't people at all, but demons. And these demons looked to be dying. Suddenly, Og understood. This cave was a holy place. Og would tell his people about it and they would make offerings to the gods. And when the demons caused fires and floods, they would flee to this cave.

But reading from left to right/top to bottom is definitely not universal. How will you make sure that the figures are read in the correct order? Perhaps a future culture will read the signs to mean that they should bring old and dying people to the stone to resurrect them?

Look at the tree. In the pictures, it gets larger from top to bottom, marking the passage of time.

Og says

"Look, if we sacrifice a virgin in this spot, we will have abundant crops. See how the tree is getting bigger as the person dies"

Maybe arrows would help with the designated order of the frames.

What makes you think that the interpretation of pictographic arrows is universal?

I've read the report several times (it keeps coming back every 5-7 years or so) since publication, and I've never felt like a reliable solution had wither been found, or was in the offing. There is good thinking, but the problem itself seems very daunting. I think that is the real lesson.

This has been haunting the news since the early '80s and it will go on for several more decades. Then, after whatever they finally come up with is constructed, there will be a creepy spectacle about which to write more tired news stories.

It has always seemed a waste of effort to me. If some primitive post-dystopian human were to dig hundreds of meters through salt (!) and come into contact with the waste they would be rapidly educated as to the hazard and go find something better to do. Anyone less primitive should have no trouble interpreting some straightforward pictographs preserved on a few strategically placed brass plaques embedded in granite. In the meantime surround the site in stainless barbed wire and perform routine inspections.

I guess it was kinda fun thinking about this `problem.' Once. Long ago. But since then it seems to have just devolved into a boondoggle attracting an ever greater circle of paper writers. Meanwhile, with all of these great minds sweating 10,000 year hypotheticals, the actual handling of waste is down to yahoo contractors mixing high level waste with randomly procured cat litter, producing nitrate fueled nuclear waste explosions...

Priorities. In order. Not.

Yeah the artifical constraint of understandable by everyone is quite limiting. I can see two set working best: scary faces and statues for primitives, atom structure of thorium or whatever waste is for educated. Optionally leave some stuff out in a ventilated but inaccesdible area so people die/get sick before releasing the whole toxic dump in the wild. Can be in stages like pyramids: first zone warning, then the second zone trapped. Inhuman, but if your priority is to protect the whole word from releasing the waste a couple curious casualty may be a compromise.

The funny thing about the horrible post-dystopian future scenario is how many far greater nuclear threats could exist. Assuming the cause of said horrible future isn't caused by nuclear war already, what would happen to all the more potent nuclear material and weapons scattered about? These places are comparatively quite accessible, and the sites communicate that the objects are highly valued. You're right, focusing on the wrong things.

The solution was found already: keep reprocessing the nuclear waste into new fuel.

It is because the problem does not exist. So no solution is required. Those "waste dumps" are prime fuel for next gen LFTR's.

We should just assume that nuclear waste lasts forever, like a lot of chemical waste does, and then treat it the same as the equivalent class of chemical waste. When someone says "10,000 years", people start thinking about how to wait it out. When someone says "forever", people give up on waiting it out, and start thinking about more realistic safety measures.

I'm curious, what chemical waste can you not safely dispose of? All organic compounds can be incinerated at a high enough temperate to destroy them (even nerve agents). The only thing I can think of would be metal poisons, but even those can be turned into a form that is less toxic.

Don't think there are any non-toxic forms of mercury or arsenic. There are forms that are less bioavailable, but that's equally true of nuclear waste.

A lot of metals can be converted into insoluble, inert minerals that have low-to-no toxicity. Mercury can be converted to mercury (II) sulfide which is insoluble in water and has no vapor pressure.[1]


Except when you heat it. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2755212/

Also, cost must be a factor. Turning materials back into ore is extremely expensive.

Well I guess nothing is truly non-toxic. If you heat water high enough it could create hydrogen and suffocate you.

