How do you convince someone to stay away?

The feverish but resilient Megan McArdle refers us to a problem in signaling theory:

Slate ponders how to communicate the danger of radioactive waste to the far future.  The problem is, if they can't read English, or recognize the radiation trefoil, anything you do sounds more likely to intrigue future anthropologists than to warn them off…

Juliet Lapidos at Slate writes:

Even if future trespassers could understand what keep and out mean when placed side by side, there's no reason to assume they'd follow directions. In "Expert Judgment," the panelists observe that "[m]useums and private collections abound with [keep out signs] removed from burial sites."

…Likewise, a scavenger on the Carlsbad site in the year 12,000 C.E. may dismiss the menace of radiation poisoning as mere superstition. ("So I'm supposed to think that if I dig here, invisible energy beams will kill me?") Hence the crux of the problem: Not only must intruders understand the message that nuclear waste is near and dangerous; they must also believe it.

How can we solve this problem?  Similarly, if an attractive woman tells you "You don't want to go out with me" do you believe her and act on that?  What other problems have this structure?


I would think that in this age of easily to reproduce information through printed word and now the internet that the knowledge of what is and isn’t dangerous is far more likely to be passed down through the ages and people will always know to be careful with radioactive waste. If something so catastrophic were to happen to society that this information did not get passed on, something like an asteroid strike that all but wipes us out, then the last thing we will be worrying about is what people 5000 years in the future are going to be doing with our radioactive waste!

I suppose a possible answer could be in some sort of mathematical language??

Models of the atoms of uranium and plutonium and other radioactives.

Inscribed on door and on pillars by the door. Plus cartoon characters of people getting sick from radiationa poisoning.

A sufficiently advanced civilization (ie post about 1890 and Marie Curie) should be able to figure out what this means.

A less advanced civilization will have an accelerated lesson in atomic physics.

AE Van Vogt's 'Empire of the Atom' and 'The Wizard of Linn' (based on the novel I, Claudius) tackle these issues.

As does Walter Miller's 'Canticle for Liebowitz' (radiation is seen as a demonic influence making some areas uninahbitable.

There is a good anecdote on this topic. Architects and builders were puzzled how to warn future generations of the dangers of a nuclear waste dump somewhere in the U.S.. Some Native Americans which happened to be on site finally asked the architects what are they arguing about, and on being explained that "We are thinking how to warn people 10,000 years in the future that this dump is very dangerous", the natives just shrugged: "don't worry, we'll still be about and we'll tell them".

In thousands of years, that nuclear waste will have seeped into the groundwater and contaminated the whole area. That will be the first clue that it's dangerous.

There was a Wall Street Journal article several weeks ago about how we got to the situation of having all this waste. It turns out that Gerald Ford's administration worried that terrorists would get fuel rods while they were enroute to be reprocessed.

Look at France. They reprocess the fuel, and most of the products from that operation have uses. As I recall, the very small part of material for which there is no current use is kept at the Hague.

So, start reprocessing and forget about this non-issue.

The USDA will not send a person to any farm when, in the past, that farmer has threatened a surveyor with a gun.
So, to stop future surveys, threaten the current surveyor with a gun.
To stop future intrusions into a nuclear waste dump,
add durable "bamboo-like" spikes, develop landmines that will last 10,000 years (oh my), or add anything with an immediate effect worse than the effect of nuclear waste (immediate death, bad taste, bad smell, permanently poisoned water).
Or, watch Indiana Jones, then implement the ancient traps.

Expanding on the Rosetta Stone theme, I'd go with the language equivalent of a chain letter. "If you go into this site, you will die. You must copy this sign into your current native dialect and post six more of them here, or you will die."

The higher primates - including humans - all seem to have an itch to investigate the unusual. So anything you signal as unusual - even if you get a danger signal accross - is likely to get investigated sooner or later. Investigating the unusual is sometimes fatal, but seems to convey an evolutionary advantage.

That apart, I have a hunch that even a successful subvocal signal independent of language will not do the trick. Near Stonehenge there is another site - sometimes called Woodhenge - that gives a lot of us (including me) the heebie-jeebies. The archaeologists dig there.

If we really, really want to permanently put permanently toxic waste out of circulation, the only means so far available are to route it down towards earth's core in a tectonic plate subduction zone, or upwards into a path that falls into the sun.

