by Lyle Lofgren
June 27, 1978

[NOTE: When I wrote this, discussion about dumping nuclear waste centered around two burial options: the stable granite bedrock of Northern Minnesota or the salt domes of Texas. Who could have imagined putting it in a mountain in geologically unstable Nevada? And who could have predicted, almost 30 years later, we would still not have found a way to bury the stuff?]

We dreamed flying saucers, so that's what we made: satellites.

People have often joined together to make a monument, a statement to the generations yet to come, saying: "we existed, we did something important." The pyramids and other rock structures around the world are messages to us from the people of the past. We, in turn, devote energy towards the creation of long-lasting monuments. In recent history, there are cathedrals, Eiffel Towers, memorial bridges. But now we don't wait for the ages to take our structures; we tear them down ourselves. Instead, we have taken to slinging canisters of electronic equipment into orbit. As our monument, we have surrounded the earth with man-made asteroids to astound the inhabitants of the future. Some of the satellites are supposed to stay up for centuries.

But we are presently building another monument, and this is a more permanent one, one for which we will be remembered much longer. Even if all the nuclear power plants were closed, and all atomic weapons research and production were stopped, we would still have enormous amounts of high-intensity radioactive material to put somewhere. Everyone agrees this waste must be buried, since trying to send it into outer space would be too risky, and the ocean is too corrosive. The argument is between the merits of granite vs. rock salt, and as to which state will accept the honor of having the site. But since we must bury it, we will bury it, sealing the shaft with a mile or so of concrete. The burial site must be secure for 50,000 years, fifteen times the age of King Tut's Tomb.

But the archaeologists did break into that tomb, and you can bet they didn't translate the hieroglyphics until they had made sure the treasures were in their possession, safe from the thieving porters. Someday, time will weaken the legend of an evil force lurking under the stone monument with the unreadable markings. Then a group of archaeologists, or other such treasure hunters, will undertake to drill through the stone to reach the Secret. It will take several tries, perhaps several generations, to drill through the concrete, but that will only intensify the efforts. Surely there must be an amazing treasure hoard down there if someone went to all that trouble to bury it. The leaders of the project, and other important people, will be on hand to watch as the treasure is brought up. They will feel like Howard Carter when he had the workmen push open the door to the room containing Tut's treasure.

The next day, everyone who was present will be dead. What a marvelous practical joke!

It was not just the Belgians slaughtering ten million Congolese or the Nazis killing six million Jews. Our civilization is deeply disturbed, and we are creating monuments to our disease. Long after our satellites have returned to earth, we will be remembered as wizards of evil who drilled the Deep Well of Death. A legacy to the ages.

Note added 4/25/2011: Like a lot of other people, I was both mesmerized and horrified by video footage of the 2011 tsunami that hit northeastern Japan, killing tens of thousands and causing yet another crisis for nuclear power (as if the invisible crisis of unburied waste were not enough). One short snippet (I don't remember where -- probably on NHK television) showed some stone warning posts that the survivors of a tsunami that hit the same coast in 869 AD had erected. The carving on the posts warned everyone not to build below the markers, because of tsunami danger. Naturally, everyone  ignored the warning, including the people who planned and built the Fukushima power plants. I now understand that my 1978 essay  was hopelessly optimistic -- we haven't even begun to try to bury our nuclear waste, much less store it safely.