Long-term nuclear waste warning messages

(en.wikipedia.org)

76 points | by hacb 11 days ago

27 comments

  • cj 11 days ago
    > The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.

    If we found anything resembling this today (presumably in some language we don't understand or by a culture we assume isn't stating this as a fact of science), the first thing that would happen is someone would dig it up.

    Maybe the safest solution is no marking.

    • d--b 11 days ago
      My first thought as well. Weird colors and randomly thrown corpses of both people and animals could perhaps make a better deterrent?
      • throwanem 11 days ago
        I've sometimes thought that if the intent is a ten-thousand-year warning, the best way to achieve it would be a relatively shallow cave ending in a pit or chamber full of high-level waste vitrified just enough to prevent environmental dispersal.

        It seems plausible that over a long enough scale of time, the only reliable way to communicate "everyone who messes with this will die" regardless of language is by ensuring that everyone who messes with it does die.

        • Verdex 11 days ago
          This is a really clever take. A recurring trope with both fantasy and sci-fi is the ancient / incomprehensible artifact guarded by lethal traps dating back thousands of years.

          I haven't typically thought along the lines of "this deadly trap is for your own good" but with radioactive waste it might really be for your own good.

          I forget where it was but some radioactive components of medical equipment made it's way into a scrap yard and caused all sorts of problems including long term medical issues and death of several people as well as being in a densely populated area. It feels a bit weird to put a deadly trap into a medical device but there's at least one instance where it would have saved a lot of heartache.

          • throwanem 11 days ago
            That was the Goiânia accident of 1987. To the best of my knowledge, it is the only such instance, which suggests that existing regulations around the safe decommissioning and disposal of such devices do a more reliable job of preventing accidental dispersal than booby-trapping equipment would - not to mention that this would make maintaining the equipment much more than usually fraught, besides.
            • Verdex 11 days ago
              Yep, this was the one I was thinking about.

              And while these incidents aren't frequent, we are talking about very long time frames. It would be interesting if we could somehow look into the future and see how many incidents will occur.

              Maintenance is a big concern. Although if we're willing to spend a lot of effort on how to label these things to appear obviously dangerous for long time frames then I think some time can also be spent on long term maintenance.

              • throwanem 11 days ago
                The whole idea behind the long-term warning project is that it should preserve its semiosis long after every other trace of its originating civilization has ceased to be detectable, so including maintenance in the remit would violate the fundamental premise.

                (I don't think the premise is all that well founded, hence my original comment.)

                Separately, the material in the Goiânia radiotherapy device was cesium-137, which has about a 30-year half-life, so any sample of given activity today would see that activity halved about 330 times over ten thousand years. I think it would take a much larger sample than typically found in medical equipment to remain hazardous at the end of that time! The long-term warning project has a somewhat narrower domain.

        • beAbU 11 days ago
          This also makes the waste accessible enough that should a future civilisation be advanced enough, they can possibly extract the waste and better process it to either make it safe or make it usable again.

          I expect that historic landfill mining will be a thing in the distant future, where it'll be economically viable to mine old landfills because of the high concentration of valuable plastics and metal resources.

          • throwanem 11 days ago
            It depends a bit on how far out the civilization is, since even what's now high-level waste will decay over time, but there do exist some speculative reactor designs intended to be powered by reprocessed waste - with output in the single-digit megawatt range, granted, but a megawatt just where you want it is nothing to sneer at.

            The thought does appeal, on the whole: archaeologists and engineers working side by side, the former chronicling the deep and long-dead human past through its garbage, before the latter haul it away to melt down and rebuild into a new human future. There's a story in that, I think.

        • krisoft 11 days ago
          And then the local witch doctors hear about the weird deaths and dig the “curse” up as a weapon[1] against their enemies :) if they are clever enough they make sure that the digging and distributing of it is not done personally but by less valuable people pressed into service (such as old slaves, enemies, etc etc)

          1: not a nuclear bomb of course, just as radioactive contamination.

      • TeMPOraL 11 days ago
        Nah, no marking, period. Anything implying the area is host to some horrible lethal magic will invite warlords and rulers wanting to inflict horrible death on their enemies.
    • XorNot 11 days ago
      We would, but we are technologically advanced. Scientists would come in, we'd bring in our instruments, collect data etc.

