Nuclear Waste Site Managers Seek "Keep Out" Tactics Good for 10,000 Years

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
July 11, 2002

The Senate vote earlier this week to authorize Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the permanent repository for at least 77,000 tons of nuclear waste will trigger a license application and approval process that is likely to take several years.

One requirement in the approval process likely to be imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be the development of a warning system to alert people living 10,000 years from now of the dangers associated with the lethally radioactive nuclear waste dumps created in the early 21st century.

Designing a "Keep Out" sign that lasts for 10,000 years and still holds meaning is not an easy task.

After all, about 10,000 years ago, the Sahara was a fertile savanna, and humans were just beginning to put down their spears and figure out how to grow food. Ten thousand years from now, Earth could conceivably be populated by extraterrestrials.

In a clever bit of reverse archaeology, the U.S. Department of Energy has consulted futurists, archaeologists, materials scientists, astronomers, and others for the past decade to develop a long-term warning plan for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

Protecting Future Generations

The DOE began by forming two teams of experts in the early 1990s. They were given the task of coming up with a conceptual design for the warning system [see sidebar].

"The biggest obstacle the teams faced was the fact that you never know what the future will bring," said Kathleen Trauth, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Missouri–Columbia and lead author of the teams' final report submitted to the DOE in 1996.

The teams got some clues to the difficulties they faced in creating warning systems as they studied ancient monuments such as Stonehenge, the obelisks of the Aztecs, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Native American pictographs, and a wealth of other artifacts from ancient cultures.

Just to begin with, the occupants of Earth 10,000 years from now might not speak or even know of any of the languages spoken today.

Continued on Next Page >>


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