Do radioactive waste sites wear red pumps?

A less advanced civilization will have an accelerated lesson in atomic physics

Do not shine laser into remaining eye

Do radioactive waste sites wear red pumps?

It is the comments on MR that keep me coming back.

And on this thread some of the best MR commenter-humorists haven't weighed in yet!

The "attractive woman" problem is different, at least for me.

I'm not a playa type, so a woman who is not interested in me as a dating candidate is not a dating candidate for me. Friend maybe, dating no. But we probably would have figured that out as friends first.

Maybe that's because I look at women as people, not potential "dating candidates." Not being PC here, but I've had and still have numerous female friends, because I don't view women as primarily sexual objects.

And I thought that way before I had a daughter.

this literally HAS been done before. the pharoahs (sp?) lwft express, explicit warnings of the dire effects of opening their tombs (and esp robbing them!). We're batting 0 and 1 at best with this sort of thing

Did no one read Anathem?

Your problem is simplified because the "far future" isn't that far. If that half life of something is very long, then it isn't very radioactive -- by definition. (you don't have to be a scientist to realize that decay rate is inversely proportional to half life).

In other words, long-lived isotopes decay slowly (few decays per unit time), or they'd be short-lived isotopes. Your biggest worry with plutonium is not that some isotopes decay slowly, but like other (non-radioactive) heavy metals, it is poisonous. That worry has been very, very exaggerated for various reasons (scare people about dirty bombs, anti-nuclear power, you name it).

Lead is poisonous, too, and stable isotopes last forever. How do we package our old fishing weights and car batteries?

Most nuclear waste (by volume) are materials contaminated with short lived isotopes of iron, molybdenum, cobalt, etc. Some of it is pretty nasty stuff, but for a very short time.

Spent fuel is highly radioactive at first. All sorts of very radioactive (i.e., short half life) fission-product nastiness. After a few hundred years, the hazard is on the same order as that of uranium ore.

The period of technological advancement where people don't understand radioactivity and would have the resources to breach the facility is pretty short. (A few hundred years?) And like above posters say, any scenario where this occurs requires a pretty unprecedented collapse of technological knowhow, far greater than the dark ages. And the facility, in this dark age future, will rapidly acquire very effective warning signs: dead bodies.

I think that any future dark-age-living-humans would much rather we invested in some kind of time capsule that preserves all human knowledge for them, including that of where not to dig. Is the potential of digging at the Carlsbad site really going to be the most pressing issue for a post-apocalypse human? Plus, I'm pretty sure that any scenario that involves a technological dark ages will probably involve some very, very obvious other sources of radioactivity as well.

And if some non-collapsed society in the future manages to survive long enough to forget about the waste location, it is likely they will have a number of tools that will allow them to deal with it. "Wait, the humans of 2009 really thought that a little bit of radiation was going to hurt us? ha ha!"

This seems to be fake problem. If you assume we are not capable of communicating with people in the future, then it follows that we cannot communicate the danger. If you assume we can communicate, then we can communicate the danger.

What exactly are we assuming here?

A fantastic October, 1991 profile of the artist James Acord discussed his concerns about this at some length. I think it was a two-parter... Anyway, his masterpiece "Monstrance for a Grey Horse" is at least in part a stab at solving the problem. Here's a good piece on Acord and his work (ungated, unlike the New Yorker stuff):

Any explicit warning from any obviously beautiful woman is superfluous. We have it on the authority of Jack Kerouac, at least (in The Dharma Bums): pretty women dig graves. If in doubt, consult Louise Brooks's Lulu. If still in doubt: it's too late, and your life is already dwindling in some pair of beautiful hands.

Forget text or icons or symbols. Let evolutionary psychology work for you: go with things that cause instinctual fright or disgust.

Liberally strew around skulls and skeletons and gorily mutilated and decomposing bodies, realistically fashioned out of plastic by top Hollywood horror-movie prop artists. We also seem to have an innate tendency to fear spiders and snakes, so throw in some plastic versions of those too. Display pictures or plastic models of "uncanny valley" human-like faces, to cause distress and revulsion (the uncanny valley effect exists even for monkeys).

Perhaps throw in some airtight containers that release a stench of death when broken open by curious intruders, if you can find some chemical compound that's stable over thousands of years.

