Deep Time, Short Sight

Bracing for Yucca Mountain's Nuclear Forever

Right off, Brill's panel discussed leaving "great piles of this deadly shit above grade" so that anyone wandering near the site would become ill and die. The panel roundly rejected using corpses as "BEWARE" signs, however, due to inter-generational responsibilities: Our electric lights today shouldn't cause death or mutants tomorrow. So Brill's team concentrated on archetypal images of danger, things that are hardwired in all of us regardless of culture, and came up with massive, square-mile complexes such as Landscape of Thorns (50-foot-high concrete spires with sharp points jutting out at all angles), Forbidding Blocks (black, gargantuan, irregular cubes of stone, too narrowly spaced and hot to provide shelter), and other "menacing earthworks," all designed to convey "poisoned and parched and dead land, a place that's really no place." Anti-art, in other words. Buried granite chambers with warnings in the official languages of the UN were also planned, along with space to re-carve them in whatever languages evolve over deep time.

DOE has opted for a cheaper design: a 33-foot-high earthen berm, half a mile square, studded by granite monoliths inscribed with warnings and pictograms of radiation danger. It has incorporated the experts' ideas for an information kiosk; high vantage points from which to survey the entire danger area; radar-reflective trihedrals; and small buried markers to warn against excavation or digging. Still, nothing will be built at the New Mexico waste plant until 2083, nor at Yucca Mountain until sometime in the 24th century. Transporting, storing, and finally sealing off such lethal material is a thorny, fraught process that we will not live to see completed.

"Art is long; life is short," goes the old saying, but neither can cope with the insidious longevity of radiation. We can only hope our distant, unknowable descendants will understand that their ancestors crossed a line in this century—that our mummy's curse is not metaphorical or metaphysical, but very much the real thing.

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