It takes some serious equipment to heat water anywhere near that high. For cinnabar you just need fire. This is not an artificial distinction.

If you still don't see it, maybe picture yourself standing near a burning warehouse full of water versus standing near a burning warehouse full of cinnabar?


Has a worst case half life of 50 years.


Lists very small quantities as still quite dangerous to reproduction or causing cancer in exposed subjects.

But on a 10,000 year scale I fail to see how it would still be a problem. A few hundred, definitely still risky.

I went to high school next to a dioxin superfund site [1]. They incinerated it (I could see the smokestack from the school) and supposedly it's all cleaned up now [2]. We'll see how we all turn out.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Times_Beach,_Missouri

[2] https://clu-in.org/download/remed/incpdf/times.pdf

A school within line of sight of a smokestack burning dioxins is something that should not even exist.

An incinerator outgassing smoke toxic to surrounding people is something that should not exist. Proximity to a school is irrelevant, except for irrational fearmongering.

I disagree. Developing tissue will have to live for much longer than older folks and any kind of cumulative toxins or hard to break down toxins have a lot more chance to do harm in children than in adults.

Anything organic can be safely destroyed through careful incineration. PCBs (related to dioxins) need a really high temperate to be destroyed, but can be.

I am pretty sure that long before 10 000 years has lapsed, this so called waste is no more considered waste. For example, my understanding is that you can use current waste as a fuel in thorium cycle.

The plan in the US was to enrich waste in breeder reactors, mix in some fresh fuel, and re-use it. It was the nuclear fuel cycle. Lots of resources on the technology.

There were two problems. The use of breeder reactors had some proliferation concerns: they can be used to make warheads. Not a big deal in the US, as the US can already make warheads, but harder if you want to export nuclear waste reprocessing to other countries.

Transporting the waste was deemed risky. More so after 9/11, as fresh waste is so radioactively hot, it needs to be kept in water, or it will overheat. If you crash a plane into a transport vehicle, or a re-processing plant, it will create quite a mess.

So there is no way the nuclear waste will stay in the ground for 10,000 years. I suspect it will be less than a hundred years before someone digs it up, and reprocesses it.

Burying nuclear waste is itself waste.

This is something I've always wondered about, especially when confronted by environmentalist camps that oppose nuclear power.

Nuclear fuel recycling seems totally viable, and I imagine nuclear "waste" could be reprocessed and used for as long as there are fissionable products left in it. At which point it would pose minimal danger and save us a boatload on 10,000 year warning signs.

It's viable in all ways except political.

People are scared by the phrase 'breeder reactor'; which is poor marketing, calling it a 'waste reduction reactor' is slightly longer, but also more accurately describes what it does and sounds a LOT better.

I think it may have been a result of Fukushima, but I gained an interest in the topic and spent a few tens of hours researching. A proper waste reduction reactor produces three categories of radioactive material.

* Stuff that is so crazy hot it'll cool off in a 'short' period of time.

* Stuff that is good for use in reactors (a subset of the above).

* Stuff that will take a LONG time to decay; which means that it is active, but very very slowly emitting.

In reality 10,000 yrs is probably longer than humans will be relevant on Earth.

Hm. One million years an counting so far?

But we've only been relevant for ~7,000 and if we do not make the Earth inhospitable ourselves in the next 10k years then the chances of a cataclysmic event are ever increasing to assist us. 99.9% of all animals ever to exist on the Earth are extinct, we're not that special.

We're pretty special, at least in the context of this planet. Science tells us that we are by far the most intelligent creatures to live on Earth in its observable history, and the only ones to meaningfully modify it.

In the very least, we are the only creatures to inhabit Earth, that if we become extinct, it is somewhat likely that we are both the victim and the perpetrator.

> and the only ones to meaningfully modify it.

The first oxygen-excreting algae may have a prior claim...

