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Long time nuclear waste warning messages (wikipedia.org)
65 points by rolph on Aug 5, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 42 comments

>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 was dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger. The danger is in a particular location... it increases towards 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. The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.

Thought experiment, suppose in a remote part of the world, someone comes across a site with this exact message tomorrow and tweets it. What is the most likely scenario:

A) People heed the message and avoid the area.


B) The place is overwhelmed with people trying to find some hidden treasure or have alien encounters, etc.

I would argue that scenario B, is much, much more likely.

For better or worse, curiosity especially about forbidden stuff has been a hallmark of humanity, and likely will be so into the future. All this sign will do is encourage people to come and try to find the treasure and the mysterious source of power.

I wonder if it wouldn't be more helpful to try and design a Geiger counter that could last 10,000 years. I'm picturing a ring of large obelisks made out of some radio luminescent material. Actually it would probably be better if it changed between ugly colors rather than glowed. If it's pretty people would demolish it before the ribbon is cut.

Have all your pictograms try and communicate that some color = you're going to die, as well as "If you move much beyond this point, you're going to die _fast_."

Here's the important, albeit macabre part: After about 100 meters towards the center of the exclusion zone, you need to store enough radioactive material, preferably near Geiger obelisks, that going there will kill you _very_ quickly, for 1000's of years. Quicker the better. People need to associate the deaths with the area!

I assert that when 50% of people get cancer a month after entering a dump zone, it's hard to associate those illnesses with the cursed area until a lot of people are doomed. If 3 people go somewhere and none return, it becomes part of local lore.

> After about 100 meters towards the center of the exclusion zone, you need to store enough radioactive material, preferably near Geiger obelisks, that going there will kill you _very_ quickly, for 1000's of years. Quicker the better. People need to associate the deaths with the area!

Interesting idea, but people will gather radioactive material to prepare the suicidal attack. The cursed area therefore needs to be able to kill people without an ability to move the curse out of it by itself.

> I wonder if it wouldn't be more helpful to try and design a Geiger counter that could last 10,000 years.

You'd also need to design signage/language to last and transcend those same 10K years to indicate what that constant "blip blip blip" means.

That's what the bodies are for

I don’t see that as such a risk. Humans evolved in an environment full of deadly things. Sure enough, people died when they were the unlucky first to try something deadly. We’re talking about static hazards that don’t move suddenly to bite people, play possum, or even have attractive aspects like good smells or colors (other than sometimes being warmer than the surrounding area). People will figure it out and leave these places alone, or they’ll die and the survivors will flea.

Google "Siberian Maldives" and you'll see just how devolved humans seem to be these days. Granted, "kids these days" have always been a bit daft, but the race to the bottom is really picking up speed.

You're probably being downvoted because your "humans are devolving" meme is 1) entirely unsubstantiated, and 2) quite dangerous, since it asserts an existential threat that would justify horrifying eugenics measures to avert.

Not to mention that it's typically an annoying ego-wank, since the people asserting it never seem to include themselves in the purported devolution...

Their point is also not related to my point. People are attracted to the dangerous chemical pool because the idiots that emplaced it let it look like a tourist destination. That’s not going to be the case with a nuclear site unless you assume pathological behavior.

There's an opposite line of logic to the disposal of nuclear waste that projects such as these don't seriously consider:

Bury it in such a way that any hypothetical future primitive neo-civilisation can't detect it and can't dig it up - for better or for worse.

Instead of drawing attention to the dump of strange rocks that make neolithic humans sick, why not make it so unobtrusive that any enterprising future miners don't discover the waste dump in the first place?

We have the technology to survey geological formations for exploitable minerals. Why not instead survey for both the lack of exploitable minerals AND a long-term stable environment, then bury the small volume of high-reactivity waste that we've produced so far in a tiny shaft with a tortuous access route?

It's a lot easier to get humans to ignore something for 10,000 years than to make them pay attention to a warning sign.

"tortuous access route"

There has to be treasure down here look at the ways they are trying to prevent us from finding it. We've got to dig this up. - future me

Just bury it deep and seal the doors. If they have the tools to open it up or dig it out they should be able handle it.

Also why do all these people think a) that we are around in 10.000 years or b) we are tribal people at this point?

If we aren't around there is no problem. If we are around and have continued historical records of the waste dump areas there is no problem. The core problem is if we are still around but there has been a big disruption in technology and bookkeeping.

Sounds like we need a distributed Ledger, a Chain of Blocks do to speak. Like Stone Hedge.

If you have a facility there to dig and store the materials, it will run for decades and will be documented and archived somewhere. Someone will eventually find out about it.

Watch "Into Eternity", it talks a lot about that. The plan for Onkalo (Finland) is to use both : the caves will be sealed and hidden, but they will also place warnings inside.

Don't see any way of succeeding at graphic representation of a silent, invisible, eventually deadly emanation.

Too much left-brain in most tries. The modern 'biohazard' symbol is not scary... nor is the ISO radiation sign. 'Skull and bones' is moreso.

Many old Hollywood films kept it simple with warning messages posted around territories ... heads on pikes, hanging skulls, that sort of thing. They say 'Enter here and you will likely die' pretty effectively.

Even George Pal's morlocks were scarier than that ISO sign. Looks like an ad for sunblock.

I was just having the discussion with my students when discussing icon designs. As a kid I always thought the radiation sign was a fan; was mildly confused by suburbs/towns which had anti-nuclear signs up - what does this place have against fans?

And reading this https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hazard_symbol it seems that the skull and crossbones is now enticing to kids because pirates! Gah.

Also, the biohazard symbol was designed to be memorable but meaningless so people could be educated.

