Into Eternity and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant - Moisey, Andrew

Into Eternity and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant - Moisey, Andrew

Considering the Desire to Mark Our Buried Nuclear Waste: Into

Eternity and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

Andrew Moisey

Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, Volume 20, Number

2, Spring/Summer 2012, pp. 101-125 (Article)

Published by University of Nebraska Press

DOI: 10.1353/qui.2012.0007

For additional information about this article

Access Provided by University of California @ Berkeley at 10/23/12 6:45PM GMT

Qui Parle

Attn: Editors

The Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities

220 Stephens Hall

University of California

Berkeley, CA 94720-234

Erratum for Qui Parle 20.2 (2012)

On pages 120-121, the following paragraph should be reset as an indented quotation:

May 2, 2012

“We have all become very marker-prone, but shouldn’t we nevertheless admit that, in the

end, despite all we try to do, the most effective “marker” for any intruders will be a relatively

limited amount of sickness or death caused by the radioactive waste? In other words, it is

largely a self-correcting process if anyone intrudes without appropriate precautions, and it

seems unlikely that intrusion on such buried waste would lead to large-scale disasters. An

analysis of the likely number of deaths over ten thousand years due to inadvertent intrusion

should be conducted. This cost should be weighed against that of the marker system (EJ, F-


We apologize for this error and are working to correct it.


Marta Figlerowicz

Chief Editor, Qui Parle

Considering the Desire to Mark

Our Buried Nuclear Waste

Into Eternity and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

andrew moisey

I am now in this place where you should never come. We call

it Onkalo. Onkalo means “hiding place.” In my time it is still

unfi nished, though work began in the twentieth century, when I

was just a child. Work would be completed in the twenty-second

century, long after my death. Onkalo must last 100,000 years.

Nothing built by man has even lasted even a tenth of that time

span. But we consider ourselves a very potent civilization. If we

succeed, Onkalo will most likely be the longest-lasting remains of

our civilization.

Michael Madsen, director and narrator of Into Eternity

Perhaps it is reasonable for the Finns to worry that in tens of thousands

of years, after no one left on earth speaks any known language,

someone will be trodding through their frozen forest and

exhume, half a kilometer beneath its granite bedrock, all the poison

they hid there. This will be radioactive waste from Olkiluoto

Nuclear Power Plant, an industrial park that quietly puffs away

alongside the beautiful west coast of Finland. The poison from

Olkiluoto will be lethal for a hundred thousand years, roughly


qui parle spring/summer 2012 vol.20, no.2

twice as long as humans have existed, suffering at the hands of the

gods for Prometheus’s igneous discovery and Epimetheus’s mishap

with Pandora’s jar. A thousand centuries is mythical time, and as

such no one can really be expected to rationally solve a problem

ordained to occur within it. Into Eternity (2010) is Danish fi lmmaker

Michael Madsen’s recent attempt to meditate on just such a

problem: how to remind the next four thousand generations not to

dig beneath the Finnish forest fl oor.

Finland, of course, is not the only country without a repository

for its radioactive refuse. In 2007 the International Atomic Energy

Agency reported that more than 439 nuclear power reactors

were operating in thirty-one countries. 1 All currently house their

nuclear waste in above-ground facilities, of which not one has been

deemed safe for the half-life of its isotopes. Most are considering

constructing massive underground waste-storage facilities. Building

such sites is one very expensive problem. Both the United States

and Finland have chosen to pose themselves another astonishing

moral and rhetorical problem: communicating these sites’ lethal

toxicity to posterity “forever”—that is, for 100,000 years. Given

the millions of euros and dollars about to be spent on what could

prove a hopeless task, we might wonder what desire this project

is actually fulfi lling. To be sure, if no language, symbols, or aesthetic

values have ever lasted as long as high-level radiation, what

are these marking projects for? An answer to this question can be

found in Madsen’s recent fi lm, as well as in the proposals for a site

in Carlsbad, New Mexico, commissioned by the US Department

of Energy. These marking projects reveal that it is, despite a strong

will to the contrary, rather diffi cult to conceive of our most dangerous

and abject waste as something other than a sacred treasure.

