WIPP it good: Message for the future

The high tech world of nuclear waste disposal.

Most of us during the course of our careers have had at least some experience working in groups. They are generally formed to work on solutions to some immediate problem.

Imagine it is the year 1991 and you’ve been asked to serve on a group. The task? Develop a message for the future. Your deadline? 2028.

You’ve only got 38 years! You had better roll up your sleeves and get to work!

Welcome to WIPP. Also known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Located 26 miles east of Carlsbad, New Mexico, WIPP is a deep geological repository licensed to “permanently” dispose of transuranic radioactive waste for 10,000 years. The source of the radioactive waste is research and production of nuclear weapons.

WIPP doesn’t handle nuclear waste from reactors designed to produce energy:

As of 2008, nuclear power in the United States is provided by 104 commercial reactors (69 pressurized water reactors and 35 boiling water reactors) licensed to operate at 65 nuclear power plants, producing a total of 806.2 TWh of electricity, which was 19.6% of the nation’s total electric energy generation in 2008. The United States is the world’s largest supplier of commercial nuclear power.

Where is the waste from nuclear power plants supposed to go?

In the United States, all power produced by nuclear energy pays a tax of 0.1 cents per kWh sold, in exchange for which the United States government takes responsibility for the high level nuclear waste. This tax has been collected since the beginning of the industry, but action by the government towards creation of a national geological repository was not taken until the 1990s and 2000s since all spent fuel is immediately stored in the spent fuel pools on site.

Recently, as plants continue to age, many of these pools have come near capacity, prompting creation of dry cask storage facilities as well. Several lawsuits between utilities and the government have also transpired over the cost of these facilities, because by law the government is required to foot the bill for actions that go beyond the spent fuel pool.

Since 1987, Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, had been the proposed site for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, but the project was shelved in 2009. An alternative plan has not been proffered.

Schematic of WIPP facility. Click to enlarge.

Meanwhile, back at the WIPP, the team continues on task:

Message for the future

Since 1991, the United States Department of Energy has been working with a team of linguists, scientists, science fiction writers, anthropologists and futurists to come up with a warning system. The markers, called “passive institutional controls”, will include an outer perimeter of 32, 25-foot (7.6 m)-tall granite pillars built in a four-mile (6 km) square. These pillars will surround an earthen wall, 33 feet (10 m) tall and 100 feet (30 m) wide. Enclosed within this wall will be another 16 granite pillars. At the center, directly above the waste site, will sit a roofless, 15-foot (4.6 m) granite room providing more information. The team intends to etch warnings and informational messages into the granite slabs and pillars. This information will be recorded in the six official languages of the United Nations (English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese, Arabic) as well as the Native American Navajo language native to the region, with additional space for translation into future languages. Pictograms are also being considered, such as stick figure images and the iconic “The Scream” from Edvard Munch’s painting. Complete details about the plant will not be stored on site, instead, they would be distributed to archives and libraries around the world. The team plans to submit their final plan to the U.S. Government by around 2028.

I may not be a linguist, scientist, anthropologist, futurist or even a science fiction writer, but I can’t help but wonder. Just how hard is it to devise a message that says, “We were a bunch of motherfucking dumbasses.” Doesn’t the existence of WIPP at all make that message rather self-evident? Or maybe they could just etch a likeness of Lady Gaga in a sign made out of titanium?

I should have been asked onto that team. Perhaps at least 38 years of my life could have been useful.

Wikipedia is the source for quotes, information and images contained in this post.
Water Isolation Pilot Plant
Nuclear power in the United States

5 responses

  1. I’m not really commenting on this post. I just wanted the thrill of seeing my face in all five comment pics to the left.

    I’m lookin’ good. 🙂


    1. That certainly is a good reason to comment. I can’t fault you there.

      Still, I thought you’d get a bit of enjoyment from this piece. At the very least, the bit about my life could have had some meaning. True, if I had been on the team working on the message for the future, it would have required me to attend a one-hour meeting every year, but it might have been worth it.


      1. Approve minutes of last year’s meeting
      2. Old business
      3. New business
      4. Location of next year’s meeting
      5. Adjourn


  2. The most I know of this situation comes from all the talk about Yucca Mountain several years ago now. It also reminds me of the opening of Simpsons where Homer tosses a radioactive bolt and it lands in his clothing, which he carries out with him. Meh.


    1. Obama cut funding for the Yucca Mountain project. Quoting from above, “An alternative plan has not been proffered.” Logical questions on this topic might include:

      * Where is the shit currently being stored?
      * Where are we on a new plan?


      1. No shit? I didn’t catch that bit. Well, I suppose it’s sitting in (let’s at least hope) lead-lined boxcars behind Walmart.


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