Human Interference Task Force, or Nuclear Semiotics
I was talking with a friend about nuclear waste, its storage and its safety, and we did a bit of googling. Turns out there’s some interesting (and at times, frankly weird) proposals for this already.
The idea behind nuclear semiotics or the HITF is that, with nuclear waste having a very long period of being dangerous to people, how do we communicate to future generations about the dangers of sealed nuclear waste storage sites across tens of thousands of years? Language changes, after all, and symbols also change shape and meaning over time. Humans as a species have only had written language for some 5000 years, give or take some - how do we tell people 10,000 years from now that “behind this enormous vault is extremely dangerous radioactive substances, sealed away forever, please don’t go in or touch anything”, in a way that anyone understands?
To quote the Wikipedia page on the matter, there’s three parts to the message that needs to be conveyed in the first place:
“Three parts of any communication about nuclear waste must be conveyed to posterity:
- that it is a message at all
- that dangerous material is stored in a given location
- information about the type of dangerous substances”
The ISO warning sign about dangerous radiation zone looks like this:
We understand what this means pretty easily today, but when I was talking to my friend about it, I imagined an alternative interpretation from an archaeologist 4000 years from now:
“The symbol at the top is known in some of our oldest texts as the late 20th century symbol for their Sun God, whose rays brought light to the world. The bottom left sign is associated with a slightly earlier time from the 16th century onwards, as a symbol for pirates. Clearly this is a symbol for a prayer, basically that the Sun God will smite pirates and make them flee. Perhaps this area in particular was in danger of pirate raids in those times, or perhaps there is something inside that the builders did not want pirates to take. We should go and investigate.”
There’s some pretty exotic suggestions from very smart people to this solution, with varying likelihoods of success that I’ll leave to your imagination, such as
- Forming an Atomic Priesthood to run what amounts to a hierarchical religion with legends and myths about dangerous sites and protection from them
- Encoding math-based warnings into the DNA of Atomic Plants that only grow near nuclear waste sites, so future generations can decode it from those
- Breeding Radiation Cats (or Ray Cats) that change color when irradiated, and putting this information into songs, art and cultural consciousness across time
- Putting up warning signs, and every couple of generations makes new warning signs a bit farther away without removing the old ones so it’s possible to translate through the translations of the translations to get the facts straight
- Building storage sites in such a way that only highly technical cultures are able to get into the vaults in the first place, and those cultures ought to already know about radiation so they’ll understand what’s up
I suppose we’ll find out in the near future what they’ll actually come up with, because in 2020s a permanent nuclear waste repository named Onkalo will be built in Finland, the first of its kind in the world. There’s actually a documentary about it, and focusing specifically on the communication aspect of the matter, named Into Eternity, directed by Michael Madsen (no, not that Michael Madsen, I mean the Danish one). I hear it might be on Netflix, so possibly worth checking out if the subject is interesting.