Madsen’s fi lm, which documents the most recent struggle to theorize

such a project, will provide both an entry and a coda to this

problem, for its subjects’ exasperation with designing such eternal

deterrents points us toward the rather commonsense solution to

the problem that has eluded both scientists and policymakers.

Unlike the nuclear-disaster output of the twentieth century, Into

Eternity features no Russia, no Homer Simpson, no terrorist with

a fi nger or doughnut on the button. Instead, for protagonists it

Moisey: Desire to Mark Our Buried Nuclear Waste 103

offers us Swedish engineers who seem to fi nd the premise of Madsen’s

fi lm the least interesting part of their job. Though they have

succeeded in designing radiation-proof containers for Olkiluoto’s

waste, Finnish law has demanded that they also devise a “permanent”

warning system for the granite grave. Despite the appealing

intellectual challenge of designing such a marker, none of the engineers

seems intrigued by how they might inform or scare people

forever. In their hesitation to answer Madsen’s questions, they display

a reluctant sense of duty to a law that dumbfounds them, as if

they are being asked to safeguard a mythical world. For instance,

when Madsen asks, “What if someone fi nds the repository, how

should they know what it is?” Onkalo’s engineering vice-president

responds nonchalantly, “They should have some measuring tools

to measure the radiation.” What if they don’t have that? “Well

then,” he continues, “they will have to make a chemical analysis.”

Madsen fi res back: “But what if they cannot do that?” “Well if

they cannot do that,” his interlocutor replies, “they cannot do the

drilling either.” (Incidentally, this is not true: as one of the engineer’s

colleagues later notes, sixteenth-century Swedish miners dug

three times deeper than Onkalo.) Nonetheless, the exchange establishes

Into Eternity’s problem in the present. Working at a place

that splits the atom every day, the engineer has never imagined a

technologically impoverished future. Engineers, after all, do not

envision backwards.

Without the full intellectual cooperation of his protagonists,

Madsen turns Into Eternity into a middlebrow spookfest, rife with

throbbing intertitles, Kraftwerk singles, matchlit monologues, and

auto-tuned shrieking from the belly of a cave. His camera fl oats in

eerie slow motion through frigid landscapes and laboratories, as if

it were the very embodiment of leaking radiation. This trope suggests

that Madsen understands that if there were to be a solution

to the warning problem, it would have to be affective without being

symbolic—some kind of abstract form that will instill in any

human beings a feeling so awful it will deter them from entering

or penetrating the site. In a situation without written or body language,

the simple problem of informing or scaring becomes fundamentally

very diffi cult. One must ask, as Madsen does, if our


qui parle spring/summer 2012 vol.20, no.2

affective response to abstract forms and pictures is instinctual or

cultural. Onkalo’s engineers simply say to the director, “The short

answer is, we don’t know.” Or: “There are decisions made under

uncertainty.” Or fi nally: “Yes, [humans will have different] senses,

appearances, needs, knowledge. Everything goes away—there is no

one true statement that will survive.” This easy answer defeats the

purpose of a warning system in the fi rst place—but their exasperated

responses, it is important to note, are honest. Onkalo, Finnish

law, and Madsen are together demanding not only that these

engineers work as contemporary artists but that they engineer an

everlasting distaste for the fruit of their artistic labor.

Not surprisingly, the sheer absurdity of this problem once made

American scientists and scholars eager to attack it—a relevant

piece of history that Into Eternity fails to make known. In response

to a 1985 mandate from the US Department of Energy, two independent

teams (“Team A” and “Team B” in their Sandia Laboratories

report) devised elaborate warning systems for a site in Carlsbad,

New Mexico, in December 1991. The teams were composed

of thirteen scholars and professionals from various disciplines, including

materials science, architecture, anthropology, linguistics,

astronomy, geomorphology, semiotics, and scientifi c illustration. 2

Unlike Onkalo, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) would be

located in the Chihuahuan desert and would make use of an abandoned

salt mine whose walls’ extreme viscosity would eventually

encrust and crush the waste containers like a Jurassic Park mosquito,

permanently sealing the waste in salt rock. 3

Carl Sagan, who declined an invitation to join the panel, wrote

an advisory letter to Team B. The Giza-size site, he suggested unpersuasively,

should be marked with a giant skull and crossbones

(“WF,” 5). The popular astronomer’s comical vision of a sixteensquare-mile

Jolly Roger was taken seriously, given the symbol’s historical

potency. When New York started requiring all poisonous

substances to be marked in 1829, they did not specify a symbol.

