Monday, November 24, 2014

Branding Radioactive Waste

One of the biggest problems in branding is branding across cultures and on a global basis. However, even such a difficult undertaking as global branding is dwarfed by the magnitude of branding radioactive waste, not only across global cultures, but thousands of years into the future!

This is the challenge confronting the U.S. Department of Energy, as it faces the responsibility of identifying the new Yucca Mountain radioactive waste storage site in Nevada, so that any intelligent creature in the very distant future will realize its danger.

Congress recently approved Yucca Mountain as America’s first permanent high-level radioactive waste storage facility. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires that this facility be marked and its danger clearly indicated by a system of identification that will prevent future entry until the year 12,000 A.D.

The challenge of communicating to such a diversity of people and cultures even long after we and our civilization are gone, is put into perspective when we consider that the oldest known evidences of civilization and symbolic communication on earthonly reach back an estimated 5 to 7,000 years.

Branding at the Limits of Civilization and Meaning

If there ever was a brand challenge, this could be it. How can we communicate the mortal, and almost unending, danger of radioactive waste across all present and future cultures and civilizations and possibly, even to non-human alien beings from outer space?
The essence of good branding is creating an identity, with a specific meaning, that endures through time. Thus the challenge of univocally communicating or branding radioactive waste into the future is a unique case study in both the nature and the limits of branding.

Fortunately, the DOE has already had some practical experience in this respect in Carlsbad, New Mexico, where the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) already stores mid-level radioactive wastes. The WIPP has taken a “Rosetta Stone” approach to communicating the risk and danger of radioactivity, opting to communicate a single message in multiple languages and with the most broadly recognized symbols. The WIPP was branded by using monuments in multiple languages, information centers, metal and magnetic “signatures” for radar detection, and the dispersal of “site archives” to locations throughout the world.

Such a brand strategy evidences ingenuity to be sure, but all of its systems of meaning may only be meaningful to modern civilization and to human consciousness as we know it. Its predominantly written communications might be culpable in some distant day after the roots of our present meaning structures are lost, forgotten, or become meaningless to our own species.

Yucca Mountain is expected to adopt the approaches of Carlsbad, while simultaneously taking a more visual, symbolic, and even dramatic approach, including the possible creation of symbolic architecture, such as ominous tall, sharp spikes designed to suggest fear.

But again, perhaps even this symbology is only meaningful to humans as we know them. Successfully branding radioactive waste requires the creation of symbols of identity that push beyond the limits of known human civilization and the ways that humans currently create meaning. Effective solutions must reach beyond our ability to think about the problem and will require an anticipation of what cannot even be imagined. To this end, Yucca Mountain strategists have invoked the thoughts of scholars, philosophers, anthropologists and even artists in this endeavor, challenging them to articulate the means for dramatizing the dangers of stored radioactive waste.

Many believe the future risk is overblown, and that any future society or civilization that has the capability of opening Yucca Mountain, once it has been closed, would understand the danger of radioactivity, and also would possess the capability of detecting and registering its risk.

Fortunately, those responsible to resolve this issue have time. The new Yucca Mountain site is expected to remain “open” for the next 300 years, ultimately receiving 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste, at which time it is to be closed and sealed forever.

Symbolic Warning to Natural and Supernatural Beings

This endeavor to find a universal communication to mark radioactive waste through time, one that makes it intelligible to all intelligent beings, is an awe inspiring undertaking.

Identifying a mix of symbolic and written communication that is understandable across the span of beings, language, culture, and nationality, and still remains relevant so far into the future, is a metaphysical task indeed. Is there even a symbolic portrayal possible that will reliably mean danger and death, 10,000 years from now? And, is there such a symbol that would also be immediately intelligible to alien beings?

While it would quickly be granted that we should employ the “Rosetta Stone” approach, there is also the concern that no communication can ever be enough to speak the danger and risk of radioactive waste across all cultures, beings, and time. By employing drama and architecture, the hope is that the reach will be extended and the “brand” made cogent for an infinite target audience. The hope is that if something looks terrible and inspires horror and awe, it may portray the danger of radioactive waste.

This may have been how the creators of gargoyles during the era of Gothic architecture thought about their choice of symbolism that was meant to ward off both natural and supernatural beings.

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