Talking to our future selves — Long-term nuclear waste warning messages

What if everyone could understand what is written, no matter what language, dialect, creole or patois they speak? We do have street signs, where colour and shape tell us the rules of the road but minor bits vary according to country driving regulations. We have those hazard symbols representing radiation, biohazards, corrosives and irritants but these are limited to the scientific realm. Languages, they are diverse, they are constantly evolving and they can disappear. How would we warn people 100 000 years into the future to stay away from hazardous nuclear waste, knowing full well that our language will very likely be unintelligible far off into the future? Is there some form of writing which can unite the entire human race, present and future, in terms of understanding?

Instead of using each glyph to represent a sound or a syllable, what if we can use it to represent a concept? Granted, many ideograms have that concept in mind like Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters. They however, represent elements of a language rather than concepts. Pictorial Dongba symbols record the oral literature of the Naxi language based in the Yunnan province, China, but requires an additional syllabary, the Geba phonetic annotation, to properly represent to sounds of the language. In this discourse, the additional syllabary may be redundant since we want to universalise this message.

In the quest to construct long-term nuclear waste warning messages lasting millennia into the future, we find the very first attempts incorporating pictograms and texts dating back to 1981, from the Human Interference Task Force. Nuclear semiotics, as it is often referred to, has been a growing challenge since the dawn of the nuclear age. The need to warn people to keep away from radioactive waste and products lasts potentially millions of years, requiring the need to devise methods to communicate with our future selves, who will speak very different languages from today, about the things we did in the reactors. One image surfaced in 1991, depicting a comic showing the consequences of physical contact with nuclear waste. Proposed by the US Department of Energy as a plausible solution, the image included no text, but had hazard symbols and body language to attempt to convey the intended messages:

  • This is a message.
  • This message is important.
  • There is nothing of value here.
  • There is something dangerous here.
  • This dangerous thing is here, in your time, as it was in ours.
  • This dangerous thing can kill you.
  • The danger is a release of energy.
  • The danger is released only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left untouched.

The Sandia report in 1993 contains more details to the messages needed to be conveyed as non-linguistically as possible to future visitors to a nuclear waste site.


(Above) Pictographs proposed by Team B under the Department of Energy for long-term nuclear warning messages.

Critics argue that these images are only based off present-day social conventions. If, in any point in the future, these conventions fade, so too will the meaning. The criticism of the use of skull and crossbones to represent death drew great attention. Centuries prior, the skull used to represent Adam, and the crossbones the promise of resurrection. Over time, the social conventions leading to such an interpretation eroded, leading us to the present-day interpretation. Death. If such a change can happen in a span of centuries, critics doubt that our current warnings can hold over millennia.

There is also the problem of reading the comic. Many writing systems today have various directions of reading. Some read right to left like Arabic, or left to right like English, or top to bottom like Hudum Mongol bichig. There is simply no universality in that. Comics and manga employ different reading directions. Western comics direct left to right, while Japanese manga direct right to left. One problem thus arises: how do we arrange the panels such that it conveys an unambiguous cause and effect?

There is no simple solution in devising such long term messages, given the fluidity of human culture and language. However, this serves as meaningful food for thought for those who would like a challenge in creating messages that last generations into the future.



Hi readers, it has been almost 2.5 years since I left the platform. During this time, many things have changed in my personal life, and I am finally ready to once again, devote my time to give my insights on various linguistic aspects and language learning. I sincerely appreciate your continued support for this blog, and I will continue to post my writing, experiences or critiques, maybe in a different writing style from what I did three years prior.

The idea of communicating with people regardless or language, and in this case, regardless of time period, has picked up my interest recently, as I have been reading up on universality and the concept of pasigraphy. Nuclear waste has been identified as one of the main long-lasting issues we need to communicate to our future selves to protect them from harm. Understanding this importance, I have decided to write a short essay on this issue and the concept of nuclear semiotics, with a little linguistic insight on it. With this, my message to readers is, how would you convey the messages laid out by the Sandia report of 1993? Feel free to comment this post.


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