By the 1850s the skull and crossbones had survived all others, including

the very old Danish symbol “+ + +” as well as drawings of

skeletons. It has since lasted for more than one hundred years as

the world’s symbol for poison. The symbol’s use in fact began in

Moisey: Desire to Mark Our Buried Nuclear Waste 105

Fig. 1. Skull and crossbones used for earthworks

at closure and after fi ve thousand years.

John Lomberg.

the medieval era, when a skull and crossbones was often adjoined

to the base of crucifi xes, symbolizing the belief that Jesus had been

crucifi ed at Golgotha right above the buried skull of Adam. However,

as Jon Lomberg—Team B’s scientifi c illustrator—notes, this

earliest use of the skull and crossbones did not signify doom but

rather “the hope of Resurrection through the uncovering of hidden

knowledge” (“WF,” 24)—precisely the opposite of the nuclear

marker’s intended meaning. By the seventeenth century, however, it

waved atop English and American pirate ships, and a century later

the Spanish repurposed it in relief sculpture to mark the entrance

to cemeteries. Though Team B decided that in reality it would deteriorate

too quickly (fi g. 1), Sagan’s suggestion, in theory, was

smart—no other symbol of death and danger had survived to the

present, Darwin-like, as the fi ttest warning for poison. If it ain’t


qui parle spring/summer 2012 vol.20, no.2

broke, don’t fi x it, Sagan seemed to be urging. But both 1991 panels,

unlike the engineers at Onkalo, were preparing for a very broken

future without any cultural link to the present.

Into Eternity only briefl y haunts our screen with some of Team

A’s 1991 model drawings, never pausing to explain their American

origin. After Team A’s linguist, Frederick Newmeyer, explained

that any language would likely lose its potency long before the buried

radiation would, his team adopted the belief that “the physical

form of the entire WIPP and each and all the structures on it can

itself be a communication . . . through a universal, ‘natural language’

of forms” (EJ, F-39). Despite the fact that by 1991 most

humanists, especially art historians, no longer believed in a set of

universal aesthetics, the mostly scientifi c panel decided that “cultural

anthropology, philosophy, evolutionary biology, semiotics,

psycho-analytic theory, mythology, and comparative religion” all

argued for universal archetypes that were the result of humans’

“inherited propensities to respond to certain forms, or to experience

certain forms, in specifi c ways affectively” (EJ, F-40). This,

they argue plainly and with allusions to Joseph Campbell, is “older

and deeper than culture, something that is species-wide, part of

what it is to be human” (EJ, F-39–F-40). The report goes on:

As one example of the meanings inherent in a form, let us examine

a particular form of vertical stone marker, variously called

stele, obelisk, standing-stone, and memorial column. These have

been historically and commonly used to commemorate honored

phenomena. . . . In natural language, a vertical stone means: an

aspiring connector between us (on earth) and an ideal (up there);

that we “stand up” with pride about this honored phenomenon.

. . . Such a message would be inappropriate for the WIPP site.

. . . This team recommends the use of vertical masonry markers,

if their form feels dangerous, more like jagged teeth and thorns

than ideals embodied. (EJ, F-41)

The panel also suggested marking any monuments with pictograms

and language, all the while knowing that the erosion of literacy

and materials would render them useless too soon. For this

reason they envisioned a landscape of dreaded objects whose design

Moisey: Desire to Mark Our Buried Nuclear Waste 107

Fig. 2. Landscape of Thorns, by Safi r Abidi, 1991. Concept by Michael

Brill. Courtesy of the Estate of Michael Brill.

guidelines were overseen by architect Michael Brill. Brill’s Landscape

of Thorns (fi g. 2) is Team A’s most ambitious attempt to

de-idealize the standing-stone archetype to the point of abjection.