      That's a positive outcome, because anyone with a radiological sensing system would then figure out what it is.

      • binary132 11 days ago
        You can’t imagine an energetic waste source beyond the detection capabilities of modern humanity? This seems like the precise sort of ignorant hubris that this thought experiment is exploring.
        • XorNot 11 days ago
          Unless the laws of physics are fundamentally different in a way we currently do not have any experience with, then no, I cannot.

          Because to cause physical damage to physical beings, you need to interact with them physically in an energetic fashion.

          Even primitive people, with the right knowledge, can construct a test for the presence of a hazardous waste source (i.e. literal canaries in coal mines).

          There are a number of methods available to 18th century technology which would be able to infer the existence of an energetic hazard even without fully understanding what it is, provided they were somewhat aware of the underlying principles.

          • Ferret7446 9 days ago
            We know for a fact that our understanding of physics is fundamentally flawed somehow due to "dark matter" (aka fudging our equations because they don't balance based on experimental observations).

            We simply don't know what we don't know.

          • binary132 9 days ago
            maybe the canaries don’t die until a year later of total DNA collapse :^)
    • le-mark 11 days ago
      Considering large numbers of Russian troops were sickened after digging trenches and fortification near Chernobyl during the current war Ukraine, I tend think these warnings will go unheeded in the far future.
      • belorn 11 days ago
        It will indeed most likely be unheeded. We already have a huge issue with mines, unexploded bombs and artillery shells laying around in many place on the globe, and ukraine has become one of the most mined country in the world. 174,000 square kilometers of Ukraine is said to be contaminated by mines. No amount of warnings will prevent accidental deaths in the future, and expecting people to never return is unrealistic.
      • acidburnNSA 11 days ago
        I don't think that any were sickened from radiation. The increases found were quite small, and would not cause any radiation sickness. You need dose rates thousands of times higher than what was reported to get radiation sickness.

        From https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-60528828:

        Prof Claire Corkhill, a nuclear materials expert from Sheffield University, told the BBC the spike was "quite localised" and there had been increases along the main routes in and out of the zone around the reactor.

        "The increased movement of people and vehicles in and around the Chernobyl zone will have kicked up radioactive dust that's on the ground," Prof Corkhill said.

        "Provided there's no further movement, it should decrease again over the next couple of days."

        But any military activity in the zone is concerning.

      • elzbardico 11 days ago
        [flagged]
        • ashwoods 11 days ago
          I don’t know, there seems to be more evidence in support of this fact than there seems to be of it being propaganda: https://www.twz.com/45098/ukraine-situation-report-evidence-...
          • themaninthedark 11 days ago
            From the article you linked:

            >Previous reports had also indicated that some number of Russian troops operating in the Red Forest experienced the effects of acute radiation syndrome after preparing this base area, but there remains nothing to substantiate this.

        • lawn 11 days ago
          Careful to not propagate the stupid Russian propaganda that aims to hide all the stupid things the Russians are up to.
        • Faaak 11 days ago
          I'm curious, do you have any source (for or against)?
    • bitshiftfaced 11 days ago
      Yeah but then compare that situation to the one where some future inhabitant innocently wants to drill and would have understood and heeded the warning. There's probably no easy answer.
  • acidburnNSA 11 days ago
    If only we were half this creative with communicating to our current civilization about the serious environmental and health problems caused by the world's current energy mix (air pollution causing ~8 million deaths/yr and greenhouse gasses causing climate change). Then perhaps it'd be more clear that implementing a few small geologic repositories are a fine price to pay to solve our problems.
  • helsinkiandrew 11 days ago
    In the documentary "Into Eternity" about Onkalo - the Finnish deep nuclear waste repository. One of the engineers mentions that when they were digging the first holes, they joked they would find copper canisters full of (now unradioactive) waste - buried by a long lost forgotten civilisation.

    A large part of the film is all about how to mark the site, deter future civilisations from digging it up:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBqyb3qfHCE&t=63s

  • delichon 11 days ago

      I met a traveller from an antique land,
      Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
      Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
      Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
      And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
      Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
      Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
      The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
      And on the pedestal, these words appear:
      My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
      Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
      Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
      Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
      The lone and level sands stretch far away.
    
