On WIPP and The Problem of Warnings

Watchoo Warnin’ Me ‘Bout, WIPPis?

Check this shit out:


I found this link as the result of an interesting discussion about the problem of nuclear waste.  It’s one of the most fascinating and frightening things I have ever read.

Although in general I am somewhat favourable towards nuclear power, the problem of nuclear waste calls into question the long-term suitability of nuclear reactors.  On the one hand, one could argue that the small amount of nuclear waste produced is better than the massive amounts of pollution produced by oil and coal.  Moreover, while indisputably deadly, nuclear waste is localized; carbon and sulfurous gas emissions affect the entire planet, whereas nuclear waste’s poison is limited to a specific locale.  Of course — leaving aside the 800lb gorilla of possible meltdowns — the main problem with nuclear power is not the spatial extent of unfortunate by-products, but rather their longevity.  Even the most optimistic estimates project that nuclear waste sites will remain radioactively toxic for 10,000 years — considerably longer than the entire history of human civilization so far.

This presents an interesting problem.  In the planning of their Waste Isolation Pilot Plant — a gigantic underground repository of nuclear waste in New Mexico — the United States Department of Energy has mandated that warning signs be placed around the surface of the underground facility, warning signs that must not only be legally required to physically endure for ten millennia, but also must remain clearly comprehensible long into the future.

This raises some interesting questions about the linguistic limits of warnings. How can we ensure that such an important message can remain universally comprehensible?  Obviously, the project cannot assume a continuity of culture which would allow the symbology of the radioactive symbol to be still recognizable in 12,000 AD.

More fundamentally, however, this project reveals a paradox in warnings such as the WIPP’s signage.  The whole purpose of the warning is to prevent future generations from inhabiting the site (and, most crucially, from excavating and drilling into the deadly “treasure” beneath).  Unfortunately, any clear warning will necessarily draw attention to the site and such attention will invite investigation.  I can’t help but think of the movie “Alien” in which an alien warning beacon is misinterpreted as a distress beacon prompting the human crew to stumble on the very chest-bursting danger they were warned against.

An important criteria of the warning system therefore is to draw attention whilst simultaneously repulsing presence.  Given human beings’ sometime suicidal curiosity, this seems an impossible task.  Indeed, some of the proposed warnings (such as the “Spike Field” and the “Forbidding Blocks”), would be so unusual — indeed, a necessary condition of the signage is that it be “anomalous to its surroundings” — that surely future generations would wonder why a past civilization would dedicate so much resources (also a necessary condition: the sign must be large) into something so ugly.

Even if it were successfully discerned that the structures are indeed warnings, given the linguistic distance of a hundred centuries, the “content” of the warning would remain obscure. Okay, they’re obviously warning us about something, the future archeologist thinks, but what are they warning us about?  Thus, the warning, even interpreted correctly, invites the very investigation it tries to prevent.


~ by Isaac Bickerstaff on May 4, 2009.

12 Responses to “On WIPP and The Problem of Warnings”

  1. Awesome post! You offer a really useful insight that I hadn’t even imagined before. Really, it is the seed of a good novel / movie! Man, to think of it is mind boggling — creating waste that is so dangerous for so long that it may be a threat to a human species that can’t even make sense of our warnings!

  2. Yeah, I was thinking this would make a good novel or movie:
    In a distant, post-apocalyptic future, society has returned to a state of primitive superstition. However, a group of neo-rationalists challenge the folkloric admonitions to stay away from the haunted “Forbidden Zone”. They go there, finding the strange structures of the WIPP Warning and seek to decode the message contained within. Only, by the time they realize what it is, it’s too late…

  3. Write it! It’s a great idea.
    Excellent post.

  4. I discussed this with my brother, and in his typical fasion he suggests it shouldn’t be labelled at all.

  5. Well, that’s actually a plausible option, though I’d be curious to know his reasoning. Seems to me, if its sufficiently insulated, it shouldn’t pose too much of a threat so long, of course, as no-one goes digging. Of course, when one extends the stakes over 10,000 years, that’s quite the gamble to make. (Also, the size of the underground structure would most likely give off some hint of its existence on the surface, serving as an enticement for meddling regardless).

  6. Alien is the perfect example, for sure. “Hey, I think it’s a distress signal….oh, but this ship also has a creepy basement with fog and…Get a load of this! Thousands of eggs! I think I’ll stand RIGHT NEXT TO ONE OF THEM and see what happens – this should be perfectly safe!”

    Curiosity killed the cat.

    Although in the case of Alien, curiosity killed 90% of the Nostromo’s crew and, oddly enough, the cat got away without a scratch.

  7. “Curiosity killed the cat.

    Although in the case of Alien, curiosity killed 90% of the Nostromo’s crew and, oddly enough, the cat got away without a scratch.”


    Well done, sir.

  8. I think everyone’s looking at this at bit too narrowly. What better symbology than the simplicity of stick figures? Write “warning/danger” in all languages and illustrate a series of panels representing what’s inside and why unearthing it is a bad idea.

    Hey, the Egyptians weren’t that nuts.


  9. Well, okay. But, I think the question is HOW do you use stick figures to convey that message.

  10. I feel you are type of oversimplifying issues, but overall, i believed this was a fairly good article. nice work

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