I'm not sure this is relevant. I mean, yes, they most certainly changed the planet itself, but it wasn't really to benefit themselves, was it? We build skyscrapers and Howitzers for intentional purposes, not because we excrete them.

> but it wasn't really to benefit themselves, was it?

Well, their descendants are pretty much everywhere you see something greenish, so it seems to have worked out.

> We build skyscrapers and Howitzers for intentional purposes, not because we excrete them.

We also emit pollution for intentional purposes. They might not be particularly noble purposes, but they're 100% intentional by each of humanity's individual parts.

I think you're confusing "the tools we use" versus "the ways we change the globe". Most of the worldwide changes we cause are not explicitly planned or built, but side-effects of the "metabolism" of our civilization.

Cyano-bacteria created our current breathable atmosphere and most all iron deposits. Calciferous phytoplankton built England, vast tracks of southern France and literally creates the air we breathe. Those things all meaningfully modified it back in deep time and continue to modify it today.

Intelligence is not a indicator of survivability, and if it somehow was, we found ourselves on the completely wrong side of the argument. How many other planet-altering intelligent species do you see around you ? Do you think that is a good indicator of survivability ?

This seems fallacious, but I can't put my finger on how. Yes, there is currently a lack of "planet-altering intelligent species," but, as far as we can tell, there has always been a lack of planet-altering intelligent species. We don't have any evidence of a being with human-level capabilities than then died out.

Surely not the only ones to meaningfully modify earth. If you look from space, earth looks green... Also, wasn't the atmosphere changed to be more rich in oxygen by early microbes?

We're hoping to start a colony on Mars. How could we possibly make Earth even remotely as inhospitable as Mars? Do you expect us to remove all the oceans' water? Remove most of the oxygen from the atmosphere? Kill all plants? I don't think we have much hope of making Earth inhospitable to us even if we tried.

Perhaps we somehow contaminate it all with nuclear waste. Even then, there'll be safety underground for long term living, relative safety even in contaminated areas for short term work, and radioactive water can be cleaned by distillation, mechanical or chemical means. We might have to set up a lot of infrastructure to do all that, but we've done a good job of setting up far more complex infrastructure already. It took only a couple of hundred years since the beginning of powered machines to get to where we are now. We could do it all again many times over in the next 10,000 years.

"Keep Earth hospitable" and "Colonize Mars" have very different goals, though. It would likely be humanity's crowning achievement to put a permanent outpost on another planet, but it would be, what, 15 people maybe? The other planet we're talking about has to support at least 7 billion.

I'm so old I remember we only supported 4 billion people.

Even pessimistically over one human lifetime I bet that "15 people" turns into at least 30.

You get gene pool and interbreeding issues with too small of a pool, then again you'd be amazed what you can store in liq nitrogen for a long time.

Also looking at the temporary and limited mineral and energy requirements, the earth isn't going to support 7B or 9B or even 1B for much longer, on a geologic / radiation timescale.

For awhile you can turn mined petrochemicals and chemical fertilizers into lots of human biomass. The key is for awhile, temporarily.

It's amazing to think the earth's population doubled between 1960 and 2000

Perhaps they are extinct because we've been erasing them as we reformat the earth to be more congenial to ourselves? Their extinction is not a signal that we may go extinct ourselves; just the opposite.

Mesopotamian Ziggurat, Teppe Sialk, dates from around 2900BC (~5000 yo). Gobekli Tepe 12,000 years old?

The 99.9% has nothing to do with humans. He was probably referring to this:


Yes, pretty much the result of the 5 major (or 9 major) extinction events. I was using this [1] it's a number frequently used when referring to whats been and whats left. It's really an extraordinary number when thinking about it.

[1] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/extinction/massext/stateme...

> (a) We have all become very marker-prone, but shouldn't we nevertheless admit that, in the end, despite all we try to do, the most effective "marker" for any intruders will be a relatively limited amount of sickness and death caused by the radioactive waste? In other words, it is largely a self-correcting process if anyone intrudes without appropriate precautions, and it seems unlikely that intrusion on such buried waste would lead to large-scale disasters. An analysis of the likely number of deaths over 10,000 years due to inadvertent intrusion should be conducted. This cost should be weighted against that of the marker system.

