Brandon Alms/Desert Space Foundation
A winning design from the Desert Space Foundation's contest to design a universal warning sign for the Yucca Mountain site (more designs below.)
In Walter M. Miller's post-nuke sci-fi classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, there are no books. Literate people are killed. And underground monks work to preserve what little pre-war knowledge they can salvage, without knowing what the knowledge actually means.
The monks' illuminated manuscripts, we learn, are actually blueprints for materials used to make nuclear bombs. There's no way for the monks to know that their saved traces of civilization will, most likely, destroy civilization again.
The idea that the dangers of nuclear material might be lost on future descendants is not just limited to apocalyptic science fiction stories. It also worries those who live in Nevada near Yucca Mountain, the site where Congress and President Bush tentatively approved plans to store power-plant nuclear waste for the next 1 million years.
Josh Abbey, the director of the Desert Space Foundation in Nevada, says most people are not aware of the consequences of nuclear waste.
"The decision to place the waste [in Yucca Mountain] will impact humans 1 million years in the future," he says. "To place that kind of responsibility forward, I can't think of anything more audacious."
In 2002, Abbey created a design competition to find a permanent warning sign for the proposed nuclear waste site. The purpose of the competition, he says, is to find a universal warning sign which conveys that the deposit is highly dangerous. One caveat: the symbols have to work even if language or communication breaks down in the future. And the design has to last at least 10,000 years.
"Imagine," Abbey says, "that in the future, whoever's here doesn't communicate the way we do."
Language and symbols do change over time. A report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) says that half of the world’s 6,800 languages are in danger of disappearing over the next century. Add the fact that humans are naturally curious creatures who like to explore unknown artifacts (Egyptian pyramids ring a bell?) and you have a potentially deadly situation unfolding eons away. Abbey worries that a universal warning sign could actually encourage exploration.
Still, he says, the government needs to design an effective warning symbol that will last far beyond current generations. In the 2002 Universal Warning Sign competition, the submissions were broken down into two categories: practical, technical solutions and sociological or philosophical statements about the futility of the exercise. Below, just some of the designs submitted in the competition: