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A Message to the Future

by Tim Maly (3457 words)

In the roughly 70 years since humans first split the atom, we have accumulated between 250,000 and 300,000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste that will remain radioactive for at least 100,000 years. Designing a stable, secure repository for these materials is only half the battle: the other half is to design a ‘Do Not Enter’ sign that will remain intelligible for a period several times longer than the lifespan of any recorded civilisation.

This is a design brief for the ages. Every year, tonnes of lethally radioactive material are added to the world’s nuclear waste storage facilities, mostly surface-level installations where waste is stored in cooled water tanks that shield the environment from the deadly radiation. This is clearly not a long-term solution, as any resident of Fukushima can attest. These installations are vulnerable to any number of threats such as earthquakes, fires, power outages and terrorist acts, but most importantly, the lifetime of these facilities is measurable in decades, whereas the lifetime of the radiation hazard is measurable in millennia.

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