Wow. reminds me of the ford pinto case: http://users.wfu.edu/palmitar/Law&Valuation/Papers/1999/Legg...

What language(s) did the earth speak 10,000 years ago. The concept is electrifying for will English or any other language written or spoken today even exist?

The monument would have to be a "Rosetta Stone(s)" quite obtrusive and large like a pyramid. It would have to be written in multiple present and ancient languages. It would would have to feature math formulas and illustrations etched foot deep into Titanium, carbon fiber, or a material that wouldn't degrade in 10,000 years. Then inside the monument would have to feature even more information. WOW!

I'm going to go out on a limb and surmise that, barring cataclysmic events, 10k years from now the majority of people will speak an english-derived language that is mostly understandable to someone living in the present day. Information transfer in the past was extremely analog, slow-moving, and lossy. Today we are rapidly approaching a "single meme pool" and your tweets are getting archived for eternity, whether you like it or not.

Scratch that. I already can't read twitterspeak. Sigh.

!0,000 Years ago was ~8000 BC. Nobody knows what languages people spoke back then. Our oldest reconstructed languages like Proto-Uralic and Proto-Afro-Asiatic are hypothesized to have been spoken around then, but they are very rough guesses and certainly are unintelligible to all modern humans.

I don't want to sound evil... but why? It's not like digging up low-intensity radioactive waste is going to end the world. Just look at how alive Chernobyl zone is... So let's say some people bring it up, they get sick and die, which makes people remember that radioactivity symbol = bad for the next several hundred years or so.

On a related note, wouldn't it make more sense to turn the radioactive waste into powder and dump it over a large area of sea or desert (Sahara is HUGE)? Given a large enough area it wouldn't even be detectable.

> why?

Largely because the project requirements said "we should warn people away from this dangerous site".

Assuming the standard (very generous) EPA figure of $4 million as the break-even point to save one statistical human life, and an unrealistically generous discount rate of 0%, there's essentially no way a project of the scope of the proposed earthworks would be worth it.

If their goal was to create a hokey-sounding quasi-spiritual ward that future generations will consider naive and ignore, they've certainly hit the nail on the head.

Probably a better approach is to accept the fact that nuclear waste will either be cleaned up or destroy humanity long before ten thousand years comes to pass, and spend the money they spent on this exercise in speculative fiction instead on working toward a real solution.

Admittedly, I haven't read the article, but the tone of the message suggests that it's not meant for future generations of our civilization, but for future generations of whatever cultures come after our civilization is gone.

There's a pretty remarkable old English poem that survived from Dark Ages Britain, in which the author marvels at the ruins of Roman Britain, wondering what giants must have once inhabited the land in order to build such things. From the sounds of it, these markers are targeted towards people like that, not our own immediate descendents who will already know it's a nuclear waste site.

...and as such, any large monumental works are more likely to attract attention than to repel it. May even become a cult place of worship. More effective to bury and obfuscate the site entirely?

If it becomes a "cult place of worship", then that's probably Mission Accomplished; the faithful have a tendency to defend holy places against those seeking to defile them (read: dig into them and expose the world to nuclear waste). If they can be convinced that such sites are "God's Temples" and that defiling them will unleash all sorts of plagues (which they very likely will), then the current generation's job is done.

Religion in the service of natural selection? A nice twist. (E.g. all cultures without worship of holy places eventually perish.)

Maybe. On the other hand if the place is visibly menacing, and anyone who visits it gets sick and/or dies, then wouldn't a culture otherwise ignorant of the dangers of nuclear waste quickly put two and two together and stay away from the haunted, evil place? Shrug I don't have the expertise to judge whether this will be effective or not so it's all just supposition on my part.

