Imagine a time capsule that you’re sealing away, but instead of planning to open it in a decade or two, you want it to stay closed for 1,000 decades. And, instead of being filled with mementos, pictures, and audio recordings, it’s literally filled with tons of radioactive material waste, irradiated clothing, trash, and other ‘hot’ materials.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico is going to be sealed in 2038, where the massive amount of radioactive and hot material will be stored for 10,000 years. Carved out of a salt mine that was formed over 250 million years ago, the region was selected for both its isolation and relatively stable geology.
The research was undertaken by a variety of scientists from many different fields to examine potential ways to keep the vault sealed. The plant is very real and currently being filled with material, but the final design is still being decided.
The waste will be kept in a vault 2,000 feet below the ground and sealed in concrete to prevent accidental exposure. Scientists agree (at least for now) that concrete will not impede construction plans in the future, but 10,000 years isn’t an easy timeline to imagine for civilizations. So a more daunting problem arises: maintaining a warning that translates for centuries to come.
The proposed sign:
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.
Will it be legible even in 3,000 years when western civilization could be as ancient as the Pharaohs are to us?
After all, the Giza Necropolis has certainly done a great job at inviting people inside, despite decoy rooms, and other looting security measures. Historical documentation can help, if we still have the technology to reference it in the future. A reconstruction similar to Google’s Ancient Places GIS maps could help create context for the geographical location and historical reasons for creating the facility in the first place.
Now, add another 7,000 years and you can start to see the problem. How do you create something that will say, “there’s something here,” and also, “don’t come inside, we swear”, especially when we consider how much language has changed in even the last 5,000 years; the differences are stark.
Without future knowledge, the next best thing is to examine the past and reflect on other messages that either warn or invite people of different cultures. What kind of signs can be understood beyond cultural limits? To examine cross-cultural significance, what importance do we place on how signs and tombs are constructed?
Overall, the consensus was that if a system of warnings or signs was used, it would have to be very broad and specific, and redundant. Redundancy would help fill context if some signs were lost to time, and broader warnings would be easier to translate, versus the more specific ones. Ideally, the warnings wouldn’t overstate the danger to avoid losing credibility or meaning.
Additionally, besides signage, the site would be disturbed in a way to discourage people from settling or using the land. This is easy to realize why: what if a large city was erected over the waste and not discovered for several thousand years? It’d be catastrophic. A system has to be in place to at least attempt to deter it.
If any of the proposed marking systems, which include the site-wide geographic monuments that would be built alongside the signs, were utilized, the ensuing project would be one of the largest civil engineering projects ever undertaken.
One example refers to creating an oppressive environment. The land would be raised on blocks of dirt or black concrete, with rubble scattered throughout. The blocks would be narrow, several inches high, and grow incredibly hot under the desert sun. Another option discusses the possibility of creating large berms shaped like bolts that would radiate out from the central keep, surrounding the location with about 20 to 30 berms.
Compare the amount of earth moved with the construction of the Panama Canal: 72.6 million cubic meters. A single raised plane, or berm, 35 meters by 15 meters would require 12 million cubic meters of earth to be moved and placed. That’s for a single aspect of the construction; the final number of berms would most likely be in the high 20s, or about 300 million tons of earth.
Another comparison brings back the Great Pyramid of Giza. The mass of which is about 5.3 million tons, making the scope of the WIPP facility almost incomprehensible in comparison.
The researcher examined the use and abuse of markers from ancient history, discussing the fact that all Pyramids have been robbed, and looked to see how they might overcome human curiosity by creating cross-cultural signs to encourage people to stay away and not dig.
Among the design considerations is the cultural relevance in ancient and historical sites. Tombs or sites of worship are often centered, to elevate their importance. Additionally, the constructions are often beautiful, or symmetrical, in order to convey that they were placed deliberately. A similar system would have to be examined, but with purposeful destruction: a centralized site couldn’t have symmetrical shapes, and it must be built in a way that conveys its incongruous construction as intentional.
The researchers go on to say, “For human beginnings, making a center (“here we are”) is the first act of marking order (Cosmos) out of undifferentiation[sic] (Chaos). All further meanings of “center” derive from this original positive valence. The meanings of “center” have always been as a highly valued place or a gathering place . . . the holy of holies; the statue centered within the temple, itself centered within the settlement; the dancing ground; the sacred place as the physical and spiritual center of a people, etc.”
The proposal goes on to discuss the inversion of that ideal. “In this project, we want to invert this symbolic meaning, to suggest that the center is not a place of privilege, or honor, or value, but it’s opposite. In symbolic terms, we suggest that the largest portion of the Keep, its center, be left open, and few (if any) structures placed there, so that symbolically it is: uninhabited, shunned, a void, a hole, a non-place.”
Some of the final conclusions are regretful, that we might not be able to ever establish or build a structure that could keep people out for 10,000 years, or at least, warn them that they should stay out. Without knowing what future generations will understand or how they will behave, we can only hope and guess that we did our best. In a worst case scenario, if the waste is uncovered and causes harm, then it will quickly be neutralized and discarded.
This (non)space might exist as a testament, and perhaps the only evidence, of how advanced we became in our modern time. And however negative the connotations this symbol exudes about our impact on the world, it should speak to us now and inform our understanding of progress and the many responsibilities we must account for in contrast to such ideas of forward movement.
Words by Edwin Henry