    Build this statue, already in ruins, with a different message on the pedestal with a different warning of our species' dangerous hubris.
  • throw0101b 11 days ago
    As I understand it (AIUI), the stuff that will still be around in 10,000 won't be that (relatively) dangerous: you would have to either eat the pellets or grind them up and snort them like cocaine for them to have major health effects. It's mostly alpha (α) radiation (helium) that's being thrown off at that point, which can be stopped by even paper; and some beta (β) radiation (electrons/positrons), which can be stopped by thin metal. If things are encased in (e.g.) concrete and rebar there isn't much escaping.

    It's generally the 'hot' stuff early on (right out of the reactor, and sits in the water tanks for a few decades) throwing off gamma (γ) radiation that will really get you.

    • throw_a_grenade 11 days ago
      That's why they discuss hydrology: if the stuff goes into drinking water, then oops.

      IIRC Litvinenko was killed with something like 10^-4 g (hundred micrograms) of polonium-210 added to his food. That stuff is quite active (half life of less than half a year), but still.

    • technol0gic 11 days ago
      bruce banners throwaway acct be like
  • roenxi 11 days ago
    > within or above the order of magnitude of 10,000 years

    This whole idea is almost aggressively stupid. We're talking about a bigger gap than all of recorded history.

    The civilisation we're trying to communicate with either doesn't see this waste heap as even a minor threat, or the situation is so dire that radiation poisoning doesn't matter. This is even more futile than the vikings trying to send us a message that we need to keep an eye out for depleting our lumber stocks.

    • acidburnNSA 11 days ago
      What I want to know is why we don't put messages like this on underground repositories for hazardous material that doesn't become benign over time, like mercury.
      • ThrowawayTestr 11 days ago
        Or enough arsenic to kill every living thing on earth

        https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_Mine

      • XorNot 11 days ago
        Yep: I've long said now that heavy metal contamination is worse then radiation, because you can detect radiation with cheap, non-consumable equipment.

        Try analysing lead in water or mercury in soil as easily.

      • themaninthedark 11 days ago
        The reason why is because the entire situation is a concern troll but those who dislike nuclear power.

        But what are you going to do with the waste that is highly radioactive for thousands of years, what if everyone forgets how to read! Think of the hypothetical children!

        • Tabular-Iceberg 10 days ago
          Not to mention that most of those hypothetical children won’t make it to adulthood to go dig for nuclear waste due to disease and starvation.

          A society that has fallen that far will have far greater problems to deal with than accidentally digging up radioactive waste.

  • cl3misch 11 days ago
    The section about the "atomic priesthood" is interesting and reads like scifi:

    > [Thomas Sebeok] 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 almost 2,000 years – the atomic priesthood would have to preserve the knowledge about locations and dangers of radioactive waste by creating rituals and myths.

    • rdm_blackhole 11 days ago
      This is somewhat what Isaac Asimov wrote in the foundation series.

      Se: https://asimov.fandom.com/wiki/Scientism

      This is the extract in question from the link above:

      "In addition to the technician-priests (an atomic priesthood that controls the technology of nuclear power) from Terminus who travel to the worlds of the Four Kingdoms, the church also recruits priests from among the native populations of those worlds.

      They travel to a Temple School in Terminus City, where they are taught the operation (though not the theoretical underpinnings) of the Foundation's technology, along with more traditional religious instruction in church dogma, theology and ethics.

      Any novitiate priest at the Temple School who is bright enough to see through the mystical surface to the scientific principles underneath remains on Terminus to become a research student. The rest return to the Four Kingdoms to form part of the priesthood." (End quote)

      Basically, disguise the knowledge within the rituals but make the rituals good enough so that the knowledge can be transmitted to the future generations.