Do you have a link to that poem?

Sure, it's called The Ruin, and is available in the following collection: https://archive.org/details/anglosaxonnorsep00chadrich

It had been a while since I read it, and on rereading it, I'm not convinced the narrator was ignorant of who built the ruins he is looking at. Nevertheless, it's a pretty amazing artifact of someone looking at the ruins of collapsed culture, imagining how grand it must have been in comparison to the bleak present.

To be fair, the odds that our ancestors will have figured out how to "solve" radioactive waste seems much slimmer than that our ancestors will be digging in the remains of our civilization for scraps to survive. In that case, this is really about taking the bare minimum responsibility to our distant progeny by warning them of the danger.

See also Into Eternity, a movie about how the Finns are dealing with this, with a 100,000 year timeframe.


It is a very good documentary on the subject. For me it really drove home the idea that current nuclear power comes with too expensive externalities in the form of "keep this stuff safe for 100 000 years". We've never come close to doing something like that as a species. I don't think we ever will.

Actually, after a couple of hundred years it's no more dangerous than the ore from which it came. No one worries about putting up signs around natural uranium ore bodies.

Saying that "x has a long half-life" is exactly the same thing as saying "x is not very radioactive". By definition.


Uranium-238 is the most common isotope of natural uranium. It has a half-life of 4.468 billion years. By the "long half-life = ZOMG! DANGERRRRR!" standard it must be really, really bad, no?

Nope. It's just not very radioactive. You can buy uranium ore on Amazon and even get free shipping (no hazmat or anything).

Uranium was also used to color glass in the early 20th century. While it's not used for that purpose any more (and I probably would not routinely drink out of a uranium glass vessel), it's not considered hazardous. There's a lot of it for sale on eBay.

The really dangerous stuff tends to have a short half-life (= intensely radioactive, again by definition) and an affinity for body tissues. For example, iodine-131 -- half-live 8 days, and gets absorbed by your thyroid gland, or strontium-90 -- half-life about 29 years, and gets absorbed into your bones (it mimics calcium).

The people who convinced you that isotopes with long half-lives are somehow more dangerous? They either didn't know what they were talking about, or they were lying to you.

Plutonium has a half-life of 24 000 years or so, I would still rather not drink it and certainly not breathe it in.

The full report with the longer message (linked elsewhere in this thread; page 214 or F-125) explicitly notes that the 10,000 year point is when it matches the ore:

> Radioactivity declines exponentially with time. By 10,000 years after the waste was buried here, the waste will be no more hazardous than the ore from which the radioactive material was taken [see 50 FR 38071a].

Kind of makes you wonder if its really such a good idea to smash atoms just to boil some water.

We already live in the orbit of a giant nuclear reactor that puts out so much energy that its waste energy can power our entire world for any foreseeable future. Why build our own?

I worry an elaborate structure will attract unwanted attention. Think about it - would you be interested in visiting it? Aren't you already interested? Why would future-people be any different. I know, the average shmoe would hear about this thing in the desert and think "Whatever" and go back to eating cheetohs and screwing. But what about an architect? A philosopher? An engineer? A historian? An artist? Pretty much any intellectual would be fascinated.

It could become the 'intellectual' version of a 'predator trap'. Like the LaBrea Tar Pits attracted more apex predators than most any other ancient formation (because of all the grazers trapped and dying, predators were captured in greater numbers than anywhere else in the fossile record).

Its almost a mechanism for ensuring that Idiocracy comes to pass - a trap that kills or reproductively damages smart/curious people only, draining the gene pool and leaving an ever-duller population of humans stuck in some post-apocalyptic dark age with no hope of getting themselves out.

So yeah I'm against it.

The goal with something like this is to build a series of deterrents, such that you have to be smarter and more capable (and therefore more able to interpret a warning) as you get closer to the real threat.

99 Percent Invisible episode on this: http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/ten-thousand-years/

I feel like 99pi might become the "relevant XKCD" of podcasts soon. This was an excellent episode and it's a really fun problem to discuss.

Use the heat of the waste's radioactivity to power infrasonic emitters, and induce horror and panic in anyone who comes close. Or maybe set it up so that the wind creates infrasonic vibrations. You'd stand a very good chance of convincing people that the place is literally haunted.


I have one computer that has been running (with help) for 8 years. That's a record for me.

10K years is a really long time to keep a computer running. Who's going to do that, other than more computers?

That is indeed the trick, but who said anything about computers? Mechanical sound reproduction, even specifically using electricity, predates computers. I see no reason it couldn't post-date them in this application, as well. You would want to build the system out of simple, indestructible components, something closer in complexity to an electric doorbell than a computer.

I imagine the record for uptime with zero maintenance is held by something like the Voyager probes which are nearing 40 years. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyager_1

But even if you cut out any electronics and use something as basic as a rock with a whistle carved into it for the wind to blow through, it will still be susceptible to getting clogged up/eroded.

While I appreciate the effort they put into it, trying to plan anything for 10,000 years in the future is sheer folly. We have no idea what humanity will be like in 200 years, much less 10,000.

Assuming we are around at all, we'll likely have mastered fusion power (thus no longer creating nuclear waste) or have mastered space flight (thus we can chuck it into the Sun) or have discovered that concentrations of radioactive materials are incredibly useful and not waste at all. A few hundred years ago crude petroleum was a waste product as well.

I would have thought that to an advanced civilization that a nuclear radioactive waste dump may well be of value.

I do think worrying about radioactive waste given how much carbon dioxide we have dumped into the atmosphere is a bit like bandaging a stubbed toe on an amputated leg.

They're worried about people in the future who may not know about radioactive waste. This location will be dangerous for a very long time in a way that's invisible.

Carbon dioxide is certainly a concern, but most of its problems will never produce a place that people shouldn't stumble or explore because of unseeable danger.

I often think of the story of the Goiânia accident to be applicable. Four people ended up dead because two people stole something they thought might have value but was radioactive.[1]

It is prudent to assume that dangerous waste should be disposed of in a way that assumes there won't always be guards.

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goi%C3%A2nia_accident

Understand the reason for the worry, but given the climate change that has been kicked off by the CO2 released to date I don’t think people are going to be worrying too much about tripping over a radioactive waste dump.

>to an advanced civilization that a nuclear radioactive waste dump may well be of value.

Actually it has value to our civilization, because much of the low-grade uranium "waste" could be put into breeder reactors and turned into plutonium - and reused as nuclear fuel.

Read about it here: https://www.withouthotair.com/c24/page_163.shtml

It (this particular plutonium isotope) is also really useful for building bombs.

(edit: made it more clear what I meant)

Yes. I would tend to suggest that it would be better to hide the waste very deep and destroy all knowledge of where it was buried.

Do you really think that option is feasible? Even the ancient Romans were unsuccessful at damning the memories of their enemies.

How do you know this? We know almost nothing about anyone or anything that happened during Roman times - the fact that a few scraps have survived is hardly an indication that most knowledge deliberately destroyed managed to escape.

Well, there's this guy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domitian re: damnatio memoriae "Yet the order of the Senate was only partially executed in Rome, and wholly disregarded in most of the provinces outside Italy."

I think it's possible that a similar effect would happen with attempting the same thing to the knowledge of nuclear fission...

Yes but is also could be used to supply the entire world with Western levels of electric power.

That's one of many ways that you could do that, yes.

Those other ways do not get rid of a potentially serious environmental contaminant. Or do you prefer if those "waste dumps" remain unused and potentially dangerous.

It both serves as a very valuable source of rare energy and at the same time gets rid of the "waste" of old redundant processes, what's not to like ?

I suspect that Mr. Lindahl is against nuclear power for ideological - not practical - reasons.

What I don't get is why nobody ever thinks about the international relations angle.