Slanted in an irreverent discordance and built with “valueless” concrete

or basalt, the massive thorns penetrate several stories above

the desert fl oor, extending the same invitation to people that dead

grass offers ants. In this picture you are placed before a giant thicket

in the desert. The bare basalt monoliths rise high to sharp points,

and their collective cluster recedes all the way into the horizon. The

picture posits a decisive moment: do you ignore or explore one of

the most awesome and unusual places you have ever seen?

This might sound like hyperbole, but the dimensions of the design

suggest that it is not. The Department of Energy mandates

sixteen square miles of marker (a third of San Francisco), and since

Team A decided that our species’ “natural language” is spoken

through architecture, any of its designs would result in one of the

largest unifi ed above-ground structures humans have ever built,


qui parle spring/summer 2012 vol.20, no.2

plainly visible to the astronaut’s naked eye. Curiously, the team’s

solution to this monumental problem was not to make the marker

more modest but to add a visitor’s center to it. In an appendix to

his team’s report, Newmeyer writes:

If the collective proposals of Team A are carried out, the WIPP site

will quickly become known as one of the major architectural and

artistic marvels of the modern world. Quite simply, there will be

no keeping people away. We owe it to these people to explain to

them why WIPP was built and its overall signifi cance. To do so adequately

would require a dedicated information center; the structures

themselves are not designed for this purpose. (EJ, F-149)

But still the team thought they knew how make it abject forever.

According to their report, “irregular geometries,” a “denial of

craftsmanship,” and “rude materials” would inspire future peoples

to ignore the team’s “artistic marvel.” “In our designs,” they wrote,

there is much irregularity both of forms and in their locations

and directions, yet done by a people with obvious knowledge of

pure geometry. This shows and understanding of the idea, but

at the same time a deliberate shunning of it . . . suggesting we do

not value this place, that it is not one that embodies our ideals.

(EJ, F-59)

In this way they believed their markers (fi gs. 3, 4, 5, and 6) would

be exactly unlike the Egyptian pyramids, whose perfect geometry

and marble facades made them giant jewels in the desert. But the

team believed that their markers’ unprecedented size would be repulsive

if shaped to signal “danger to the body” or “fear of the

beast” (EJ, F-42). The Sandia report makes clear that Team A’s

assumptions about our psyche’s relationship to “pure” forms follow

from Carl Jung (EJ, F-148, G-84). But Julia Bryan-Wilson, in

her 2004 article on the markers, has suggested that its inspiration

for structural ugliness rather follows from fascism. 4 As she notes,

though, such inspiration would be culturally very shortsighted

(“BM,” 195)—a valid hesitation, to which we might add that fascism’s

modernist revision of Roman architecture is rather diffi cult

to map onto Jungian precepts of innate spirituality.

Fig. 3. Black Hole, by Safi r Abidi, 1991. Concept by Michael Brill. Courtesy of the Estate of

Michael Brill.

Fig. 4. Forbidding Blocks, by Safi r Abidi. Concept by Michael Brill. Courtesy of the Estate of

Michael Brill.

Fig. 5. Spikes Bursting through Grid, by Safi r Abidi. Concept by Michael Brill. Courtesy of the

Estate of Michael Brill.

Fig. 6. Menacing Earthworks, by Safi r Abidi. Concept by Michael Brill. Courtesy of the Estate

of Michael Brill.

Moisey: Desire to Mark Our Buried Nuclear Waste 113

It would be more accurate to say that Team A got its timeless set

of abject aesthetics from the postwar modern art of its own day.

For instance, Black Hole (fi g. 3), which calls for sixteen square

miles of heat-absorbing black granite, bears a striking resemblance

to Maya Lin’s controversial 1981 submission for the black granite

wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (fi g. 7). Both conceive a

black mark in the earth and illustrate the mark with a wretched

triangle cutting through a tranquil landscape. Both are designed to

solicit recognition of a mass grave. Taken together, Team A’s proposals

ironically look like B-movie storyboards about modernist

sculptures that have been left to mutate in a radioactive desert. In

Team A’s judgment, an array of giant cubes (fi g. 4), spikes bursting

through a grid (fi g. 5), lightning shapes (fi g. 6), or a neat pile of

rubble (fi g. 8) would not be seen as art by, and would even instill

dread in, future Homo sapiens. Lomberg even warned in the Expert

Judgment report not to involve the art community in any decision

making, since “in places like New York [the art world] is antiscientifi

c, anti-representational, and seems to favor more detached

and (to me) nihilistic statements” (EJ, G-85). As Lomberg seems

to have suspected, Team A, through its proposals, had already involved

the art world by proxy of its own distaste.

