Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Nuclear Culture 13: Write to the Future with Platinum, on Disks of Sapphire

Nuclear waste, buried underground. Image Source: Telegraph via Law in Action.

One of the many nasty things which haunt the nuclear industry is the disposal of waste deep underground, in facilities which have to last tens of thousands of years. At the Agence nationale pour la gestion des déchets radioactifs (ANDRA), nuclear waste management officials have decided that they actually need to preserve information on these radioactive waste respositories in records which will last for one million years. One million years of toxic waste management: this is what today's green, eco-friendly, affordable nuclear power option offers. Officials do not know what language to write the records in to make them comprehensible across such enormous spans of time, but whatever language they use, it will be written in platinum on hard disks made of sapphire.

From Science, 12 July 2012 (Hat tip: EX-SKF):
DUBLIN—It seems these days that no data storage medium lasts long before becoming obsolete—does anyone remember Sony's Memory Stick? So have pity for the builders of nuclear waste repositories, who are trying to preserve records of what they've buried and where, not for a few years but for tens of thousands of years.

Today, Patrick Charton of the French nuclear waste management agency ANDRA presented one possible solution to the problem: a sapphire disk inside which information is engraved using platinum. The prototype shown costs €25,000 to make, but Charton says it will survive for a million years. The aim, Charton told the Euroscience Open Forum here, is to provide "information for future archaeologists." But, he concedes: "We have no idea what language to write it in."

Most countries with nuclear power stations agree that the solution for dealing with long-lived nuclear waste is to store it deep inside the earth, about 500 meters below the surface. Finland, France, and Sweden are the furthest advanced in the complicated process of finding a geologically suitable site, persuading local communities to accept it, and getting regulatory approval. Sweden's waste management company, SKB, for example, spent 30 years finding the right site and is now waiting for the government's green light to begin excavation. It plans to start loading in waste a decade from now, and will be filling its underground pits for up to 50 years.

While the designers of such repositories say they are confident that the waste will be safely incarcerated, the most uncontrollable factor is future archaeologists or others with a penchant for digging. Archaeologist Cornelius Holtorf of Linnaeus University in Sweden showed meeting participants an early attempt at warning future generations: a roughly 1-meter-wide stone block with the words "Caution - Do Not Dig" written in English with some smaller text explaining that there is nuclear waste below. But who knows what language its discoverers will understand in thousands or hundreds of thousands of years—or even if they will be human beings? Holtorf points out that a much earlier attempt to warn off future excavations, the Egyptian pyramids, were looted within a generation. "The future will be radically different from today," says archaeologist Anders Högberg, who is also from Linnaeus University. "We have no idea how humans will think."

In 2010, ANDRA began a project to address these issues, says Charton. It brings together specialists from as wide a selection of fields as possible, including materials scientists, archivists, archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists, and even artists—"to see if they have some answers to our questions." ...

The sapphire disk is ... made from two thin disks, about 20 centimeters across, of industrial sapphire. On one side, text or images are etched in platinum—Charton says a single disk can store 40,000 miniaturized pages—and then the two disks are molecularly fused together. All a future archaeologist would need to read them is a microscope. The disks have been immersed in acid to test their durability and to simulate ageing. Charton says they hope to demonstrate a lifetime of 10 million years.

Researchers have some time to work on the problem because the repositories will probably not be filled and sealed up until the end of this century. "Each country has its own ideas, but we need to get a common approach," says SKB's Erik Setzman. "We technical people can't solve this problem ourselves. We need help from other parts of society."
Odd, is it not, that the one record which we are seeking to preserve with the longest possible reach into the future is the one about nuclear waste management? Imagine trying to understand global society as it currently exists, one million years from now, based only on sapphire discs with information on how to avoid disturbing the tombs of toxic waste we have kindly left for our successors.

Assuming humanity survives that long, and archaeologists will even exist in that far-flung moment, what will they make of us and our times, these 70-odd, post-World-War-II years, with our sapphire records as their main guides? I think what they would see a pathetic global order, in which power and priorities centred on the problem of energy resources, to the exclusion of all other things.

See all my posts on Nuclear topics.


  1. I think you're right as far as how our sapphires will be interpreted, but I don't think it will take that long before these years are seen that way anyway. Some of us already do.

  2. So human civilization is in the thousands of years old. Does any legal political system on Earth date back beyond a few centuries? But these people are talking about preserving human information for a million years. If one could observe the crust of the earth over a time lapse of millions of years, it would begin to look more like waves of chocolate syrup than solid earth because of all the seismic activity. Have we ever built a roof that have survived even a century of rain without maintenance, let alone earthquakes? Meanwhile, scientists in other disciplines tell us we are in the middle of a mass extinction of our own making and we may not survive it. It is sheer delusion.

  3. @Kate: I got the feeling these articles would inspire something like a 'Canticle for Leibowitz.'

    @Anon: I would agree with you that it is sheer delusion. The idea that a message can be made for whatever creatures dominate the earth in a million years, even the assumption that they will be human, is full of pride. The same hubris that sponsored the building of nuclear plants in the first place assumes that even our messes will be of interest in a million years. The people running things actually think we are that important, when we prove with every arrogant move that we are not. More likely, all will be forgotten; perhaps even the toxic waste underground. This was a favourite topic of Philip K. Dick's.