Lessons of atomic archaeology

The digging up of "historic" nuclear waste at Hanford is an example of the complexities of a system that seeks to both uncover our past and keep the lid on a toxic legacy.
Crosscut archive image.

The vitrification plant at the Hanford Site in Washington, under construction. (Bechtel)

The digging up of "historic" nuclear waste at Hanford is an example of the complexities of a system that seeks to both uncover our past and keep the lid on a toxic legacy.

There's a fascinating story in the Tri-City Herald about the discovery of historic plutonium in a buried safe at Hanford:

Nuclear archaeology has solved the mystery of a jug of plutonium that was found sealed inside a safe dug up as workers cleaned up an early Hanford burial ground.

Science showed the plutonium was historic: Researchers at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland traced its origins to the first batch of weapons-grade materials ever processed at Hanford.

The story explains in detail why this find is important, and what scientists have learned from it. It sheds light on our early atomic history and give investigators new tools for tracking the source of plutonium, even if found in a simple glass jug.

"Nuclear archaeology" itself is an interesting term because for the most part, nuclear waste is something you don't want to dig up, and few would find it to be of historical interest, but the history of the Atomic Age is coming into its own, so it makes sense that all nuclear waste is not equal: the earliest example of man-made plutonium is held by the Smithsonian.

The safe is a kind of time capsule, though not one that was ever intended to be recovered and opened. This brings to mind a project here that connects the nuclear industry and future archaeology.

In 1989 I coordinated a time capsule project for Washington's centennial celebration. It is housed in a giant safe in the capitol in Olympia. Inside, is a honeycomb of 16 separate stainless steel time capsules, one of which will be filled every 25 years until they are all opened in 2389 AD. The capsules were designed and manufactured by engineers at Westinghouse Hanford, a good pick because they had local expertise and because Westinghouse knowhow created the very first time capsule for the New York World's Fair in 1939.

The first box in the honeycomb was filled with artifacts in '89 and sealed in a lab at Hanford. I had to hand-carry the capsule on and off the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the amount of paperwork and security involved in taking a sealed box off the site was truly incredible and, from a safety standpoint at least, somewhat reassuring. The Tri-City Herald story notes that one of the values in the Hanford plutonium find is that it helped refine the art of nuclear "forensics" which can trace the source of plutonium.

In the 1980s, nuclear storage researchers were very concerned with the semiotics of how to mark nuclear waste dumps as dangerous for future archaeologists, home-builders, scavengers or treasure hunters who might dig in them thousands of years in the future. How do you convey the idea of toxic radiation or danger across the millennia?

One idea the Westinghouse folks showed me was a ceramic disk that featured the image of a man digging with the international ban symbol (circle with slash through it) over the pictograph. These "chips" would be buried and spread across the surface of waste sites. My opinion was these would just encourage future Indiana Joneses to dig: Certainly Howard Carter who opened Tut's tomb and other modern archaeologists have failed to heed ancient curses, prohibitions and barriers against digging, and in fact find such inscriptions a green light to keep on going.

Suggestions about marking waste sites have also included developing large monumental structures that somehow communicate the idea of "stay away," to the ideas like recruiting an "Atomic priesthood" to watch over sites, a kind of secret society that will pass information on from on generation to the next. Oral history has preserved information about events (the Great Flood, for example) across thousands of years. Researchers for the Department of Energy examined various "pancultural" symbols they felt might be able to speak across cultures and time to convey warning messages for a waste repository in New Mexico: they included "Mr. Yuk," the radiation symbol, the skull and crossbones (preferred by Carl Sagan) and Edward Munch's famous "Scream" figure. (For a deconstruction of these efforts, see Peter C. van Wyck's Signs of Danger: Waste, Trauma and Nuclear Threat)

The concept of a "priesthood" inspired the idea to recruit a group of people to watch over the Centennial Time Capsule. On Nov. 11, 1989, Gov. Booth Gardner administered an oath to scores of 10-year-old volunteers to act as Keepers of the Capsule. Their job: to protect the capsule and return in 2014 to fill the next container of artifacts and hand off the project to a new group of keepers. of course, keeping track of the keepers is a challenge (see note below).

"Nuclear archaeology" then runs in at least two directions. One is analyzing what is dug up, like the Hanford safe, and the other is to develop reliable signs and signals to prevent future archaeologists from doing the same and opening a deadly pandora box in the process. An off-shoot has been to inspire keeping the memory alive of long-term time capsules. The protection of cultural heritage has thus benefited by efforts to deal with nuclear waste. Whether any of it will actually work, by definition, will not be known in our lifetimes.

NOTE: The Secretary of State's Office in Olympia is charged with keeping track of the Keepers of the Capsule. The ten-year-olds of 1989 are now 30-year-old adults, and the record keeping of their whereabouts has grown spotty. If you or anyone you know is a Keeper of the Capsule, please send your current contact information to Knute Berger at knute.berger@crosscut.com. I am working with former Centennial director Putnam Barber to assemble a group of Keepers to begin the preparing the next time capsule in 2014.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.