When I asked Lomberg, whose personal appendix to the Sandia

report represents the panel’s most astute insight into the problems

of the marking system, if anyone in Team B envisioned the kind

of monumental art that Team A devised, he replied, “Well, I think

it must not be a coincidence that the team with an architect came

up with an architectural solution.” 5 Team B had two anthropologists

and, also perhaps in turn, settled on a pictographic solution.

Lomberg explained that these were inspired by the warning signs

of the National Park Service (“TI”). Something offi cial-looking, he

reasoned, was more likely to be read as information than as art.

Of course, it is hard to defi nitively signify “offi cial kiosk” (fi g. 9)

in the barren desert, and communication in an unoffi cial context

will be the marker’s reason for existing when it is erected. Lomberg

believed that his team’s pictograms (fi g. 10) might be unambiguous

enough to connote a warning to any thinking person, if only the

pictures would last long enough. Yet like the skull and crossbones,


qui parle spring/summer 2012 vol.20, no.2

Fig. 7. Competition submission for the Vietnam Veterans

Memorial in Washington, DC, 1981. Concept, drawings,

and text by Maya Lin. Reproduced from the Library

of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Vietnam

Veterans Memorial Fund Slide Collection, LC-DIG-ppmsca-09504


they are perhaps more likely to end up on a T-shirt before they

send any teenager, like the dying one they depict, running for the


Though it would be absolutely wrong to say that any members

of either team wished for the death of future peoples, it is hard

to escape in their proposals an emerging wish to lure the distant

Moisey: Desire to Mark Our Buried Nuclear Waste 115

Fig. 8. Rubble landscape. Concept by Michael Brill, 1991. Courtesy of

the Estate of Michael Brill.

future closer to the past. By this I mean that both teams’ plans

seem almost designed to backfi re with respect to their task of deterrence,

containing ambiguities that their authors understood yet

never resolved. For Team A these begin with the contradictory vision

of one of the world’s “major architectural and artistic marvels”

connoting a “place we do not value.” Indeed, only the former

is plainly illustrated in Team A’s “installation views,” which show

fi gures not running away but rather transfi xed before each marker

with the awe and contemplation that every artist wishes his or her

work would receive for all of eternity. The people in fi gures 3, 4,

5, and 6 seem to think they have found the sculpture garden at the

contemporary art museum.

Moreover, both Team A and Team B envisioned multiple-level

markers in which these above-ground markers would merely be

the fi rst point of contact. Once the visitor decided to investigate

what lies beneath them, that person, or team of people, would discover

rooms fi lled with what might then be cryptic information—


qui parle spring/summer 2012 vol.20, no.2

Fig. 9. Monolith, by Jon Lomberg, 1991. Courtesy of the artist.

periodic tables, astronomical charts, and inscriptions in many languages

about what lies further below (fi g. 11)—including maps of

the WIPP site that would explain where to (not) fi nd the waste.

More than one proposal called for a map of the world indicating

where else to (not) unearth the same deadly material (fi g. 12).

While it seems sensible to continue to warn those who misunderstood

the initial message, this logic entirely contradicts the history

of archaeology, which has no stories to tell of ancient chambers

Fig. 10. Trefoil defi nition. Jon Lomberg, 1991.

Courtesy of the artist.


qui parle spring/summer 2012 vol.20, no.2

being left alone even after their inscribed warnings had been translated.

To be sure, it would be hard to understand why the teams

would want to supply this kind of information to visitors unless

they had inherited a mythical wish that this waste should someday

be found, deep inside the beast.

