A nuclear waste vault in New Mexico will long outlive our society. Experts are working on elaborate ways to warn future civilizations.
By Charles Piller Times Staff Writer
CARLSBAD, N.M. — Roger Nelson has a simple and unequivocal message for the people of the year 12006: Don't dig here.
As chief scientist of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Nelson oversees a cavernous salt mine that is the first geological lockbox for the "fiendishly toxic" detritus of nuclear weapons production: chemical sludge, lab gear and filters laced with tons of radioactive plutonium.
Nearly half a mile underground, workers push waste drums into crystalline labyrinths that seem as remote as the moon. A faint salty haze glows in powdery beams from miners' headlamps and settles on the lips like a desert kiss. Computer projections predict that within 1,000 years the ceilings and walls will collapse in a crushing embrace that seals the plutonium in place.
But plutonium remains deadly for 250 times that long — an unsettling reminder that some of today's hazards will outlast the civilizations that created them. The "forever problem," unique to the modern technological age, has made crafting the user manual for this toxic tomb the final daunting task in an already monumental project. The result is a gargantuan system that borrows elements equally from Stonehenge and "Star Trek."
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