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

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Obelisks and monuments such as the pyramids are usually constructed to honor a place or deed—a purpose hardly in line with directives to "Stay Away." Overstating the danger—the "Touch one stone and die" approach—has its own pitfalls.

"Inevitably, someone will investigate the site in a non-intrusive manner. Nothing will happen to the person, and the rest of the message will therefore be ignored," the teams of consultants concluded.

The same is true of efforts to try to scare people away; museums and private collections are full of the guardian figures ancient cultures designed—unsuccessfully—to keep thieves at bay.

Need to Last

Factors like these had to be weighed against a very practical consideration: any warning system structure would have to be built of materials that are extremely durable, even in highly fluctuating climate cycles, but not susceptible to recycling or valuable enough to draw the attention of thieves.

"We used the two-team approach to get some diversity of ideas," said Trauth. "What was interesting were the commonalities between the two teams. Both agreed on the need to use multiple levels of language, a diversity of communication methods, and multiple materials to convey the warning."

The DOE's development of a final design continues, but there's no big hurry.

"The [Carlsbad] site will be actively monitored for 100 years after it closes, which is projected to be in 2033," said Roger Nelson, chief scientist at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

A warning system would not be built until then, he explained, "so we have plenty of time to test new materials for durability, determine how to inscribe markers, and so on."

"There's even more time for Yucca," he added, suggesting that lessons could arise that would be helpful in setting up a warning system at the newly approved nuclear waste site.

Multiple Languages and Levels

Some of the conceptual designs the two teams considered—but did not recommend to DOE—were definitely designed to terrify potential intruders.

The current DOE design is considerably less dramatic. The nuclear waste burial site will be surrounded by an earth-and-boulder berm 33 feet (10 meters) high and close to 100 feet wide (30 meters).

Inside the berm will be granite monuments, markers, and an information center with messages ranging in complexity from, say, pictographs showing a screaming face to highly technical information.

The technical information will be written in seven languages—Navajo and the six official languages used by the United Nations: English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese, and Arabic. Navajo was included because it is the language of the largest indigenous group living in the region today.

The warning information will be duplicated in two rooms that will be buried beneath the ground—one inside the berm and the other outside of it—in case something happens to the above-ground structure.

Of course, no warning system will work against people determined to ignore the message.

"The warning system is designed to prevent someone from accidentally digging or drilling at the site," said Nelson. "The signs are for honest people. We cannot predict the cultural or societal setting 10,000 years from now, but we can predict human behavior.

"The only way to protect people who are dishonest," he said, "is to maintain an active presence—keep the area policed and fenced."

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