Office Security Cameras
As you approach the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, set in the remote deserts of New Mexico in the United States, you are filled with a deep sense of foreboding and dread. ‘Run away, run away’, a small voice in your mind whispers. Why? It’s not just because of the elaborate security access control systems with razor wire and armed guards. It’s not even the knowledge that you’re approaching North America’s largest nuclear waste dump, designed to accommodate kilotonnes of deadly radioactive rubbish. In fact, the entire landscape has been carefully designed to warn and frighten potential intruders for at least ten thousand years into the future.
If you were to enter the vestibule of the site office security cameras would scrutinise your every feature before you could proceed. Inside, you would be struck by an ominous display, a model of the entire site. It might be a field of spikes bursting through an irregular grid. It might be forbidding blocks, or it could be jagged thorns. In any case, the very landscape of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant has been constructed to send a visceral message of danger to whomever may come across it for centuries to come.
The designers of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant knew that there was no chance that even the most robust security access control systems would remain intact for ten thousand years. Nor would a simple warning sign work. Even today the trefoil, international symbol of radioactivity, has been adapted into a new ‘radioactive waste danger’ sign featuring a skull and crossbones and a fleeing person, because the trefoil alone isn’t understood sufficiently throughout the world.
No language from today is likely to endure ten thousand years – the very concept of writing was only invented 5,500 years ago. Ten thousand years before today, agriculture had only just begun, cities were still 500 years away, and the domestication of the housecat would not happen for a millennium. So how could we possibly send a message that would make sense to people ten thousand years in the future?
To that end, the US government assembled a team of anthropologists, experts in nuclear semiotics, linguists, and engineers to design a cross-cultural message that would appeal the most basic and visceral human responses.
They submitted their designs, and the next phase, testing of designs on members of the public throughout the world while their reactions are observed with CCTV security cameras, has been completed, but the decision of the Obama administration to suspend operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant has meant that final selection of a design is yet to occur. In any event, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is scheduled to be sealed in 2038, giving the operators a little more time to determine how we will be able to warn people ten thousand years in the future.