A Department of Energy study has recommended that the government establish an "atomic priesthood" to create and spread a "ritual-and-legend" that will warn the next 300 generations against the dangers of nuclear waste.
The report, "Communication Measures to Bridge Ten Millennia," is one of a series of new studies commissioned by the department to deal with one of the most challenging problems of the nuclear age: how to create warnings that will survive and be understood as long as existing nuclear waste dumps remain toxic -- at least until 12,000 A.D.
Fearing that present-day languages will be incomprehensible to inhabitants of Earth 10,000 years from now, Energy's "Human Interference Task Force" has begun to consider a series of nonverbal warning systems, including:
* Creating a "modern Stonehenge" to ring the dumps.
* Making the waste "repulsively malodorous" so the stench will drive people away.
* Erecting huge cartoon narratives depicting the danger of the nuclear material.
* Genetically encoding a warning in human genes through "microsurgical intervention with the human molecular blueprint." The "Communication Measures" study notes that "this form of temporal communication is far from available as yet."
But Prof. Thomas A. Sebeok of the University of Indiana, who wrote the report, said the best mechanism for passing a message on through 100 centuries may be "an artificially created and nurtured ritual-and-legend" that would produce "accumulated superstition to shun a certain area permanently."
To spread the myth, Sebeok suggested, government should create "an 'atomic priesthood' -- a commission of knowledgeable physicists, experts in radiation sickness, anthropologists, linguists, psychologists" and others.
Jefferson O. Neff, the Energy Department manager overseeing the "Human Interference" studies, said the reports are "preliminary efforts to get some early ideas, some initial ideas about how to deal with a long-range problem."
The "Human Interference" work is part of the government's effort to build a permanent underground storage dump for the tons of nuclear waste created by civilian and military power plants and weapons.
This "radwaste," including used fuel cells from reactor plants and obsolete weapons, is stored in various temporary facilities.
Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, the Department of Energy is supposed to choose permanent burial grounds. The department is considering nine sites in six states. It will narrow the list to five by January and to three "finalists" next spring.
Given the lengthy studies and the inevitable lawsuits, Energy officials said the final decision on locating the dump will not be reached until the late 1980s.
The selection process has sparked a political battle among governors and congressional delegations striving to keep the repository out of their state.
"Nobody wants the honor of having his state glow in the dark for the next 10,000 years," said Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), author of the nuclear waste law.
In a rulemaking proceeding setting requirements for the waste site, the department recognized that "this generation bears the responsibility for protecting future societies from the waste that it creates."
The department decided that protective devices would have to last about 10,000 years. After that, the radioactivity should have decayed to the point where it is no more harmful than normal background radiation in the atmosphere.
But this decision led to a difficult question: how could any message be conveyed to human beings of the 120th Century?
To search for an answer, the department created its Human Interference Task Force, composed of corporate and academic experts in nuclear waste, law, sociology, communications and other pertinent fields. The task force awarded a study contract to Battelle Memorial Institute, a big research concern in Columbus, Ohio. Battelle, in turn, farmed out various aspects of the problem to assorted scholars.
The first problem has been defining what changes will occur on Earth over the next 10,000 years and what kind of creatures will be around then to receive the warning.
One study, for example, notes a "likelihood" that interference with the dump site "will be carried out only indirectly by humans, through the medium of programmed robots equipped perceptually by unpredictable bionic devices."
For this reason, it says, the use of a repulsive smell for deterrence may not work: "No one . . . would advocate exclusive reliance upon the olfactory channel as a 'final solution' ".
One of the basic ground rules the task force established for conversing with the 120th century was that "spoken and written languages are sure to decay to the point of incomprehensibility," as one study put it.
"One can reasonably postulate that over a 10,000-year time frame," the task force concluded, "languages will be replaced or significantly modified, making any single language unreliable by itself as an effective device for communication." The studies said that written messages should be set down in several languages.
Conveying written information over a 10,000-year span has never been tried. The oldest writing known today is on ancient Sumerian clay tablets that date back 3,000 years.
Some cave drawings in Europe, such as the famous animal paintings on a rock wall in Lascaux, France, go back about 10,000 years, and that has prompted the task force to consider graphic images to convey a warning.
One proposal calls for a series of 20-foot-high granite monoliths around the dump site. A stylized symbol would be etched in the stone that future generations might recognize as a warning.
The studies also suggest that simple cartoons, not unlike the Lascaux cave drawings, might be placed on or inside the monoliths. One proposed cartoon sequence shows three stick-figure humans above the dump site. One drinks from a well bubbling up from the ground. He then becomes violently sick and dies, prompting the others to scoot.
To draw attention to these monoliths, the task force suggests that they might be surrounded by a circular or triangular border or smaller monoliths or earthen berms, a design copied from the Stonehenge monument erected by Bronze Age Britons about 5,000 years ago.
The most specific recommendations are set forth in the report by Sebeok, a leader in the discipline of "semiotics" -- the study of all forms of communication, verbal and otherwise.
The Sebeok study noteed that the oldest human messages known to modern man are myths passed down through the ages by word of mouth. He cited the ancient story of Pandora's Box, repeated in various forms by countless societies through the ages and not written until the 8th century B.C. by the Greek poet Hesiod.
Accordingly, Sebeok recommended that "information be launched and artificially passed on into the short-term and long-term future with the supplementary aid of folkloristic devices, in particular a combination of an artificially created and nurtured ritual-and-legend."
"A ritual annually renewed can be foreseen, with the legend retold year-by-year. The actual 'truth' would be entrusted exclusively to -- what we might call for dramatic emphasis -- an 'atomic priesthood,' that is, a commission . . . . "
The study goes on: "The 'atomic priesthood' would be charged with the added responsibility of seeing to it that our warning , as embodied in the cumulative series of metamessages, is to be heeded -- if not for legal reasons, then . . . with perhaps the veiled threat that to ignore the mandate would be tantamount to inviting some sort of supernatural retribution."
Neff conceded that conveying information to people 10,000 years away is "an extremely challenging endeavor." But he noted that there still is plenty of time before a final decision must be made. He said the first permanent repository probably will not begin to receive nuclear waste until the end of the century at the earliest.