How to Send a Message 1,000 Years to the Future

Our nuclear waste will far outlive us. So what technologies and narratives can we use to warn people hundreds of generations from now?

“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” It was fitting that J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the physicists who helped design the atomic bomb, chose to quote from the Bhagavad Gita in response to the first successful detonation of a nuclear weapon in the remote sands of New Mexico.

The Gita, one of the most venerated Hindu religious texts, chronicles the conversations between Prince Arjuna and the God Krishna—and only the words of a God could appropriately convey the incomprehensible scale on which the United States government had acted. On July 16, 1945, the first nuclear blast in Earth’s history erupted with the force of 20 kilotons of TNT. The desert sand within the blast radius was superheated into a radioactive green glass, named trinitite, and a mushroom cloud blossomed over seven miles into the sky.

As impressive as the explosion itself was, the most powerful aspect of the bomb was the invisible force of radiation. On a very limited scale, radiation is something that occurs naturally on Earth. Particles decay, atoms lose energy, and that energy is emitted in the form of radioactive waves. Every time you take a cross-country flight for instance, you expose yourself to a bath of low-level radiation simply by being closer to space. It isn’t anything to worry about. But the radiation emitted by a nuclear explosion is of another magnitude altogether. After the Trinity test, that first successful detonation in New Mexico, contamination at the blast site was measured at 15 roentgen. Exposure to normal levels of background radiation for most humans is measured at around 200 milliroentgens a year, the equivalent of 0.2 roentgen, as a point of comparison.

Even now, 60 years after the test, levels of radiation at Trinity are about 10 times higher than normal background radiation. The site is open to the public only one weekend a year in April, and visitors are prohibited from touching the still radioactive trinitite. The most stunning feature of the Trinity test turned out not to be the massiveness of the original blast, but the lingering effects that have survived generations into the future, warping the energy of a specific place and challenging our conceptions of how time is experienced.

Harnessing the power of the atom has forced us to think in new ways about time and energy, specifically when it comes to the safekeeping of nuclear waste. Radioactivity works on a literally inhuman scale. The waste that’s created when building nuclear weapons or running nuclear power plants has a half-life of tens of thousands of years. And we’ve come up with a surprisingly inelegant way of dealing with it: burying it in the ground. Of course there are sophisticated safety measures in these storage facilities, but there the toxic sludge sits, and should remain there far, far into the distant future. So far into the future, in fact, that the generations of people it will continue to affect stretch so deep into projected time we struggle to imagine what things we might share in common with them. And so a problem arises: How do we tell our distant descendants where nuclear waste is buried and that it’s dangerous for humans to be around?

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Radioactive waste could remain dangerous to humans for tens of thousands of years. In the age of the Internet, it’s hard to conceive of the difficulties inherent in trying to communicate over such vast amounts of time. People today tend to live in a sort of temporal bubble, an eternal present, with communication being made intentionally disposable. They don’t draft tweets for next week, much less for generations yet to be born. And that counter-intuitively makes it easy to lose perspective on what the French Annales School of historians termed longue durée, literally the “long term,” the deep and almost imperceptible changes over vast stretches of time. It’s in these broad historical terms that we should consider communicating messages over something like 300 generations.

For starters, written language is out. In the longue durée it’s a relatively new technology anyway, and not necessarily efficient at communicating through deep time. Sumerian, one of the first coherent written languages, was only developed as recently as 3000 BCE. Old, to be sure, but only last week in terms of deep time. Humans have been on Earth for something like a couple hundred thousand years, after all.

Our ability to understand ancient written languages is problematic as well. As Rachel Kaufman wrote for Mental Floss, “Only a few of today’s scholars can understand the original Beowulf without a translation, and that text is only 1,000 years old.” There are at least a handful of ancient languages, such as Isthmian and Olmec, which we still don’t quite understand. And there have been instances of civilizations losing the ability to understand written systems as well. According to the 18th-century Scottish historian Alexander Fraser Tytler, the average lifespan of a civilization is about 250 years. Sometimes civilizations decline slowly, like the Western Roman Empire. Or they can collapse almost instantaneously, as in the case of the Mayan. The knowledge accumulated by those societies can be lost over long stretches of time. So any warning to the future about nuclear waste will have to outlast these certainly inevitable collapses, and written language just won’t do the trick. We’re going to have to be more creative than just posting a sign outside of nuclear waste storage sites.

Fortunately for our distant progeny, people are working on it. And they’re coming up with some fascinating propositions. The Constructing Memory Conference (or Construire la mémoire) is really a hybrid between a conference and a debate. The most recent took place in Verdun, France, last September and featured contributions from artists, semioticians, philosophers, writers, and archaeologists, offering diverse suggestions of how to communicate warnings through deep time. The artist Cécil Massart, who works with nuclear agencies in France, presented ideas on how each generation can work with and update the ways it explains nuclear dangers to itself, in the hopes of avoiding the sclerotic decay of communication over generations. The British curator Ele Carpenter presented work in creating a “Temporary Index,” which would consist of countdown clocks being placed at specific nuclear waste facilities, presented in galleries, and featured online.

