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Future Signs
Hazard symbol

Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art is challenging artists to design a universal warning sign that will deter our many-times-great-grandchildren from entering a nuclear waste dump site.

How do you create a warning system to prevent an accidental unearthing of 200 million pounds of radioactive nuclear waste? A simple sign, some chain link and a military post, might work today. But what about 10,000 years from now? In 2002 the U.S. Department of Energy brought together engineers, archaeologists, anthropologists and linguists and asked them this question. What type of warning system can be put in place so people, 370 generations from now, won’t open the glowing door?

What they came up with is hardly inspiring: a large earthen mound with a salt core and two identical Dr. Strangelove-esque control rooms with a warning message written in the six official languages of the U.N. and Navajo. Construction of this Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is scheduled to begin in less than three years.

What if an artist designed the system?

Of course, “architects, cartoonists, computer engineers, graphic designers and scientists” can also submit proposals.

There was a similar competition held years ago. The project site was the (now cancelled) nuclear waste depository at Yucca Mountain. Of the proposals, we wrote that none of them will keep people away.

Build a field of menacing concrete spikes, and it becomes a popular destination. CLUI will send busloads of tourists.

What should be done in the intervening thousands of year is to develop an anti-radiation pill or the fast-acting anti-tumor pill, so that with these miraculous medical breakthroughs, future travelers will go on so-called radiation tours.

As you walk through the excavated labyrinth of Yucca Mountain, you become listless, nauseous. Going deeper and deeper into the caverns — damp, mildewed surfaces; stale air; pyramids of light falling heavily on your weakening body — you begin to have what will become the worst migraine of your life.

Then your hair falls off.

Others in your group had taken a different path and are now suffering from beta burns. Still others, on a different scenic route, are vomiting every few steps, their nose bleeding.

But obviously, all is well; you've taken the pills. Radiation poisoning is as safe as a Disney ride or a stroll through the park.

As a souvenir you can buy a wig at the gift shop.

It's the national park of the future.

  • Anonymous
  • September 2, 2009 at 7:23:00 PM CDT
  • Sure a bunch of spikes coming out of the ground might seem intimidating, but it's also interesting, so much so that people may want to check it out just to see what the hell is going on. If you want to discourage people from visiting the area, turn it into a wasteland. Honestly, you don't run into too many people wandering around the Atacama Desert. To make it even more uninviting you could always kill off all the local flora and fauna with a good dosing of other toxins (possibly killing two birds with one stone).

    And what is so wrong with using simple murals to show the danger. It doesn't matter which language you speak; a mural of a man losing his hair, breaking out in blisters, and vomiting blood is never a good sign.

  • Lucas Gray
  • September 3, 2009 at 7:04:00 AM CDT
  • definitely an interesting call for ideas. The question is what images, icons, language will people understand in 1000 years from now?

    -Lucas Gray

  • Georgia
  • September 3, 2009 at 8:49:00 AM CDT
  • I think the EU hazard symbol for nature polluting substances is quite effective though maybe in 10,000 years people will be unfamiliar with trees and fish.

  • Anonymous
  • September 3, 2009 at 11:56:00 AM CDT
  • You think Yucca Mountain is over? Inaccurate. Think again. Yucca Mountain is not cancelled . . . since when does a temporary stall in funding cancel a federal project of this scale?

  • katie heffernan.
  • September 8, 2009 at 10:22:00 PM CDT
  • skulls = the only clear, never-diminishing death symbol.

  • Alexander Trevi
  • September 10, 2009 at 8:23:00 PM CDT
  • But Katie, will that stop our descendants from breaking in? They may know what the skull symbols mean, but will it deter the adventurous and the curious and the oblivious? Somehow I doubt it.

  • Anonymous
  • February 1, 2010 at 1:14:00 AM CST
  • Skulls are the first thing that come to mind for me but it seems that any one 10,000 in the future that has any ability to interpret a sign from 10,00 years in the past is going to be curious about it that it might overcome any doubt they may have about the safety.

    I figure the Egyptians tried this kind of things on their crypts and tombs (along with curses) to deter grave robbers... Did that work?

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