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Containment’ Envisions Nuclear Waste Storage 10,000 Years In The Future

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Photo credit: Redacted Pictures

An artist's rendering of the kind of warning the U.S. government could leave at nuclear waste disposal sites to ward off people for thousands of years. Architect Michael Brill envisioned a series of thorny spikes erupted from the ground to create a feeling of unease.

'Containment' Envisions Nuclear Waste Storage 10,000 Years In The Future


Peter Galison, co-director, "Containment"


A salt cavern in southern New Mexico is one of the few sites in the country designated for long-term storage of nuclear waste created during the Cold War arms race. But with the waste remaining toxic for thousands of years, the federal government has imagined what society might look like 10,000 years from now in order to best warn future generations to stay away from the site.

In the 1990s, the government gathered architects, artists and futurists to imagine ways the underground waste could be discovered. There could be global illiteracy, so leaving written instructions wouldn't work. Soldiers could crash land from space, so any monument had to be easily recognizable from above. Or just as looters ignored warnings on the Egyptian pyramids in search of treasure, future scavengers could think any monuments left above the site were markers for something valuable.

"The government was essentially being driven to science fiction in order to be able to open a multi-billion nuclear waste site," said Peter Galison, a professor of physics and the history of science at Harvard University.

Galison is also co-director of "Containment," a documentary on nuclear waste storage airing Monday at 11 p.m. on KPBS-TV. The film shows one of the leading suggestions is a series of giant spikes emerging from the ground, intended to create a sense of unease.

"We wanted something that didn't depend on language. We veered toward a potent form of communication that doesn't have to be learned and happens viscerally," architect Michael Brill says in the documentary. "You can go to a place and say, there's something wrong here."

The New Mexico site, called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, is still accepting waste and a final monument design won't be chosen until the site is closed, according to Galison. That might not happen for another 20 years.

Galison joins KPBS Midday Edition to discuss other options for warnings, including a possible theme park with a Smokey the Bear-esque mascot called Nickey Nuke.


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