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This place is not a place of honor (energy.gov)
71 points by carbocation on Sept 10, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 36 comments

Previous discussion a year ago (280 comments):


Submitted a couple other times in the past as well, just not as much discussion:


This whole thing is an offshoot of antinuclear FUD. If civilization collapses to the point where people no longer realize that radiation is dangerous, then so many people have already died that a few more people dying early from radiation is just background noise.

In addition, knowing human nature and our propensity for conspiracy theories, there will be people in the future who think all those signs were put there to dissuade people from finding a massive buried treasure. (After all, the phrasing is pretty much what you would expect if someone had buried a treasure and wanted to make scare people from digging for it.

A lot of people now don't realise that radiation is dangerous. There have been several mass-casualty incidents caused by radioactive materials turning up at scrapyards in developing countries. The people involved just didn't make the connection between a weird-looking piece of metal and becoming incredibly sick. Figuring out how to correctly store and label radioactive materials is far from hypothetical.

There are numerous long-term risks that don't involve the collapse of civilisation. The use of radioactive materials might become largely obsolete and the knowledge of it might become obscure trivia; such a society would have little awareness of the risks of radiation and very limited skills, equipment and infrastructure to deal with it. Geopolitical changes might put the nuclear waste site within the territory of an isolationist theocracy that rejects modern science. Changes in language might mean that the risks of radiation are fully understood, but the words and symbols we use to mark it might be incomprehensible.

Data rots with remarkable speed if it isn't maintained with constant vigilance. It's fairly common for construction crews to accidentally dig into an old sewer or an electrical conduit because records weren't properly maintained. Non-trivial quantities of radioactive materials have been lost due to accidents and administrative errors. Russia lost track of dozens of nuclear warheads and vast quantities of fissile material after the fall of the Soviet Union. Over a timescale of centuries or millennia, it's entirely conceivable that the location of a major nuclear waste site could be completely forgotten.

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

The first instance was caused by cobalt-60 which was medical grade. 3 people total died. Cobalt-60 has a half live of roughly 5 years. So in 100 years, it will have gone through about 20 half-lives and be about a million times less radioactive. In a thousand years, it will have gone through about 200 half-lives and pretty much safe to eat every day.

Even in both the cases mentioned, less than 10 total people died. Even without any signs, people living near it will most likely quickly develop taboos about the site.

Fewer than ten, and they say mass-casualty. Radiation isn't safe, but it isn't nearly as harmful as some people make it out to be - as I'm sure you know.

Radiation has the worst PR department, ever. It is 2017 and we still have people railing against nuclear energy.



I'm in favor of atomic power but never dismissive of safety.

"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"

They were tasked with making signs that would be deciferable for the entire time the site was hot-something like 10000 then later 100000 years. Let's see you do better.

I think his proposal was to do nothing, since if the signs were ever needed we'd have bigger problems. Whether that's better is arguable.

One possible scenario where it's forgotten about does not mean there aren't others. Maybe the files for the site die a beurocratic death and 9000 years later there aren't any records available regarding the site.

Now, one possible alternative would be to incorporate some of the waste into a monolith. People may not be able to decipher or heed warnings but they will probably avoid the thing that kills them. (Probably wouldn't make it past the ERB though)

I think the premise is that Geiger counters would be ubiquitous in pretty much every scenario except the catastrophic destruction of civilization. Radiation itself is its own warning sign if you are sufficiently advanced technologically.

As far as I am aware, we don't routinely check archeological sites with a Geiger counter before digging.

You would be surprised at how closely the US is monitored with radiation detectors. There's been more than a few false alarms with pets undergoing cancer treatment for example [1].

I wouldn't be surprised if nearly every square mile of the US was closely monitored now, let alone in a thousand years.

> “Vehicle goes by at 70 miles per hour,” Giuliano told the crowd. “Agent is in the median, a good 80 feet away from the traffic. Signal went off and identified an isotope [in the passing car].”

> “Turned out to be a cat with cancer that had undergone a radiological treatment three days earlier,” Giuliano said.

[1] http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/watch-out-youre-bei...

I had no idea. I wonder if they've ever actually stopped a nuclear threat. On the one hand, it's reassuring to know things are that closely monitored that could kill millions. On the other, who knows what other forms of monitoring are in-use.