    • snapcaster 11 days ago
      Very cool Dune-esque idea, but I'm skeptical they could do this without finding a way to link it to existing religious beliefs. It's not like the Bene Gesserit created brand new religions, just influenced existing ones and added myths here and there
    • chasd00 11 days ago
      Just ask the pope to make a reminder every year and have it passed on to the next pope. Catholics are going to be around forever.
    • throw0101b 11 days ago
      Or maybe ask the current institutions (monasteries of various traditions) if things could be stored underneath them: they've managed to survive for a few hundred/thousand years already, and per the Lindy effect, [1] they may be more likely to survive longer.

      [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lindy_effect

      • krisoft 11 days ago
        This is a plot point in Neal Stephenson‘s Anathem.
    • VoodooJuJu 11 days ago
      They have religion backwards. People don't create religions, and religions don't create rituals - rituals emerged and religion emerged after. Taleb puts it very well here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VuJD5Zfqti8

      It's funny because there's a trend these days of scientizing everything, including religion, and what these guys proposed instead is to religionize science. They think they need to disguise wisdom with myth, as if that's what religion is. It seems they don't understand religion - not good!

    • postepowanieadm 11 days ago
      In Poland someone had a similar idea regarding a church bell - it's heart has to be rotated 60 degrees in 2072, so 50 "guards" were chosen.

      https://dzienniklodzki.pl/serce-lodzi-mali-straznicy-przepro...

      • krisoft 11 days ago
        This is weird. Presumably if the bell stops ringing right they will notice it from the fact that it stops ringing right?
        • postepowanieadm 11 days ago
          I think it's about not wearing down the shell. Also, a marketing stun.
    • time0ut 11 days ago
      That is an interesting idea. It would need a mechanism for attaching itself to the economic and/or political systems over millennia. Otherwise it would not be self sustaining. A possible alternative is to somehow attach this mission to an institution that has already managed to do this.
    • suoduandao3 11 days ago
      Anathem has a great example of that idea. It's absolutely hilarious that the mystical wizard priest's day job is repairing the thatch rooves for the building the nuclear waste is actually in.
    • spacephysics 11 days ago
      The Church of the Children of Atom
  • Macuyiko 11 days ago
    This reminds me of a short story by Ken Liu, The Message, which details a xeno-archaeologist digging into a place full of radiation. The main character doesn't get the warning message until it is too late and almost loses his daughter.

    Googling it now it seems at one point is was going to get adapted to film [1], but seems like that went nowhere.

    [1]: https://reactormag.com/ken-lius-the-message-to-get-big-scree...

  • thmsths 11 days ago
    I have always seen this as the ultimate exercise in bike shedding. We can't make any progress on how to properly store nuclear waste because nothing short of perfection seems to satisfy the critics, the goalpost is constantly moving and somehow we are now in the "can you guarantee it will never harm anyone in the next five millennia?" phase. This "crisis" is then used as a justification for why we certainly can't build more reactors.
  • CWuestefeld 11 days ago
    This reminds me of my time at IBM a million years ago. Attempting to boot your PC with a non-system floppy that was formatted by OS/2 would yield an error message like (I forget the actual numbers)

       SYS!00026
       SYS!00153
    
    It was pointed out that absolutely zero people would ever understand this. The response was, "well, we can't write it in English because that would unfairly privilege one language, and we need something very small to fit in the boot sector of the floppy".

    Somebody responded to that with an ASCII art floppy, something like

       +--+-+--\
       |  +-+  |
       |   O   | 
       |       |
       +-------+
    
    That seemed a really good compromise to me, but those responsible shrugged and stuck with the inscrutable error codes.
  • acadapter 11 days ago
    Make sure to include warnings in dead languages that people from many cultures have taken an interest in, such as Latin and Ancient Greek.
  • frob 11 days ago
    One challenge here is that pictographs assume an order of viewing. The same set of pictographs that show someone decaying away and dieing by staying in the exclusion zone depicts a magical fountain of healing and youth when viewed backwards.
  • throw310822 11 days ago
    These studies and ideas are fascinating, but frankly they sound like someone got a little bit too excited by the task. Dig a hole a few hundred metres deep in an unattractive, geologically stable area without risk of polluting water sources; put the stuff there, cover with concrete, close and forget. Any future civilization advanced enough to actually dig up the hole will also have the tools and knowledge needed to detect the danger.
    • PaulHoule 11 days ago
      Might as well put up a sign that says something like "Dig here and find something that can fuel your civilization for 1000 years" or "Dig here and find something to smite your foes with"

      The essence of the nuclear "waste" puzzle is that nuclear waste is not waste. that is we have used less than 3% of the energy that is there. If you want it to be left undisturbed the last thing you want to do is call attention to it.