Consider the suggestion "Inscribed on door and on pillars by the door. Plus cartoon characters of people getting sick from radiation poisoning."

Now suppose that they read right to left.

Does this now mean that what is in the room cures the sick and raises the dead?

"Did no one read Anathem?"

Yeah, just have the milleniarians (sp?) guard it at three mathic sites.

"Now suppose that they read right to left.

Does this now mean that what is in the room cures the sick and raises the dead?"


I agree with the "no problem" analysis of nuclear waste and the far future (especially anon@9:59's).

In a few thousand years, there won't be any significant problem with radioactive waste created now, so there's no need to make some sort of foolproof "no, really, it's superbad dangerous trust us" signage. Which is just as well, since it's an impossible mission anyway.

(Contra "a", groundwater seepage is not a significant issue with reactor waste in general, doubly especially when properly stored. By the time the casks are breached and the solid metal rods leach enough to be noticeable, it won't be significantly radioactive anymore. Now, some of the metals are chemically toxic, but so're lead and a lot of other metals that nobody's complaining about 10,000 year signage for. Plus there are plenty of more serious sources for all of those...)

Ricardo: Why would they assume it was waste and not treasure?

Lead is actually a useful industrial material. We may not be doing our post-industrial descendants a favor by hiding the lead from them--- and they will find it anyway.

How do you convince someone to stay away?

Possible answers:

Make it as easy as possible to come in.

Make it look like an academic library.

Make it look like an old strip mall.

Make it look like a lousy take out place.

Make it look like low quality high rise public housing, maybe in Chicago.

I don't know about this post.. I may have to look into it more. Try

Make the warnings about and all entryways temporary and degradable. Thus as long as our civilization continues we can replace them. If WWIII happens and all present knowledge is lost by the time there exists anyone to be curious about the funny signs and where all those roads are going, the outside traces of the site are gone. Thus, there is nothing to be curious about.

We just had a speaker come and talk about this issue. The ideas proposed for warning the future inhabitants as well as the scenarios of what the future might look like were all insane. The ideas of starting cults and socially engineering humans to fear the area were particularly amusing. I say that the real danger is that many, many people die from the radiation. One answer is to make the area phenomenally dangerous to _single_ investigators. Backfilling the area with unexploded ordinance mixed with sand should be a good start.

This doesn't seem particularly hard. The dumps have two layers. One, the outer, is far smaller and the radioactive waste is just lying around. No nice containers, nothing. The waste there should be particularly dangerous, so that the people who enter it are swiftly killed. Others may take note of the swift death and choose to not enter the larger part of the dump.

By the time the anthropologists of the future actually find any actual radioactive material they'll probably already understand what it is. If they don't then they're not very good anthropologists. Natural selection at work!

This problem is not as complex as some make it out to be. You don't have to give people an understanding of radioactivity. You don't need to be able to convince them it's dangerous. They'll find that out for themselves, even if they don't understand why.

All we need to do is clearly mark the dangerous zone. People will explore it anyway, and they'll die. Eventually, they'll figure out that we marked the area for a reason, and they'll stay out.

We can't set a goal which says no one will accidentally die of radiation poising 10,000 years from now because of our waste repository. That's wholly unrealistic. People will die for all sorts of reasons because of our civilization. They'll eat some lead or other toxic chemical, or they'll spill acid on themselves, or be crushed when the old bridge ruins they live under collapse on top of them. Old mines will destabilize mountainsides and cause collapses that kill people. Stuff happens.

Our goal should be to make them understand that certain areas are off limits so they don't build a city on it or use it for Woodstock 6000. So we just need to show them the boundaries of the danger. The danger itself will be discovered.

As an analogy, considering all those "Keep Out" signs we've plundered out of Egyptian tombs. Why didn't they work? Because there was no danger. They were either bluffing to keep robbers out, or the danger was based on a false mythology. Once we know the signs had no power, we ignored them. Had the first tomb robbers dropped dead after entering, and subsequent robbers also dropped dead, and to this day there was still a mystery field that killed anyone who entered a pyramid, my guess is that we wouldn't enter them. We don't have to know why - we just have to know where.

In any event, my guess is that in a much shorter time frame we'll discover that the nuclear waste is extremely valuable and we'll remove it and use it. It's still a potent source of energy, after all.

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