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Consider a wanderer 10,000 years in the future discovering a strange construction of granite thorns in the New Mexico desert, their points weathered by centuries, their shadows stretching at sinister angles. The wailing figure from Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream,” itself long ago turned to dust, appears on sporadic signs near these totems. It’s unclear for what this site was intended, or who created its menacing forms. On a wall, in several languages, maybe one of which the wanderer can decipher, are these words:
This place is not a place of honor.
No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.
Nothing valued is here.
This place is a message and part of a system of messages.
Pay attention to it!
Sending this message was important to us.
We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.
Would this vision strike fear into the visitor and keep them away, or would it spark curiosity? Would they start to dig and unearth barrel upon barrel of toxic nuclear waste, wrecking havoc on whatever civilization exists in this coming world?
The “Spike Field” and its ominous elements are from a 1992 report by Sandia National Laboratories for the US Department of Energy for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). The concepts are just part of ongoing semiotic studies to communicate across thousands of years that we in the 21st century have interred the hazardous byproducts of our nuclear power deep in the Earth. Observe, for instance, that the Incan Empire was disrupted by the Spanish in the 16th century, and already things like the khipu knot language are impossible to untangle. Warnings from the past have regularly gone unheeded, whether the tsunami tablets in Japan, or the rivers of mercury said to be entombed with the First Emperor of China.
Signage and cultural knowledge are secondary to the security of these deep geological repositories themselves; WIPP already had a radiation leak in 2014. Nevertheless, the disposal of nuclear waste is necessary, and below ground seems to be the consensus. Michael Stothard wrote a thorough article in the Financial Times this month focused on a new repository being constructed in France, which has 58 reactors. The idea is that once the facility in Bure is complete and full, it will be closed forever, and shouldn’t be accessed for 100,000 years. Modern Homo sapiens have only been prowling the planet for roughly 100,000 years, what will humans be like in the up to 100,000 years we hope to keep this waste buried (assuming we still exist)?
Andra, the French nuclear waste agency behind the project, opened an art competition last year to address this issue. You can explore the winners online, with the first prize going to Alexis Pandellé’s “Prométheé oublié” (“Forgotten Prometheus”). It’s basically a scar on the ground, a land art suggestion of a wound that will never heal. It was joined in second place by a forest of genetically modified trees that would grow an uncanny blue by Stéfane Perraud and Aram Kebabdjian, and in third place Rossella Cecili’s children’s song that would perpetuate the warning about the site through an oral tradition.
It’s clear that no sign or sculpture can be counted on to survive, there has to be something in the landscape or community to keep this knowledge alive. French director Benjamin Huguet recently made a short documentary shared on Aeon about the “ray-cat solution” proposed by Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri in the 1980s. The seemingly whimsical idea is that people love cats, and have kept them around for centuries, so what if cats were genetically modified to change colors when they were near radioactivity? Huguet talked to Fabbri and Matthew Kielty who worked on a story for the 99% Invisible podcast involving the cat idea, which caused exactly the kind of pop culture enthusiasm it would take for the myth to endure, with t-shirts and folk songs (except we don’t have the cats).
WIPP’s disposal phase is estimated to end in 2035, at which point it will need a decision on its designs, which isn’t that long in the scope of these projects. Other countries are working on their own repositories. The Onkalo spent nuclear fuel repository (explored in the 2009 documentary Into Eternity by Michael Madsen) is being built below Finland; the Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory is underway below Sweden. Although the thought of so much nuclear waste going into the planet is terrifying, any communication about that danger will need more than fear for its longevity. As the 1992 Sandia National Laboratories team concluded a “marker system should be chosen that instills awe, pride, and admiration,” as only those sentiments will assure any memory survives.