In a truly nightmarish reversal of the Freudian scenario of the

toddler wishing to gift his feces to his parents, both teams managed

to design markers that would inadvertently lead our descendants

directly to their forebears’ most abject waste. But by making this

analogy I do not want to suggest that this wish stayed at an unconscious

level—quite the contrary, for despite working entirely

separately, Team A and Team B both decided to advocate an actual

feces-gift. Lomberg explained in our interview how Team B’s chilling

“third level” would have worked:

lomberg: And then there’s a third level of detailed manifest of

exactly what’s down there. And one of the proposals that we

had, that would take kind of an “easement” or a waiver from

the EPA, is that the best marker would be a sample of the waste.

That’s the most unambiguous thing: here’s a sample of what’s

down there.

me: That’s fascinating. I see that wasn’t in the report.

lomberg: Well we were told we couldn’t do it because it’s illegal.

You can’t purposely leave toxic materials where they’d be

accessible. So this would have to be a special-case kind of deal

where, I don’t know how you’d do it, but you’d have to do it in

some way that you’d be in conformance with existing federal

law about toxic waste. (“TI”)

This story makes fi gure 9—the ambiguous pictogram about a boy

who gets radiation poisoning—look less like a warning and more

like a plan. Lomberg even made a drawing, kept out of the offi cial

report, of what such a sample of the waste might look like, labeled

with a cartouche of danger symbols (fi g. 13). These modern-day

symbols, of course, would one day be hieroglyphs whose meanings

would only be deciphered with aid of the contents of their receptacle—displayed

à la perfume under thick, transparent Lucite. As

morally inconceivable as this gift might sound, Team A managed

Fig. 11. Conception of buried room where level 4 messages

would be received. Michael Brill, 1991. Courtesy of the

Estate of Michael Brill.

Fig. 12. Walk-on map of radioactive burial sites. Michael Brill, 1991.

Courtesy of the Estate of Michael Brill.


qui parle spring/summer 2012 vol.20, no.2

Fig. 13. Accessible buried sample in container. Jon Lomberg, 1991.

Courtesy of the artist.

to get the same idea into an appendix to the report, alongside their

proposal for a “visitor’s center” and a weird, glib short story about

the markers saving the lives of a futuristic drilling team.

We have all become very marker-prone, but shouldn’t we nevertheless

admit that, in the end, despite all we try to do, the most

effective “marker” for any intruders will be a relatively limited

amount of sickness or death caused by the radioactive waste? In

other words, it is largely a self-correcting process if anyone intrudes

without appropriate precautions, and it seems unlikely that

intrusion on such buried waste would lead to large-scale disasters.

An analysis of the likely number of deaths over ten thousand years

Moisey: Desire to Mark Our Buried Nuclear Waste 121

due to inadvertent intrusion should be conducted. This cost should

be weighed against that of the marker system (EJ, F-143).

Again, it is perhaps too much to ask that rationality fi gure into

our rationale for solving problems that will occur in mythical time,

but it should not be too much to ask that we do not give samples

of nuclear waste to anybody. Lomberg also suggested another proposal,

equally unlikely ever to be adopted, to bury the waste near

a highly populated urban center. The reasoning would be that the

inhabitants of such a place, over the course of many generations,

would “remember” what was there and retain the knowledge to

handle an emergency. Yet no city has ever lasted four hundred generations,

let alone four thousand, and if there were not an emergency

within a few such generations, there might not be any impetus

to remember what to do in case of a resurrection.

In 2004 the Department of Energy released an implementation

report that revealed the fi nal design for the markers. Unsurprisingly

but still astonishingly, they will be a combination of Team

A’s and Team B’s proposals. Along the sixteen-mile perimeter will

rise granite pillars (fi g. 15), each thirty-two feet tall and engraved

with multilingual warnings and the face from Edvard Munch’s The

Scream (fi g. 14). The center of the site will feature a thirty-foot-tall,

hundred-foot-wide earthen berm, complete with passive beacons

like magnets and radar refl ectors. At the center of the berm there

will be an information room like the ones just discussed, and many

more engravings of The Scream, more inscriptions, and maps detailing

the locations of the “buried storage.” In terms of increasing

awareness of the waste, this proposal has one advantage on all the

others: its magnetic, radar-refl ecting, concentric design will have a

centripetal rather than centrifugal effect on visitors. 6

There is an antidote to all the problems of the aforementioned

proposals: seal the waste as well as our culture knows how and actually

hide it. Lomberg explained that his team had discussed this

but decided that if the site were to leak into the groundwater the

victims would never know what hit them, and no one on his team

considered that responsible behavior (“TI”). The engineers responsible

for constructing both WIPP and Onkalo have been adamant,

despite mandates for warning systems, that the sites are leakproof

Fig. 14. Text appearing on large surface markers on the controlled area

boundary. John Hart and Associates. 2004.

