18 November 2009

Communicating danger of nuclear waste to future civilizations

People familiar with Hanford and its clean-up struggle already know how dangerous and critical the radioactive contamination is, but what about everyone else? How are we to keep informing people of this nuclear mess in order for future generations to understand the necessary precautions of radioactivity? During a 2004 cleanup operation at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state, personnel digging through a trench uncovered a safe containing a glass bottle. And inside the bottle was white sludge later determined as plutonium. The potential danger of this accessible bottle of plutonium, which could have been discovered by nearly anyone, is a startling idea.

Juliet Lapidos published an article on Slate illustrating these points and how there is a need for getting the information out there efficiently to individuals, centuries from now. Language and culture are constantly evolving and differ all across the world. The English language has continually changed throughout the centuries, and "universal symbols" aren't so universal. A skull-and-crossbones is one example that is too ambiguous: Even today, it connotes danger only to some. Latin Americans may associate it with the Catholic Day of the Dead holiday. Mere markings and symbols to warn people that hazardous materials are nearby is inefficient for their understanding. People also need to know what the extent of such hazardous dangers are; stumbling upon a radioactive waste site cannot be weighed the same as spilling some toilet cleaner. Sticking a "KEEP OUT" sign on fences of nuclear sites has a minimal chance of deterring trespassers.

So far the committees in charge of accessing this information haven't done the most satisfactory job. Thousands of Washingtonians still have no idea what or where Hanford is. It's important to keep a long-term outlook when making plans for radioactive waste; plans that will include a wide variety of people from all over the world. Anthropological, political, economical, biological, and linguistic ideas all offer points of view that can lead to a encompassing solution.


  1. Great post. I am under the impression that this is a big issue even for the current generation in places like the contaminated land around the Chernobyl accident.

  2. Yes, it certainly is a current issue as well. I was recently reminded that when the Department of Energy was forced to put up "No Trespassing" signs around the Hanford site, they actually posted them facing towards the site, not towards the access roads! Not really sure what the goal was there, but it's another obstacle to communicating the dangers of radioactive wastes to the public.

  3. This issue is one that I feel goes past informing people in the future about Hanford. There is a current problem, mentioned in this article, in that people in the present don't know about Hanford and it's radioactive contaminations. The government (DOE and Washington State Dept. of Ecology included) needs to do a better job of informing people about Hanford. Educating more people about its dangers can start to perpetuate that knowledge through generations. My knowledge of Hanford began from my parents teaching me about it. This form of education can keep people aware for generations to come.