A Novel Marking System for Nuclear Waste Sites

The report titled Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), proposes many methods for marking WIPP. The Plant will hold radioactive waste from nuclear power plants underground, in order to allow the radioactive material to decay without endangering humans or the ecosystem. Marking WIPP is important for preventing future people from digging or drilling in the area in the future, releasing dangerous radiation. Marking is a complicated task because it must be done in a way that will communicate the nature of the danger to people that may not have any knowledge of our culture, nuclear physics, or the english language. The marking must also be durable enough to last tens of thousands of years.

The report seems comprehensive in its scope of suggested marking methods. It includes written markings in multiple languages, off-site archiving, pictographic representations with intuitive translations including facial expressions, landscape modification, megalithic structures, redundant and multi-level messages, diagrams of the burial site, astronomical indicators of time, and an accessible sample of the radioactive material. It seems that the experts thought of every possible visual marking system; but they only thought of visual marking systems.

In addition to all of the methods proposed in the report, the burial site should be marked with a repugnant odorant. As noted in appendix G of the report, the large scale visual markings such as the “landscape of thorns” may be regarded in the future as a great monument or work of art, which will encourage visits from artists, historians, archaeologists, and tourists (Sandia G85). The first instinct of an archaeologist who comes upon an ancient structure is to dig. By creating a great monument we may be causing the action at the site that we most want to avoid. Visual markings may attract people, and larger more elaborate markings may only attract more people. But one thing never draws people in; a putrid odor.

I propose using thioacetone or a related compound as a human-repelling odorant at WIPP. Thioacetone is considered the stinkiest substance on earth. In the German city of Freiburg in 1889 The production of a small amount of thioacetone produced “an offensive smell which spread rapidly over a great area of the town causing fainting, vomiting and a panic evacuation” (Lowe 1). Researchers in the 1960s had similar results in Abingdon, UK (Warren 4). Such a substance would be an unambiguous signal to stay away.

Of course, the nature of odorants is that they gradually disperse into the air, which means that eventually, all of the thioacetone would completely dissipate. In order to prevent this, the thioacetone should be sealed in glass vials. Glass is extremely impermeable and is estimated to take approximately one million years to decompose (US Park Service 1). So glass is a good material for this purpose. The vials will be placed in basalt boxes to protect them from natural crushing forces. Many such boxes will be buried adjacent to each other, uniformly covering the whole site. There will be two layers of boxes; the first will be 10 m under the surface, and the second will be 10 m under the first. (See Figure 1.) With this design, the thioacetone will not prematurely dissipate, and the unpleasant odor will not be present unless someone begins significant digging or drilling at WIPP in the future. The second layer of thioacetone vials will communicate to any obstinate driller that the first layer was no mistake.
This design is simple, durable, and effective. It will have universal effects on any future culture that may disturb the WIPP site. This may be the only method that is absolutely certain to counteract the unintended consequences of building monumental markers. Visual markers are necessary, but can be greatly improved by the addition of olfactory markers.

Figure 1: Two subsurface layers of basalt boxes filled with glass vials of thioacetone. The top layer is 10 m below the surface, and the bottom layer is 10 m below the top layer.



Lowe, Derek. Science Translational Medicine. “Things I Won’t Work With: Thioacetone.” Online, 2009.

Sandia National Laboratories. Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. 1993.

Time it takes for garbage to decompose in the environment. U.S. National Park Service; Mote Marine Lab, Sarasota, FL.

Warren, Stuart. Organic Chemistry, Second Edition. Oxford University Press, 2001.

1 Comment

  1. “The first instinct of an archaeologist who comes upon an ancient structure is to dig. By creating a great monument we may be causing the action at the site that we most want to avoid.”
    True enough!
    On the other hand, the same kind of logic tells us that the more protected a site is, the more interest it arouses….
    Not to mention the fact that any lines of defense, how ever effective, will work only once… what will happen after another 5ooo years?
    So, besides building defenses, how about mitigating this kind of troubles by producing less of them in the first place? For instance by switching to thorium based reactors after the uranium ones will have lived their lives, instead of building new ‘classical’ ones?


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