Moisey: Desire to Mark Our Buried Nuclear Waste 123

Fig. 15. Permanent markers components. John Hart and Associates, P.A.


for all foreseeable disasters—except, of course, for human intervention.

Needless to say, governments and commissioned designers

of waste-marking systems believe that the best way to prevent inadvertent

intrusion into their poison wells is to mark where to fi nd

it. It seems that simply not marking where to unearth the waste

is psychically rather diffi cult—something that, for all of the professed

infl uence of psychoanalysis upon the panel, neither team

seems to have recognized in their own deliberations. Within our

own lifetime, not marking means not commemorating the most


qui parle spring/summer 2012 vol.20, no.2

awesome, if also the most abhorrent, scientifi c achievement of our

time with one of the biggest pieces of art the world has ever seen.

But in mythical terms, it means forever hiding our proof that we

fi nally stole the power of the sun without the help of the gods to

whom we once dedicated great temples, churches, and pyramids—

our proof that we became free of gods. When thought in mythical

terms—the very terms the mandate’s time span demands—hiding

what will be the last intact piece of our culture 100,000 years from

now would be an eternal repudiation of what made us historically

unique. When thought in eternity, not marking our waste is abject.

In our interview, Lomberg interestingly pointed to a cultural difference

between the Americans and the Europeans that, at least

on the face of it, seems to account for the disinterest Madsen fi nds

among the engineers in his line of questioning, the problem that

ultimately foils the dramatic premise of the fi lm. The WIPP report

was prepared in 1993 for presentation at an international gathering

of nuclear engineers concerned about the disposal of their

waste. To his surprise, Lomberg discovered, the Europeans at the

meeting thought the Americans’ proposals for markers were crazy—not

because they thought they were too expensive or posed a

greater risk, but because the Americans were caring about the wellbeing

of future peoples. “Caveat emptor,” Lomberg explained, is

the European way of dealing with dangers—“they simply don’t

feel the same duty to warn” (“TI”). Given this supposedly culturally

specifi c belief, one can hardly blame the Finnish and Swedish

engineers for being unresponsive to Madsen’s implicit accusations

that they do not have a good plan to warn the future. After all,

they have come up with what, in their minds, is the best plan of

all, this side of pumping the waste into the churning mantle of the

earth: putting it in a leak-proof container in a granite cave half a

kilometer beneath a frozen forest.


1. “Nuclear Power Plants Information: Number of Reactors in Operation

Worldwide” (International Atomic Energy Agency, 2007).

2. Kathleen M. Trauth, Stephen C. Hora, and Robert V. Guzowski, Expert

Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Intrusion into the

Moisey: Desire to Mark Our Buried Nuclear Waste 125

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (Albuquerque: Sandia National Laboratories,

1993, for the United States Department of Energy under Contract

DE-AC04-94AL85000), 2–7. Hereafter cited as EJ.

3. Jon Lomberg, “Warning the Future,” unpublished draft for a memoir

of his work with the WIPP panel, p. 24. Hereafter cited as “WF.”

4. Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Building a Marker of Nuclear Warning,” in

Monuments and Memory: Made and Unmade, ed. Robert S. Nelson

and Margaret Olin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004),

194. Hereafter cited as “BM.”

5. Jon Lomberg, telephone interview with the author, September 9,

2011. Hereafter cited as “TI.”

6. John Hart and Associates, Permanent Markers Implementation Plan,

Prepared for the United States Department of Energy and Washington

Regulatory and Environmental Services (Carlsbad: Carlsbad Field

Offi ce, 2004).

Similar magazines