The Man Who Helped Design a 10,000-Year Nuclear Waste Site Marker

Astro-artist Jon Lomberg, a longtime friend and colleague of Carl Sagan, on protecting future humans from America’s atomic past.

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Apr 26 2018, 3:57pm

This story appears in VICE magazine's Dystopia and Utopia Issue. Click HERE to subscribe to VICE magazine.

At first, Jon Lomberg thought it was a joke. When the late Carl Sagan, his friend and mentor, told him about a US Department of Energy plan to future-proof an atomic waste site for 10,000 years, he wasn’t sure it could be real. But a few years later, in 1990, Lomberg signed on to help design the warning marker of this tomb of the Cold War.

He had received a letter from Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with the unusual proposal. Sandia needed help developing a marking system to deter humans from entering America’s only active nuclear waste repository, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) for the next 10,000 years. It would represent humanity’s longest attempt at consciously communicating through time. As someone long invested in “unique communication problems,” Lomberg was intrigued.

Once the government settled on the location for the WIPP—an internment site dug from beds of ancient ocean salts—as the template for future nuclear waste disposal, it set about tackling an Environmental Protection Agency regulation to designate the site with “the most permanent markers, records, and other passive institutional controls practicable” to convey the danger contained within.

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