Will Art Save Our Descendants from Radioactive Waste? via Jstor Daily

What if the great threat to human life isn’t a bomb dropping down from above but radioactive waste creeping up from below? Will art come to our rescue then?

Before a world that trembled beneath the threat of nuclear holocaust, William Faulkner took the stage to accept his Nobel Prize for Literature. It was 1950. The Soviets had detonated their first atomic bomb a year earlier, and Truman had responded by announcing plans to build a bomb 500 times as powerful as the one that brought World War II to a terrifying close in Nagasaki. In the face of all this, Faulkner maintained that art could be “one of the props, the pillars to help [man] endure and prevail.” The greatest threat to human life, he believed, was not the bomb itself, but failures of understanding and empathy that might lead one society to drop it on another.

John Steinbeck concurred. A decade later, with the world in the grip of the Bay of Pigs conflict, he concluded his Nobel Prize speech by paraphrasing Saint John the Apostle: “In the end is the word, and the word is man, and the word is with man.” Where there are failures of understanding, art might just save the day.


The story begins in the interval between the two speeches by Faulkner and Steinbeck, when questions began to arise about the safe disposal of radioactive waste. Where should the waste be stored to keep ordinary citizens at a safe distance? And what about the safety of future generations, since transuranic waste is believed to remain highly toxic for more than 24,000 years?

As early as 1973, the government agency that would become the Department of Energy (DOE) recognized an ethical obligation to store nuclear waste in a way that would prove least harmful to humans deep into the future. Thus the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) was conceived. At first it seemed an engineering challenge par excellence: build containers for nuclear waste that could outlast the toxicity, bury them in a remote place, and the case would be closed. However, as NPR reported, a radioactive leak at the WIPP in 2014 suggests this is easier said than done.


Both teams recognized that the chief difficulty was the inescapable cultural specificity of symbols. Many of our ordinary modes of communicating danger today might fail to signify across nearby borders, let alone across great distances of time. But each team used a different strategy to overcome this challenge. Team A proposed an archetypal solution—a maximally unappealing work of architecture that would appeal to the affective powers of future humans. Team B proposed a narrative solution—a series of pictographs or comic strips that would appeal instead to their cognitive powers.

Team A’s guiding belief was that, although human symbols might be culturally specific, human physiology would remain largely unchanged across the relevant millennia. As environmental critic and cultural theorist Peter C. van Wyck puts it, “they began with the assumption that certain physical forms have the capacity to convey extralinguistic, stable pancultural meaning.” They reasoned, therefore, that evoking foreboding or disgust would be the best safeguard against human intrusion. Future humans would be guided away from the site not by a message from without, but by a feeling from within.


Team B was more optimistic than Team A that symbols could be transmitted across time. Both teams’ plans feature a gargantuan monument surrounded by earthen berms, granite markers, and information in many languages. But whereas Team B wished to attract visitors to the center of the monument so that complex messages could be communicated, Team A wished to cut visitors off at the pass, luring them in only far enough that they could be sufficiently affected by the monument’s utter abjectness.


But if Team A’s anti-idealist monument risks attracting too many people to the WIPP, the earthwork chosen by the DOE risks attracting too few. It is unlikely that any of our known languages, or even any of our cultural indices, will survive 800 generations into the future. But the odds spike precipitously in our favor if one of the world’s great architectural marvels beckons generations of tourists to its increasingly strange hieroglyphics. Taking liberties with Steinbeck, we might say that if the word is indeed to be with man, man must be with the word, generation after generation.

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