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|Human Interference Task Force (2015)
The field of nuclear semiotics arose in 1981 when a team of engineers, anthropologists, nuclear physicists, behavioral scientists and others was convened on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy and Bechtel Corp. The goal of this "Human Interference Task Force" was to find a way to reduce the likelihood of future humans unintentionally intruding on radioactive waste isolation systems.
Specifically, the task force was to research ways to prevent future access to the deep geological nuclear repository of Yucca Mountain.
When atomic or fusion bombs are detonated in a war, or nuclear power plants are used in times of peace, an unnaturally high amount of radioactive waste is produced. This material will threaten human life and health for thousands of years. Consequently, nuclear technology necessitates the creation of a secure means of terminal storage for such materials for an unusually long time period.
Unfortunately, there is no method available to continuously provide the necessary knowledge about the location of nuclear waste over thousands of years. The culture of earlier centuries becomes incomprehensible when it is not translated into new languages every few generations. National institutions do not exist longer than a few hundred years. Even religions are not older than a few millennia and do not typically hand down scientific knowledge.
Furthermore, the necessary length of storage is disputed among specialists. One work group in Germany concluded that nuclear waste must be separated from the biosphere up to one million years - about 30,000 human generations. Earlier assumptions were based on a period of 10,000 years, which seems to be too short given the half-life of certain radioactive isotopes (e.g. Plutonium-239 at 24,000 years).
The written historical tradition of humanity, in contrast, is only about 5000 years. Warnings in cuneiform script could be interpreted by some specialists, but others, such as the writing of the Indus Valley civilization, are already illegible after a few thousand years.
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
To determine how to convey these three things, the "Zeitschrift für Semiotik" (Tübingen, Germany) issued a poll in 1982 and 1983 asking how a message might be communicated for a duration of 10,000 years. The poll asked the following question: "How would it be possible to inform our descendants for the next 10,000 years about the storage locations and dangers of radioactive waste?" leading to the following answers.
The linguist Thomas Sebeok was member of the Bechtel working group. Building on earlier suggestions made by Alvin Weinberg and Arsen Darnay he proposed the creation of an atomic priesthood, a panel of experts where members would be replaced through nominations by a council. Similar to the Catholic church - which has preserved and authorized its message for over 2000 years — the atomic priesthood would have to preserve the knowledge about locations and dangers of radioactive waste by creating rituals and myths. The priesthood would indicate off-limits areas and the consequences of disobedience.
This approach has a number of critical problems:
- An atomic priesthood would gain political influence based on the contingencies that it would oversee.
- This system of information favors the creation of hierarchies.
- The message could be split into independent parts.
- Information about waste sites would grant power to a privileged class. People from outside this group might attempt to seize this information by force.
Polish science-fiction author Stanisław Lem proposed the creation of artificial satellites that would transmit information from their orbit to Earth for millennia. He also proposed a biological coding of DNA in a mathematical sense, which would reproduce itself automatically. Information Plants would only grow near a terminal storage site and would inform humans about the dangers. The DNA of the so-called atomic flowers would contain the necessary data about both the location and its contents.
The problem with this idea is that humans would be unlikely to know the meaning of atomic flowers 10,000 years later, and thus unlikely to decode their DNA in a search for information.
Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri
French authors Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri proposed the breeding of so called "radiation cats" or "ray cats" ["Lebende Detektoren und komplementäre Zeichen: Katzen, Augen und Sirenen", 1984]. Cats have a long history of cohabitation with humans, and this approach assumes that their domestication will continue indefinitely. These radiation cats would change significantly in color when they came near radioactive emissions and serve as living indicators of danger. In order to transport the message, the importance of the cats would need to be set in the collective awareness through fairy tales and myths. Those fairy tales and myths in turn could be transmitted through poetry, music and painting.
Vilmos Voigt from Loránd-Eötvös university (Budapest) proposed the installation of warning signs in the most important global languages in a concentric pattern around the terminal storage location. After a certain time span new signs with translations would be installed, but the old signs would not be removed. Newer signs would be posted farther away from the location, thus the warning would be understandable as languages change and it would be possible to understand the older languages through the translation.
Physicist Emil Kowalski from Baden, Switzerland proposed that terminal storage locations be constructed in such a way that future generations could reach them only with a high technical ability. The probability of an unwanted breach would then become extremely small. Furthermore, cultures able to perform such excavations and drillings would most certainly be able to detect radioactive material and be aware of its dangers.