Plazm Magazine: Documenting Creative Culture Since 1991
Plazm is a magazine of design, art, and culture with worldwide distribution. Founded by artists as a creative resource, the magazine is now published by the nonprofit New Oregon Arts & Letters. Order Plazm #30 now.
On Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into
the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Storage Facility
By Julia Bryan-Wilson
On March 26, 1999 New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant began
receiving used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive transuranic waste
from nuclear weapons plants around the country for burial nearly half a
mile underground. In the year 2030, when the plant is full, it will be
permanently closed and sealed. The transportation facilities and
maintenance buildings above the deep storage site will be shut down and
dismantled, and the 850,000 barrels of radioactive material will sit
undisturbed within the underground salt rock formations of this arid
southwestern landscape for the remainder of time. In its many reports to
Congress during the twenty-year process of WIPP’s construction, the
U.S. Department of Energy has promised that this location is geologically
stable. They say there is negligible risk here for earthquakes, volcanoes,
or other breachable openings. Human intervention, in the form of drilling,
mining, or excavating, poses the only real danger to the site’s
Images courtesy of Michael Brill
One component of the site’s cargo is neptunium, a substance whose half life is approximately two million years. It will be 10,000 years before it ceases to pose a lethal threat. Which is to say, the plot of land where the WIPP is located, thirty miles east of Carlsbad, must now remain un-touched by human hands until the year 12,030 AD.
In 1991 a panel of experts was convened to design a warning monument meant to dissuade the next 400 generations from digging, inhabiting or planting this ground. They faced a considerable task. Not only must their marker exist longer than any monument has ever survived, or for that matter any semiotic system, but it must communicate its message to any and all future societies that might appear, whether illiterate or unthinkably technologically advanced, without any slippage or decay of meaning. Also, as the marker’s scale stands to be equivalent to that of the pyramid complexes of Egypt, it risks the problem of simply attracting viewers rather than repelling them.
The panel, composed of thirteen scholars and professionals drawn from the fields of material science, architecture, environmental design, anthropology, linguistics, archeology, astronomy, and geomorphology, spurned any help from the arts community. Scientific illustrator Jon Lomberg protested that he would “die before I’d let the art world come anywhere near this,” warning that “the art world in places like New York is anti-scientific, anti-representational, and seems to favor more detached and nihilistic statements; if you involve the art community in this process, they are likely to end up picking a giant inflatable hamburger to mark the site.” Carl Sagan, a consultant to the panel, suggested marking the site with a giant skull and crossbones.
In the end, the panel of experts concluded that the most permanent, visible, and durable monument would follow what they refer to as the “Stonehenge model,” consisting of multiple megalithic monoliths from thirty to seventy feet in height. They should be constructed of local, common, and valueless materials, they said, and should emphasize a high level of redundancy, as multiple monoliths would increase the probability of some remaining in place even if others are destroyed, damaged, or removed. One design concept, “Landscape of Thorns,” conveys a menacing aura of danger through its stylized inelegance and a repudiation of high-tech origins.
Whatever the panel’s final decision, the monument it builds will mark a turning point in our concept of the nuclear future, a shift from the dreaded immanence of the Cold War to something much longer and more diffuse. The past half-century’s fear of sudden nuclear apocalypse—we will all be destroyed very soon—will give way to a more longstanding fear of creeping cancers, gradual etiolation, and genetic mutation over many generations. The mushroom clouds and core meltdowns of recent memory will go underground, and above them will rise the clock of the new nuclear time, one that tells us that even in 10,000 years we will not be safe.