    • 2OEH8eoCRo0 11 days ago
      If society is collapsing who will cover up the hole?

      It does seem like an excessive amount of work to theoretically save a few lives tops in a theoretical future cataclysm.

      • throw310822 11 days ago
        The same ones who should have put up the eerie hostile architecture and system of universal menacing messages. With the help of those who should have dismantled the nuclear plants and disposed of the nuclear weapons.

        Seriously, filling the hole and covering it should be a one-time operation. Although in a sense you're right, if society collapses suddenly all that stuff stays there. But then we have a lot of other problems.

      • throw0101b 11 days ago
        > If society is collapsing who will cover up the hole?

        You pre-wire the site for demolition and set a countdown timer: if the counter is not resent regularly it goes down to zero and the charges go off sealing things off.

        Society is needed to prevent closing things off, so if it's gone then it happens without intervention.

        If they accidentally go off, then things are fail-safed closed, and you have to expend resources to re-open things. If you don't want (or have) the resource to re-open then you don't have to worry about it.

    • ben_w 11 days ago
      While I agree the danger is overstated, if I'm wrong about that then it is important that humans were doing substantial mining even in antiquity.
  • m101 11 days ago
    If we're looking out for civilisations descended from ours then there's likely no need for this because they will likely be able to deal with it, or might even find it a valuable resource of elements.

    Someone else knows better here, but I think a lot of the waste exists because we don't burn it all in nuclear reactors - in which case why not make reactors that can burn it rather than leave it as waste.

    • acidburnNSA 11 days ago
      The reason most nuclear operating countries don't run partition and transmute their waste into faster-decaying, less radiotoxic material is that it is a very expensive remote chemical process that has been historically met with deafening activist/public opposition. Much easier and cheaper to just mine barely radioactive uranium, enrich it, fabricate it, and do once through. If/when uranium prices reach roughly $360/kg, then the overall economics of recycling and breeding may start to make more sense.
      • bckr 11 days ago
        Something I just realized I don’t know—are there no radioactive waste materials from using recycled materials?

        It makes sense to a degree that if the usage is circular, problem solved. But am I wrong? Is it theoretically or actually possible to achieve 100% “reclamation”?

        • acidburnNSA 11 days ago
          There are lots of radioactive waste materials when using nuclear recycling. Basically, all recycling allows you to do is to split ~90% of the uranium atoms into fission products rather than the more typical 5% that we do in our current fleet. The leftover fission products are still radioactive, but they decay a bit faster than the material in non-recycled spent fuel (actinides like Np, Pu, Am, Cm).

          While there may be less total solid waste per kWh when you recycle, you do add the complexity of having lots of more diluted liquified radioactive waste streams from the processing. Liquified waste management has proved challenging from our weapons programs, e.g. at Hanford, though it could certainly be handled better than that.

          I wrote up a small primer on nuclear recycling with more details here: https://whatisnuclear.com/recycling.html

    • krisoft 11 days ago
      > likely no need for this because they will likely be able to deal with it

      That kinda assumes that technology always progresses forward and there are no regressions and dark ages. 10k years is a long time. The Great Pyramid of Giza was built roughly 5k years ago, so we are aiming here for twice that long. During that time many empires have risen and fallen. That is a lot of time for technical things to go forgotten.

    • bckr 11 days ago
      The point is to look out for human or similar beings who have somehow lost access to our knowledge, including the ability to read our languages.

      The entire thing is an exercise in hyper-transgenerational communication (if I might turn a phrase).

  • thrdbndndn 11 days ago
    I've heard this topic before, but I never find it a big deal (I'm sure I might be naive).

    Surely the future human being would have ways to detect nuclear waste before digging around, regardless if there is any sign?

    And even in worst scenario, they did dig without testing -- they will learn their lesson very quickly. It's not like one accident would be too catastrophic, in the grand scheme of things.