Indeed, it seems like the biohazard sign could be interpreted as a symbol for the sun with a naked man running from it.

Maybe the primitive people back then were getting cooked to death from standing under the sun too long? Good thing we have clothes nowadays.

We only have to build a permanent waste site that’s beyond the capability to dig of a pre-Geiger counter society. So long as they can detect the radiation (know what it is and what it presents) they will avoid it. No need for Super-Sanskrit.

There was an article on this on WIPP's own website -- great read. It appears to have been taken down, but here's a snapshot:


The documentary mentioned at the bottom, "Into Eternity" is definitely worth a watch, it's fascinating.

There is another documentary called Containment by historian of science Peter Galison: https://vimeo.com/124451868.

It's interesting how, when communicating with hypothetical future people in written form, we have to choose language we have the best hope of them understanding. A center of emanating energy that is dangerous to the body and kills.

Really makes you empathize with religious writers trying to communicate often second hand divine truths that people thousands of years later will have to figure out without the understanding the original prophet had.

Honestly, the language they have the best hope of understanding is... English! English is, for better or worse, the working language of much of the world (particularly in business, diplomacy, and technology), even if it is not a native language, and there's no language that seems poised to replace it in this regard. Even if English is somehow lost, there is a plethora of bilingual inscriptions that could serve as potential Rosetta stones.

Of course, the real problem with this endeavor is that human nature is going to be that explorers ignorant of The Old World will happily ignore any signs saying "Danger! Keep Out! We Really Mean It! This Will Kill You (Slowly)!" looking for treasure. That's exactly what happened with the pyramids--they were looted within a few centuries of being constructed. If humanity regresses to a point that they don't understand radiation poisoning, they are not going to be stopped by even the clearest explanation of what will befall them because they won't believe it.

It's fun to think of other ways one might interpret the sign in the article's main photo if social convention changed enough it wasn't obvious.

A machine that can reanimate the dead perhaps? Energy that can turn bones into a living person?

Seems like they are trying too hard, and actually made the message more cryptic than it needs to be.

Why not say "nuclear" or "radiation"? It seems very unlikely that the entire species will completely forget about the concept of nuclear radiation.

This exercise is more talking to ourselves than the future. It is a sort of design fiction[1], attempting to cope with the concept of consequences that last much longer than the initiating actors' whole civilization.

That it isn't fiction is what gives it salience, and the requisite paternalistic 'talking down' to a pre-technical future aspect provides emotional and/or moralistic flavor, if you like that sort of thing.

Eventually, it turns into bike-shedding scary apocalyptic artworks.

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

Also on point, if they have forgotten about the concept of nuclear radiation then discovering a nuclear waste dump will be a massive boon and cause for celebration. When we zoom out enough to see entire civilisations at once, a few people dying just isn't an issue; it is routine. We try our best to keep everyone healthy, but at the end of the day the benefits of progress outway handfuls of dead astronauts, scientists, explorers and early colonists.

We don't sit around moping that Marie Curie & co died doing research, everyone involved gets recognised for helping to usher in a new age of scientific progress.

This is HN and nuclear energy byproduct. There is no danger to worry about. Future cave men are more likely to die cutting themselves on discarded solar panels in landfills!

People from a few 100 years ago would not know what that means, even if they were capable of reading modern english.

The message seems overly apologetic, unnecessarily long and non-technical. Almost makes you curious to see what the danger really is...

This reminded me of "Canticles for Leibowitz", a book centered on a group of monks living in the American southwest, whose objective in life is the preservation of "pre-deluge" (the book was published in 1959) knowledge, to the extent that any survived. Super interesting with some fun implicit parallels to "legacy code" ;)

In one scene, a character is ruminating on what the mysterious "Fallout" might be, that their ancestors were trying so desperately to take shelter from. He pictured it as a towering monster, that prowled around hunting for people to eat.

It's a fun thought to imagine what people will think of these warning signs in 5000 years, assuming there are still people left!

I wonder who the primary audience is intended to be? I would think future societies at the point these sites could be lost (thousands of years per the article's suggested readability) to common knowledge would have tech to scan/detect such sites. Though its always possible for things to regress as a result of some disaster.

Post WWIII may certainly be regressed considering the multiple orders of magnitude more destructive firepower we built up in the Cold War. As Albert Einstein (allegedly) said: "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."

The only use-case I can think of that isn't covered by either signage or words is discouraging its utility as a weapon.

e.g. "There's something deadly buried here? Neat, I'll dig it up and throw it at my enemies!"

Perhaps they'd consider it covered by saying "nothing of value is here"...?

"Nothing of value is here so please leave this place uninhabited and do not disturb it" sounds kinda suspicious if you ask me.

Fun fact: during the Battle of the Bulge, some of the Manhattan Project scientists discussed dropping the radioactive Hanford waste just produced (as a byproduct to plutonium production) in the path of the Nazi tanks.

Many Gen IV nuclear designs can use the 10K year waste fuel and turn it into 300 year waste. If you believe climate change is killing us, this is the answer. If you don't believe that but believe clean, free electricity in abundance is best for a developing world, then this is also the answer.

I'm the biggest proponent of Gen IV nuclear. But believe me that the level of partitioning and transmutation required to get to 300 year waste requires reprocessing processes of a sophistication that are contrary to the concept of "free" anything. In fact, there's SO much nuclear fuel on Earth and in the seawater, and seawater uranium extraction is getting cheap enough that it's now reasonable to envision world-scale nuclear fission without heavy reprocessing. Deep burn/modified once-through cycles or limited recycling can get you really far with this kind of resource.

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