Say there is a biological weapons attack and humanity is wiped out aside from some remote communities like Alert, Canada. Some tech survives like gears, but obviously computers go away for a while. In 3000 years people are aware that humanity was once great, but then destroyed itself with hubris. They may even have a fairly developed understanding of science based on what they could save (university text books would _certainly_ be hoarded and copied 10 years after the bio-attack).

Now the society enters an age that is kinda like a more advanced renaissance. No more easy coal or oil, so they use electricity from wind turbines.

What happens when they figure out what is at that site? They weaponize it. It's so obvious to me. If we want to stop people from getting killed by it we should hide it as best as possible. Or make it as hard as obtaining enriched uranium. Humans have always had a "Do whatever it takes" approach to war and there is no way a emanating death object is going to be avoided once they understand what it does.

These parts stood out to me:

"We decided against simple "Keep Out" messages with scary faces. Museums and private collections abound with such guardian figures removed from burial sites. These earlier warning messages did not work because the intruder knew that the burial goods were valuable. We did decide to include faces portraying horror and sickness (see Sections 3.3 and 4.5.1). Such faces would relate to the potential intruder wishing to protect himself or herself, rather than to protect a valued resource from thievery."

"We must inform potential intruders what lies below and the consequences of disturbing the waste. If they decide that the value of the metal component of the waste far outweighs the risks of recovering the metal, the decision is their responsibility, not ours."

Interesting how much stock they put in both the rationality and irrationality of any future individuals. Appeal to their emotional side and appeal to their logical side.

Interesting. I know that the idea of launching radioactive waste into the sun or out of the solar system is highly criticized for the potential for things to go wrong (and rightly so), but do the critics really think that the earth -- with humans on it -- will be more reliable in 10,000 years than space flight even 100 years from now?

Getting out of the solar system is incredibly difficult. Well, not necessarily difficult, but expensive. So far we've launched a grand total of five spacecraft that will leave our solar system, with a combined mass of just over 2500 kg. That doesn't even put a dent in the amount of nuclear waste we're talking about.

Somewhat counter intuitively, it's actually a bit more difficult to crash into the sun than to leave the solar system.

There's also the small problem that an explosion on launch could result in a massive area being exposed to highly concentrated radioactive fallout.

No, but they won't be nearly as catastrophic or as expensive.

This team should collaborate with the makers of the Clock of the Long Now (http://longnow.org/clock/), another device intended to last thousands of years. There is a discussion of their research into various methods pursued by different cultures over the centuries to pursue similar goals, see video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nphxoUxSvgY

Recent documentary by Peter Galison and Rob Moss:


It appears that most of the images are missing (there are figures that are refereed to but do not exist). Is there a complete copy somewhere?

edit: found a mirror http://prod.sandia.gov/techlib/access-control.cgi/1992/92138...

They show up for me. Here's an imgur album.


I see those images, but there are more that are missing. For example: Figure 4.3-18, which is referenced 2 times in text but has no accompanying picture.

The images were published in high-resolution in some sort of art magazine and probably numerous other places, I cut them out to decorate my dormroom. I've only seen these awful photocopy images on the web, but there are far better ones out there.

This just makes me wonder what toxic substance the dinosaurs/space aliens buried under Stonehenge now.

It seems like one of the problem is that the place "is not a place of honor".

In modern civilization memorials and/or historically significant places are continuously safeguarded and most importantly remembered.

Yes they can be targets of attacks but they get rebuilt. That is their significance is remembered and protected. It seems like a bad idea to make a dangerous place forgettable.

So instead of hiding I propose a solution might be an extremely conspicuous stone like edifice built on top of the land with information about what is underneath etched in stone (I am assuming the land above is tolerable). Maybe even make it look nice so you know it gets protected. It could even become a cultural landmark.