    • NeoTar 11 days ago
      > Surely the future human being would have ways to detect nuclear waste before digging around

      Technology doesn't inevitably progress. Its certainly possible that we lose even relatively simple nuclear detection technology (e.g. a Geiger counter) in the future (or fail to deploy it - I wonder how many construction sites have a radiation check performed?)

      And I believe, if we had an idea nuclear waste store, we'd not be able to detect it - i.e. the excess radiation outside of the store would be comparable to natural variation between locations on the earth.

  • jcmontx 11 days ago
    > This place is not a place of honor... no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here... nothing valued is here.

    That one's a classic

    • rsynnott 11 days ago
      That one's specifically to keep away Klingons.
  • schnitzelstoat 11 days ago
    Waste reprocessing and sub-seabed disposal would be much better.

    But at the moment most waste is held on-site and not reprocessed as sub-seabed disposal, waste reprocessing and even constructing a land-based waste depository have all been prohibited. So it's actually ended up more dangerous than it needs to be.

  • joshstrange 11 days ago
    > This place is not a place of honor... no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here... nothing valued is here.

    I've used this a comment on more than block of code.

    I'm not sure what it is about these warnings but I always enjoy reading through them and thinking about how they might be perceived but future generations.

    • PaulHoule 11 days ago
      Makes more sense to separate out the U and Pu (almost all of the "spent" fuel) and consume them completely, then the remaining fission products are as radioactive as the original uranium in about 1000 years, well in the range of structures we've built and literature we still read.
  • Daub 11 days ago
    I present the long-term safety of radioactive hazards as an design task to my students. Effectively, a limit-case test of their design know-how. These are my notes on the subject:

    https://rmit.instructure.com/courses/87565/modules/1193362

    Nothing other that speculative solutions have so far been proposed.

    In the same module, I also address the problem of communicating with alien intelligence using the Voyager 'Golden Record' as an exemplar.

    • Tabular-Iceberg 10 days ago
      It sounds like the most important lesson to give the students is not wasting time looking for solutions to problems that do not exist and likely never will in the future, nuclear semiotics and golden records both being prime examples of that.
      • Daub 4 days ago
        > It sounds like the most important lesson to give the students is not wasting time looking for solutions to problems that do not exist and likely never will in the future,

        The value of giving students such impossible speculative tasks is that it tests the limits of the students' thinking. Also, they really enjoy these kind of things :)

  • willcipriano 11 days ago
    Nuclear having to demonstrate safety in a theoretical future where human beings are no longer human I think is a great demonstration of the sort of nonsense road blocks environmentalists have thrown in front of it.

    Imagine you go to put solar on your house and some people show up screaming "What if Dr. Zaius cuts himself on one of those panels a million years into the future?". That's what they did every step of the way with nuclear.

  • high_5 11 days ago
    The pharaoh's tombs had a lot of warnings and curses against opening them up. Didn't help much not long after and even millennia after that.
  • Tabular-Iceberg 10 days ago
    Why does the waste need to be hidden away under ground in the first place? To me it seems to just create more problems than it solves.

    What’s actually wrong with above-ground dry cask storage? The best long term warning system is to keep the actual waste on display and on people’s minds.

  • daft_pink 11 days ago
    We should just recycle it proliferation concerns be damned
    • acidburnNSA 11 days ago
      Sadly that increases overall fuel cycle costs due to the remote chemistry and management of radioactive liquid wastes. If nuclear power was expanding rapidly and we were challenging our uranium resources, then sure. But right now, nuclear is struggling economically. Adding more costs for recycling would make it worse.
  • pythonguython 11 days ago
    This problem is cute and all, but completely overblown. Just put it in a deep hole. Meanwhile we have waste storage issue right now. In Japan for example, there are many tons of waste sitting in random poorly secured warehouses right now.
  • fortran77 11 days ago
    It would also be useful to take the longest living languages so far (Hebrew, Greek, COBOL, JavaScript) and label it in those, on the chance that these two cultures may figure out how to be around in 10,000 more years.
  • zoom6628 11 days ago
    Do we need this for JavaScript ? ;-p