This Place is a Message: Linguistics and the Logistics of Nuclear Waste Disposal

Deep beneath the deserts of New Mexico, there is a repository of radioactive waste left over from researching and building nuclear weapons. This repository, called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), will, God and 19 billion dollars willing, store nuclear waste safely underground for the next ten thousand years.

When working out how to store nuclear waste safely for the next 10,000 years, language is a more crucial consideration than most people may think. Just for perspective, recall that 10,000 years ago, woolly mammoths were facing extinction, and known writing systems wouldn’t appear for another 5,000 years or so. If over the span of 10,000 years, humans went from no discernible writing systems, to simple pictographs, to the incredible plurality of ways we now communicate, imagine what changes another 10,000 years will bring to how we process and convey information.

A nuclear waste repository, as you may have guessed, has a lot of important information to convey. Most crucially, it has to tell people to stay away, or if they must enter, how to do so safely. In 2016, a simple multilanguage warning sign that says “DANGER – NUCLEAR WASTE STORED HERE. STAY OUT!” probably suffices; will it in 10,000 years?

A group of researchers brought in to consult the Department of Energy on the construction of WIPP grapple with this specific problem. How do you talk to people (or Klingons, for all we know) who may process and convey information in ways radically different from how we do today?

The researchers conceptualized their task as imparting multiple levels of information on future interlopers:

Something man-made is here.

The man-made thing here is dangerous.

The dangerous man-made thing is nuclear waste, which the US government buried 700 meters beneath this area in [YEAR].

From here on out, the information can become more complicated: charts, scientific reports, survey maps, et cetera.

In a way, we go through these multiple levels of information any time we interact with information of any sort. Let’s apply this system to a picture of the White House:

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

This is a building.

This building is very important and grand.

This building is very important and grand because it is where the President of the United States lives and works.

This building is called the White House, it was completed in 1800 and has been the residence of every US president since John Adams…

We might get to the third level or layer of information in a split second. Our brains can process all of those levels of information fairly quickly. This is because we have a wealth of cultural and historical resources to draw from when we decode what that picture is of and what both the picture and its subject might mean in a given context (and as I’ve hammered home on this blog repeatedly, context is everything).

The importance of context and culture in the levels of information we convey cannot be understated for warning signs. Take, for example, this symbol:

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

This container has something in it.

What is in this container is dangerous, perhaps something that could kill me.

The potentially deadly thing in this container is a poisonous chemical.

And so on.

That’s all well and good, but we run into a very big problem when we use this symbol. What if you saw this on a container:

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

This container has something in it.

What is in this container must be related to pirates.

The contents of this container are fun pirate-themed accoutrements.

Now, most people can glean from context whether or not the container they’re holding is sulfuric acid or a bottle of pirate rum (why is it always gone?), but this demonstrates how similar symbols can mean very different things.

When proposing plans for WIPP’s construction, researchers wanted to avoid this very problem. The main plan of attack was to find symbols that universally mean danger or something inhospitable and bad, and to make sure that the facility couldn’t be mistaken for something valuable, historically interesting (though it is a historically interesting space, just not in an 8th grade field trip hotspot sort of way), or inviting to explorers or looters.

To that end, the researchers discouraged using symbols that suggest fear, toughness, or awe, since those symbols haven’t discouraged humans from exploring and looting ancient sites.

“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…Such faces would relate to the potential intruder wishing to protect himself or herself, rather than to protect a valued resource from thievery.” (Sandia National Laboratories, 1993)

This design principle has also been applied to the poison warnings I mentioned earlier. Doctors at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center saw that the standard skull-and-crossbones warning did little to deter children from drinking or eating poisonous substances (especially in the home city of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team). With the help of child focus groups, UPMC developed Mr. Yuk, whose unappealing green color and disgusted facial expression may better convey the message “don’t eat this! It’s bad for you!” than a skull and crossbones.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

The warning symbols the WIPP researchers used were very similar to Mr. Yuk:

Photo credit: Department of Energy, Sandia National Laboratories

In both of these cases, we see how human facial expressions — more culturally universal than many “danger” symbols — can better convey danger and avoidance than “fearsome” symbols that can have dramatically different meanings and connotations in different contexts.

Besides warning messages, the researchers at Sandia National Laboratories brainstormed ways to use the architecture of the WIPP site to reinforce the verbal and graphic warnings. The researchers cautioned against using symmetrical forms or valuable, attractive materials, which can suggest commemoration or a hope that future generations would come to venerate, appreciate, or use the site, but they also stated that the site should be grand in scale and demonstrate vast human effort to construct it. When you looked at the picture of the White House and recognized that it was a very grand and important building, that was because it was large, well-maintained, and beautifully ornamented in the Georgian/Greek Revival style, topped with the national flag. Its size and workmanship say “I’m important to a lot of people! Look at me!” The WIPP site’s size and workmanship must say something similar, albeit in a very different context: “I’m here on purpose! I’m important! But stay far away!”

One of the researchers suggested a field of “thorns” or giant spikes covering the site, since those shapes, both in nature and in human cultures, suggest intimidation and danger — keep away from me. Plants have thorns to prevent animals from eating them. Many animals have spikes or quills for self-defense. Humans sometimes wear clothing or hairstyles with spiky or thorny motifs to suggest toughness and ferocity, deviation from social norms, or suffering (i.e. a crown of thorns).

The field of thorns and the other proposed designs all endeavor to convey at least the first two levels of information we’ve previously discussed:

Something man-made is here.

The man-made thing here is dangerous.

However, for a little more poetry, the proposed message to display and convey at the site best sums it up:

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.

The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.

(Sandia National Laboratories, 1993)

When we think and talk about language, we cannot overlook the role symbols and images play in communication, and how we translate images and emblems and concepts into words, emotions, or actions. Maybe 10,000 years from now, our words and symbols will be very different, though if all of our messages in stone and concrete fail to deter curious future earthlings, at least Keith Richards will be around to tell them to steer clear.


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