It makes sense that visual artists would be at the forefront of exploring ways to articulate messages without using written text, and the most ambitious idea featured at the conference was the creation of an Atomic Priesthood. The work of the artists Bryan McGovern Wilson and Robert Williams explores the relationship between the Cumbrian region of England’s nuclear industry and it’s landscape and folklore, specifically using megalithic monuments to move information in the future. The idea is rather complex, but in a nutshell, it would mean using what they call “atomic folk objects” to create an oral tradition of myths associated with nuclear sites. Imagine stories, objects, costumes, and rituals, all being used to convey the danger and power of nuclear sites and the taboo of digging up the radioactive material buried there. David Barrowclough describes their work as, “[m]eticulous illustrations of a fantastical world juxtaposing industrial mine shafts, nuclear power stations with a prone mummified body and dangerous wolf, all illuminated by an eerie yellow glow; a series of photographs featuring a smartly dressed, yet masked, man in unexpected situations next to a prehistoric standing stone, within a Neolithic stone circle and seated in an armchair in an underground cavern…” It’s wonderfully ironic that in order to imagine the far future we have to drudge up the images and implementations of the past. This is exactly what the Atomic Priesthood idea is all about—using our collective human memory to speculate on our shared future.

The phrase “Atomic Priesthood” was coined by the linguist Thomas Sebok in 1981 while Sebok served on an eclectic team of thinkers assembled by the U.S. Department of Energy and Bechtel Corporation. The team’s task was the same as the Construction of Memory Conference—to consider novel ways to communicate the dangers of nuclear waste at least 10,000 years into the future. It was the first of its kind and ushered in what’s now known as “nuclear semiotics,” human communication along nuclear time.

Sebok’s solution of the creation of an Atomic Priesthood has a few obvious benefits: It doesn’t rely solely on written communication, oral traditions and ceremonies can last huge spans of time, and it’s modeled on the leadership structure of the Roman Catholic Church, an institution which has already survived two millennia. The Priesthood could dictate which areas are off limits and help set norms of behavior for dealing with nuclear waste sites. It’s a novel idea, but it’s not without its flaws. Susan Garfield points out how it might be problematic to artificially create an elite caste (which is what a Priestly caste is by definition) and endow it with so much power. There’s also the issue of the priestly caste abdicating its duties in some way. It’s a lot of responsibility to put on a very small number of people. What if, instead of limiting themselves to spiritual and nuclear leadership, they got greedy and starting amassing worldly influence like land ownership and political power?

Sebok wasn’t the only original thinker to offer up creative ideas to the Department of Energy in 1981. The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem proposed the creation of artificial satellites that would beam warnings back to Earth. He also proposed the creation of "information plants," vegetation that would somehow convey the danger of nuclear areas to future humans. But these suggestions bring us back to the original problem—who’s to say that generations to come would understand the messages that satellites and “information plants” are conveying? The less observer-dependent the messages, the better.

My favorite idea to come out of the 1981 conference was put forth by two French authors, Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri. They suggested the creation of “radiation cats” or “ray cats” whose fur color would change when exposed to high levels of radiation. Cats and humans have cohabitated for thousands of years already and there’s no reason why our tight relationship with felines might end anytime soon. All we would need to do would be to genetically engineer the cats and then create a series of myths or songs about cats’ colors changing when they’re in dangerous places.

These proposals are playful, but there’s also a sense of seriousness, of necessity. The most down to Earth suggestion came from the Swiss physicist Emil Kowalski, who suggested sealing up the nuclear waste so that it’s impossible to reach without a level of technology commensurate with what we currently have. It’s safe to assume that if people in the future are able to create tools sophisticated enough to reach the waste they would also have tools that could measure the high levels of radiation and would understand the inherent dangers.

In New Mexico, not too far from where the original Trinity test was held, is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Almost 2 million cubic feet of radioactive waste is buried half a mile deep in the 250-million year old salt deposit. The plant will continue to receive nuclear sludge from around the country until 2070, when it will be sealed up for good. The government half-heartedly anticipated the dangers to future humans and settled on surrounding the plant with obelisks containing messages in Spanish, Navajo, Chinese, Latin, Hebrew, and English. Literal warning signs aren’t as inventive as “ray cats,” and the drawbacks of using text to communicate through deep time should be obvious by now. But the only thing we should have confidence in when making predictions on this scale is our uncertainty. Maybe, hopefully, the warning signs will be enough.