Not many of today's archealogical sites come from civilizations that used nuclear power.

That we know of.

More seriously, the danger is that we move beyond nuclear fission power and eventually forget it was ever used.

That monolith, the remarkable and striking "Monstrance for a Gray Horse"[0], was built in the 1990s by the artist/nuclear engineer James Acord [1]. He and his work got quite a bit of press attention then [2], including a long story in the New Yorker.

0. https://c2.staticflickr.com/6/5002/5348845141_a13a254968.jpg

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Acord

2. http://o.seattletimes.nwsource.com/pacificnw/2001/0114/cover...

I'd just draw something in similar vein to this and call it a day:


after 10k years in the sun and elements those images might be etched and indecipherable. Or maybe they see it and think it'll make the sick well again. We are still plagued by homeopathy, after all.

I don't know why they didn't do that exactly. I'm imaging there was some reason though.

>Or maybe they see it and think it'll make the sick well again.

I actually thought about that possibility. Figuring civilization will have collapsed several times, there's a good chance most people could look quite disfigured. I mean, post-apocalyptic wastelands can be harsh. At a minimum nobody will be exfoliating on a regular basis.

Then, if the meaning of certain common symbology happens to be reversed (e.g. arrows pointing away from the subject of interest), that's all it would take to mistake that image as marking the location of a miracle cure—a radioactive fountain of youth.

One possible solution is to show a longer timeline in the pictograms establishing what order to read them in. E.g show a child growing into an adult, approaching the site, and then falling down in agony and dying.

Regardless of how you read things you'd put those in the correct order since I'm fairly certain that the direction of time won't have reversed by then. It also avoids flipped meanings of glyphs like arrows.

Exactly, you need to rely on universal truths rather than symbols. The article has an example very similar to yours. They picture a man next to a small tree when he is exposed to the radiation, and then collapsed in agony next to a larger version of the same tree.

They additionally convey a "contamination" of radioactivity that stays with the man over time.


Didn't they try that with the pyramids and people in fact found massive treasure there?

No, this goes far beyond the attractive nuisance of "Keep Out" signs. Pyramids use completely opposite elements: "look how symmetrical and perfect this thing is, as a site of great honor." The article mentions the exact opposite: "the builders of this place evidently knew of symmetry and importance of center and craftsmanship - but then went and made an exact opposite of it."

I'm reminded of Japanese tsunami stones: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/21/world/asia/21stones.html

They are markers hundreds of years old warning future villagers not to build below certain points (high-water marks for past tsunamis). In some locations they are still respected today.

Seen that piece before.

Here's the marker at the SL-1 reactor burial site.[1] This already looks dated, and it's only a few decades old. (It's not from 1961; it's from a later secondary cleanup.) The skull and crossbones is no longer used much for hazardous materials, and might be misread as a warning of chemically toxic waste. The road sign for "no pedestrians" is not really appropriate. The abstract radiation trefoil is only meaningful if you know what it means.

[1] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/96/SL...

One thing that appears not to have been considered is allowing a small amount of dangerous material to be uncovered in each major attempt to access the site. This would be a brutal way to limit the damage from repeated treasure hunts, but it would prevent someone from drilling into the whole cache and killing vast numbers of innocents.

Curse of the ancient tombs of X...

The link title should have a [1992] annotation.

Interesting how mobile-friendly sites from 25 years ago are.

I think it's worth adding a max width, it makes the columns easier to read if they're not too long. Other than that, it's pretty great.

Back in my day we didn't have bandwidth for your fancy js libraries and we were better off! /s

I still think the best way is to dig deep and pad it densely with filler material. The point is, for the future civilization to be able to reach the material, it would need to develop to the level of middle-XX-century technology, at which point they'd most likely be able to handle the waste.

This reminds me of the excellent Finnish documentary "Into Eternity" which treads into the same territory and takes a few steps further.

How do you communicate with a civilization that has no ties with to the current one?

I feel it would be very worthwhile to add a second set of signs/materials that assumes whomever is reading them has at least some level of scientific proficiency.

Should have stages. First room myhical connotations. Second puctogram of radiation. Third atomic elements drawn. Fourth a well preserved (albeit powered off) geiger counter to reverse engineer, fifth the element stored in a case with more warnings and a dot notation trying to relate the box content with the actual stored quantity

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