Long-time nuclear waste warning messages

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Proposed pictogram warning of the dangers of buried nuclear waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

Long-time nuclear waste warning messages are intended to deter human intrusion at nuclear waste repositories in the far future, within or above the order of magnitude of 10,000 years. Nuclear semiotics is an interdisciplinary field of research, first done by the Human Interference Task Force in 1981.

A 1993 report from Sandia National Laboratories recommended that any such message should comprise four levels of increasing complexity:[1]

  • Level I: Rudimentary Information: "Something man-made is here"
  • Level II: Cautionary Information: "Something man-made is here and it is dangerous"
  • Level III: Basic Information: Tells what, why, when, where, who, and how
  • Level IV: Complex Information: Highly detailed written records, tables, figures, graphs, maps and diagrams


The Sandia report aimed to communicate a series of messages non-linguistically to any future visitors to a waste site. It gave the following wording as an example of what those messages should evoke:[1]

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 was dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.

The danger is in a particular location... it increases towards 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.

Written messages[edit]

Proposed design for "small subsurface markers" to be buried randomly in great numbers across the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant has done extensive research in development of written or pictorial messages to warn future generations. Since today's written languages are unlikely to survive,[2] the research team has considered pictograms and hostile architecture in addition to them.[1] Texts were proposed to be translated to every UN written language. In 1994, Level II, III, and IV messages in English were translated into French, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Russian, and Navajo, with plans to continue testing and revision of the original English text and subsequent eventual translation into further languages.[3]

Design for an information center at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

Conceptual designs for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant included an "Information Center" at the geometric center of the site. The building would be an open structure of solid granite or concrete, measuring 40 by 32 by 10 feet (12.2 m × 9.8 m × 3.0 m), and contain Level IV messages. The plans included a suggestion that the building be designed so as to create a distinctive whistling sound when wind blew through it, drawing attention to itself.[1]

Working as part of the Human Interference Task Force in 1981, Vilmos Voigt from Eötvös-Loránd University (Budapest) proposed the installation of warning signs in the most important global languages in a concentric pattern around any terminal storage location.[4] As time passed, further signs would be added translating the earlier signs, with the earlier ones remaining in place.

Physical markers[edit]

The Sandia report explored designs for physical markers which conveyed the concepts of dangerous emanations, shapes that evoke bodily harm, and the concept of "shunned land" that appears destroyed or poisoned.[1] The designs suggested included:

Landscape of Thorns
A mass of many irregularly-sized spikes protruding from the ground in all directions.
Spike Field
A series of extremely large spikes emerging from the ground at different angles.
Spikes Bursting Through Grid
A large square grid pattern across the site, through which large spikes protrude at various angles.
Menacing Earthworks
Large mounds of earth shaped like lightning bolts, emanating from the edges of a square site. The shapes would be strikingly visible from the air, or from artificial hills constructed around the site.
Black Hole
An enormous slab of basalt or black-dyed concrete, rendering the land uninhabitable and unfarmable.
Rubble Landscape
A large square-shaped pile of dynamited rock, which over time would still appear anomalous and give a sense of something having been destroyed.
Forbidding Blocks
A network of hundreds of house-sized stone blocks, dyed black and arranged in an irregular square grid, suggesting a network of "streets" which feel ominous and lead nowhere. The blocks are intended to make a large area entirely unsuitable for farming or other future use.

Cultural memory[edit]

Linguist Thomas Sebeok, building on earlier work by Alvin Weinberg and Arsen Darnay and working as part of the Human Interference Task Force, proposed the creation of an atomic priesthood, a panel of experts comparable to the Catholic church, which has preserved and authorized its message for almost 2,000 years. The priesthood would preserve the knowledge of radioactive waste's locations and dangers through rituals and myths.[5][6][7]

French author Françoise Bastide and Italian semiotician Paolo Fabbri proposed that domestic cats be genetically engineered to change color in the presence of dangerous levels of radiation. The significance of these "radiation cats" or "ray cats" would be reinforced through fairy tales and myths, the story being that one should move away from sites where such creatures are encountered, or where domesticated cats begin to exhibit such behaviour.[8][9][10][11] In 2014, musician Emperor X wrote such a song called "Don't Change Color, Kitty", designed to be "so catchy and annoying that it might be handed down from generation to generation over a span of 10,000 years".[12][13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Trauth, K.M.; Hora, S.C.; Guzowski, R.V. (1 November 1993). "Expert judgment on markers to deter inadvertent human intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant". Sandia National Labs., Albuquerque, NM (United States). doi:10.2172/10117359. OSTI 10117359. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  2. ^ Beauchamp, Scott (2015-02-24). "How to Send a Message 1,000 Years to the Future". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2019-12-20.
  3. ^ "Permanent Markers Implementation Plan" (PDF). 2004-08-19. Retrieved 2021-02-02.
  4. ^ Voigt, Vilmos (1984). "Konzentrisch angeordnete Warntafeln in zunehmend neueren Sprachformen" [Concentrically arranged warning signs in increasingly newer language forms]. Zeitschrift für Semiotik (in German). Berlin: Deutschen Gesellschaft für Semiotik. 6 (3). ISSN 0170-6241.
  5. ^ Thomas A. Sebeok, "Pandora’s Box in Aftertimes" in I think I am a verb : more contributions to the doctrine of signs, Springer, 1986, pp. 149-173.
  6. ^ Sebeok, Thomas (1984). "Die Büchse der Pandora und ihre Sicherung: Ein Relaissystem in der Obhut einer Atompriesterschaft" [Pandora's box and its protection: A relay system in the care of an atom priesthood]. Zeitschrift für Semiotik (in German). Berlin: Deutschen Gesellschaft für Semiotik. 6 (3). ISSN 0170-6241.
  7. ^ "Pandora's Box: How and Why to Communicate 10,000 Years into the Future". www.mat.ucsb.edu.
  8. ^ Bastide, Françoise; Fabbri, Paolo (1984). "Lebende Detektoren und komplementäre Zeichen: Katzen, Augen und Sirenen" [Living detectors and complementary signs: Cats, eyes and sirens]. Zeitschrift für Semiotik (in German). Berlin: Deutschen Gesellschaft für Semiotik. 6 (3). ISSN 0170-6241.
  9. ^ Kaufman, Rachel (2011). "Ray Cats, Artificial Moons and the Atomic Priesthood: How the Government Plans to Protect Our Nuclear Waste". Mental Floss. Retrieved 2016-04-21.
  10. ^ "Ray Cat Solution". 10,000. Retrieved 2016-04-21.
  11. ^ Schwartz, Ariel (August 16, 2015). "Color-changing cats were once part of a US government plan to protect humankind". Tech Insider. Retrieved 2016-04-21.
  12. ^ "Raycats and earworms: How scientists are using colour-changing cats and nursery rhymes to warn future generations of nuclear danger". CityAM. 24 November 2014. Retrieved 7 November 2020.
  13. ^ "10,000 year earworm to discourage settlement near nuclear waste repositories". Bandcamp. 2014-05-12. Retrieved 2020-11-07.

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