In addition to the engineering problems involved in storing radioactive wastes from power plants and weapons programs, there is the additional difficulty of marking the storage sites as dangerous, in a manner that will be comprehensible throughout the period in which the wastes will be a hazard. In 1991, a report considered this question: “Expert Judgment on Markers To Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion Into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.”
“The report’s proposed solution is a layered messageâ€”one that conveys not only that the site is dangerous but that there’s a legitimate (nonsuperstitious) reason to think so. It should also emphasize that there’s no buried treasure, just toxic trash. Here’s how the authors phrase the essential talking points: “[T]his place is not a place of honor â€¦ no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.” Finally, the marker system should communicate that the dangerâ€”an emanation of energyâ€”is unleashed only if you disturb the place physically, so it’s best left uninhabited.”
They estimate that a system of redundant warning markers for an American nuclear waste dump would cost about $68 million.
The whole issue is a potent demonstration of the challenges contemporary technologies create, when it comes to our moral relationship with future generations. Just as they will be the ones who live with the climate change we produce, they will also have legacies like topsoil erosion and the accumulation of toxic and radioactive wastes to contend with.