Some monuments are safeguarded today, but not all. Fewer monuments were safeguarded in the millenia before we understood radiation. Your design relies on a culture that values the remnants of other cultures to the point that they are sacred. There have been times and places where the people just wanted to re-purpose the nice building materials like the Mayan temple that was destroyed to create road gravel. Wars can break out that destroy delicate structures too, like the archaeological artifacts that were scooped up by the U.S. military to fill sand-bags during the Iraq war.

Choosing huge, ugly, low-value materials for construction avoids those dangers.

Funny stuff. A product of the narrative of the day, and in less that 30 years its already changed. Of course there will be no nuclear waste in the future, that stuff is way to valuable as fuel in modern reactors.

Do the signs ever get to the point and say that it's about radioactivity?


The first written message a visitor to the site would encounter reads:



This message is to be rendered in seven different languages. Subsequent messages explain the situation in more detail.

Full report at [0] (PDF, 351 pages). According to the WIPP Wikipedia page [1] the final report is expected around 2028.

[0] http://prod.sandia.gov/techlib/access-control.cgi/1992/92138...

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waste_Isolation_Pilot_Plant

I feel that all warning are doomed. If we discovered some ancient site (let alone ancient alien site), each marking would prompt us to dig further and explore more.

No warning works (even if an explicit one), when met with a curious being. See: Eve and the Tree of Knowledge (from Genesis) or Pandora and her box.

And when the beings are not curious, it is unlikely that they would develop technology, or be tempted to new, alien places.

One clear problem with using A.D. (anno Domini) as measure for time elapsed, is that in 10,000 years Domini will no doubt be taken to mean either Bender Rodriguez or Donald Trump.

Seems like overkill. What's a few poisoned people in 12,000 years? I imagine that people dying around the site will be the most effective ward to keep others away.

  What's a few poisoned people in 12,000 years?
They're people, is the important point. If nothing else, this is about keeping a clean conscience, knowing that you did your best to save them.

...and success is measured in minimizing that number. The most effective way might be, to kill interlopers as immediately and unambiguously as possible. Not to attract pilgrims for centuries with mysterious messages and monoliths, who go home to die of unknown sores and blood problems.

> The most effective way might be, to kill interlopers as immediately and unambiguously as possible.

How would you make a system which could kill interlopers quickly and reliably 10,000 years from now?

Also, killing people is a great way to send the message that "something valuable is here."

> How would you make a system which could kill interlopers quickly and reliably 10,000 years from now?

1. Put the real stash of waste very, very deep underground.

2. Put a (much smaller) booby stash in a moderately innaccesible place above. People who make it this far should get the first symptoms within one hour and probably die painfully a few weeks later.

3. Leave smaller traces of the stuff laying around in the more accessible areas of the site. Ideally, it should not leak out and should not be easily removable by human means. However, the main goal is to have people getting sick by repeated exposure. Nothing that kills right away, but something that leads to reduced life span and/or quality of life.

> Also, killing people is a great way to send the message that "something valuable is here."

The point is not to issue any overt warning. People will be smart enough to create a story that fits the scenario. Instead of a fortress made to guard unfathomable riches with ancient evils, you want them to think of us like a bunch of idiots that messed with stuff they did not quite grasp and got Darwinized in the process. There will always be 3Ds jobs: dumb, dirty and dangerous. You masquarade as one of such places and people will not give it a second thought.

> 1. Put the real stash of waste very, very deep underground.

What exactly is the benefit of that?

If you're willing to poison people, just go ahead and poison them.

By the same logic, if you are going to bitch about whatever response you get, why botter asking in the first place?

Alternatively, you may want to fetch a dictionary and look up the meaning of word "tradeoff".

The actual dangerous material is going to be securely buried and contained. The threat model is people disturbing the site, breaking the containment, and releasing radioactive material. The resulting deaths are unlikely to fit the "immediate and unambiguous" profile. It might just slowly kill generations of people settling in the area. Or, it might get into the air and rapidly kill many more people than those nearby. Better to convince them to stay away.

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