When We Are History

Steve McCracken has overseen a 13-year, $800 million cleanup and burial of the radioactive waste at Weldon Spring. Now that the odyssey is nearing its end, one thought haunts him -- how to warn people in the future not to dig it up.

McCracken thinks he knows, like every aspect of the project itself, that the storage facility will pose no physical danger to anyone for at least 1,000 years. There's little chance of radioactivity leaking up through the boulders on top or seeping down through the filters below. Every layer was checked, rechecked and checked yet again; each scrap of debris scoured; every quark of contamination stored and sealed. No seams, no leaks, no shortcuts to haunt the future.

And yet McCracken feels uneasy. Forever is a long time, and if it only took 20 years for the federal government to forget what contamination was there in the chemical-plant site, who in Weldon Spring will remember what's in the storage facility 100 years from now?

"It will be a great big pile of rocks, with a big fence around it and signs saying something like 'Radioactivity: Keep Out!'" McCracken says. "But even though there's nothing there that will hurt you, a big fence around it would scare people.

"When we first came here, we didn't communicate very well with the community," he says. "People were talking about two-headed frogs and worried about whether to drink the water, and it's because there was no communication. How long after we leave do you think it would be before the same problems resurface, especially when there's a big fence all around this thing and signs warning people to stay out?"

Making Ancient History
McCracken leans forward in his chair, staring blankly at a small bookshelf not holding the expected Global Politics of Nuclear Energy or coffee-table version of The Los Alamos Primer but two spiral-bound copies of Favorite Recipes. He smiles, almost sadly.

"It's something we do to collect money for charity," he says, leaning forward and pulling out one of the cookbooks. In three years he -- along with Greenwell, Wesely and the other employees, many of whom worked on the project from beginning to end -- will have to move on. No one yet seems to know where they are going. "I wonder if this is the one where some of the employees named recipes after things we do here."

As he flips through the pages looking, presumably, for Radon Roast Surprise, McCracken ponders out loud a job he's never tackled before: communicating "forever" to the public. Even though the cell will be monitored for the foreseeable future, there will come a time when the memory of Major Project No. 185, Weldon Spring Site Remedial Action Project will be gone and long forgotten.

Consider that 1,000 years ago, Europe was in the Middle Ages. A thousand years from now, who will know that radioactive waste is buried under the big pile of rocks on the hill?

Gregory Benford, a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine, suggested in his recently published book Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia that one of the biggest problems facing humanity now is how to communicate to the future, the deep future, that a particular structure contains hazardous waste. In 1989, Benford was asked by the DOE to join a panel of experts commissioned to find an answer to that very problem.

Writes Benford: "Most history beyond a thousand years is hazy, especially on a regional scale. Prior to the Norman invasion in 1066, English history is sketchy. Beyond three thousand years lie vast unknowns; nine thousand years exceeds the span of present human history. The probability of radical shifts in worldview and politics means that we cannot anticipate and warn future generations based on an understanding of the past, even when we anticipate the use of modern information storage capabilities."

In other words, Benford warns, huge changes in politics, language, culture and the environment will almost certainly make it impossible for us to just erect a sign in English -- or any other modern language -- saying "Danger! Keep Out!" Likewise, symbols of danger -- like the skull-and-bones signs -- will probably mean nothing to residents of the deep future. Just finding material to last thousands of years to mark something on is tough enough.

The panel couldn't even figure out a way to build a storage facility so that its presence alone connotes danger. Every possible suggestion lead panelists to worry that future anthropologists would suspect it to be a burial ground or religious temple and try to dig it up. "How we present ourselves in these ancient sepulchers may be our longest-lasting legacy,' Benford writes. "It is sobering to reflect that distant eras may know us mostly by our waste -- and by our foresight."

Though McCracken can't deal with time beyond 1,000 years, he has come up with a plan to communicate for at least the next century or two. He figures that it would be better to draw people to the site and inform them about it rather than try and keep them away from it and risk collective amnesia.

If the federal government can spend thousands of dollars for an 8-foot fence around the atomic graveyard and spend thousands more on PR every time worried citizens of the future question what's behind the fence, under the rocks, marked "Dangerous!" -- why not spend the money now on creating an interpretive center explaining the project in full detail? From the interpretive center, then, visitors could walk up a flight of stairs to the very top of the storage facility, where another set of interpretative signs or plaques on an observation platform could be read.

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