Atomic Berms *

Devising marking systems (signs & etc.) which can be easily understood by anyone, anywhere, and in any language, is never going to be an easy task. Now imagine that on top of this, the systems have to remain intact and effective for the next 10,000 years. Specifically to discourage inadvertent intruders at a large-scale nuclear waste repository.

Just such a daunting task was evaluated by two teams co-ordinated by the US Sandia National Laboratories in 1992. They produced a 351-page report detailing their findings : Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant  (SAND92–1382 l UC–721)) (Caution: 20MB .pdf download).
One method, it was suggested, would be to use berms. The proposed berms would surround the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) 42 km east of Carlsbad, New Mexico. 

“The berms serve several purposes. First, they define the area of interest. Their size is set so that sand dunes are unlikely to cover all of them entirely at the same time. Instead, the wind will leave dunes streaming behind the berms and create an even larger marker. Second, their shape sets the tone for the entire landscape — non-natural, ominous, and repulsive.”

As well as the ominous berms, the team(s) came up with another repulsive suggestion – in the form of the (copyright protected) image known as  Mr. Yuk™. Neither did they overlook the potential of the Screaming Being (pictured above, from the report) as immortalised by artist Edvard Munch. But perhaps the most down-to-earth idea came from one of the especially invited advisors, the late Carl Sagan, from the Laboratory of Planetary Studies at Cornell, who came up with a suggestion for what might be the perfect symbol.

“ … we want a symbol that will be understandable not just to the most educated and scientifically literate members of the population, but to anyone who might come upon this repository. There is one such symbol. It is tried and true. It has been used transculturally for thousands of years, with unmistakable meaning. It is the symbol used on the lintels of cannibal dwellings, the flags of pirates, the insignia of SS divisions and motorcycle gangs, the labels of bottles of poisons – the skull and crossbones. Human skeletal anatomy, we can be reasonably sure, will not unrecognizably change in the next few tens of thousands of years.”

He was backed up too by programme manager Dr. D. Richard “Rip” Anderson :

“I think the only reason for not using the skull and crossbones is that we believe the current political cost of speaking plainly about deadly radioactive waste is worth more than the well-being of future generations.”

Coming Soon : One of the advisory team advises, to this day, on the symbolic implications of Pink Flamingos, High Heels, and Anti Gravity.

* Title devised with profuse apologies to Inspector Clouseau.

Leave a Reply