Great background music for what you’re about to read courtesy of YouTube.

If there’s one thing that annoys me more than the six hour drive down the I-5 so I could wait another two hours in line to ride the famous “Indiana Jones Adventure” at “The Happiest Place on Earth,” it’s knowing that the long wait could actually be minimized if people didn’t pull the rope that sits ever-so-quaintly but clearly next to the sign, “Caution: Do Not Pull Rope!”

Photo via Hidden San Diego
Photo via Hidden San Diego. Need I say more? Yes. A couple paragraphs more actually.

While purposely ignoring said sign causes an inconvenience for impatient people, there are other important signs that people also tend to dismiss or just completely miss, period — “Keep hands, arms, feet and legs inside the vehicle at all times,” “Hang on to any loose belongings,” “Please stand clear of the doors,” etc.– that cause much more severe inconveniences and damages. Even with “No Swimming” signs scattered all around a lagoon, a two-year old boy gets eaten by an alligator because his parents let him play in the water, while others say it’s because there were no signs warning about alligators. Either way, it seems that our current warning systems aren’t effective enough to moderate our self-control that could prevent us from waiting two hours for the Indiana Jones ride, getting eaten by alligators or potentially setting off radioactive waste.

In Containment, Roger Nelson, Chief Scientist of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), America’s only permanent underground repository for nuclear waste, tells us, “We think the only way that radioactivity can reach the surface or reach the accessible environment is human intrusion. So how do I convince you in the future to stay out?”

WIPP exterior; Redacted Pictures/Hervé Cohen
Yes, this place actually exists. (Photo via Redacted Pictures/Hervé Cohen)

Throughout the film, scientists, environmentalists, futurists and analysts try to answer that question by predicting every possible scenario 10,000 years into the future — the half-life of plutonium. From throwing the nuclear waste up into space, to drowning it in the sea, or submerging it in the doomed-to-melt polar ice caps, the question essentially raised is: is it possible for us to create a warning system that will effectively communicate to the people who pull the rope when they see a sign that says “Caution: Do Not Pull Rope!” to stay away from an area that contains nuclear waste?

Is it possible to communicate that so effectively that such a warning system will be understood for 10,000 years? For as long as the Indiana Jones ride exists, there will always be those people to prove that we lack self-control (and the ability to follow directions) when it comes to discovering the forbidden and the things that make us curious, therefore forever challenging the development of warning systems that aim to protect us from nuclear destruction and radioactive contamination.

If signs won’t make people get the hint, would a thorn garden on top of the nuclear waste site? WIPP Landscape Architect Mike Brill thinks so.

The Savannah River Site (SRS), a nuclear facility featured in Containment that has enough plutonium to produce 10,000 nuclear warheads, is about 50-75 feet away from contaminating the civilians of Burke County, Georgia. Surrounding it are signs that read, “No Fishing” and “No Trespassing by the order of The United States Department of Energy” with fine print stating the codes of security that can only be recognized if standing less than six inches away in front of it with a magnifying glass. “But it never says why you shouldn’t fish here, so people just assume it’s a territory thing, not a ‘the fish here are radioactive’ thing,” the SRS tour guide explains in the film.

Unfortunately, the literally million dollar Sandia Report,Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion Into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant,” written in 1991 by 13 linguists, scientists and anthropologists, didn’t thoroughly think through a “Keep Out” sign, as it won’t be needed until the plant shuts down in the 2040s. This gives us a lot of time to brainstorm a revised plan (or even hold an art competition for it, as France’s National Radioactive Waste Management Agency did), and a whole lot of time to continue not following directions.

Legit art submission titled “La Zone Bleue” by Stéfane Perraud and Aram Kebabdjian’s “ for a legit art competition in France proposing a genetically modified blue forest as a nuclear warning site sign (Photo via Andra)

If the signs on the Indiana Jones ride read, “Do Not Pull Rope! You’ll Hold Up the Line,” or if the signs by the lagoon in Florida said, “No Swimming! Alligators Will Eat You,” or even “No Fishing/No Trespassing! There is Plutonium Here and You Will Die,” would we be more inclined to contain ourselves and do our part in taking care of the Earth by not contaminating it any more than we already have?

Perhaps I’m exaggerating, but on the other hand, philosophers Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri proposed:

“we genetically engineer a species of cat that changes color in the presence of radiation, which would be released into the wild to serve as living Geiger counters. Then, we would create folklore and write songs and tell stories about these ‘ray cats,’ the moral being that when you see these cats change colors, run far, far away” (Slate).

The Ray Cat Solution from Benjamin on Vimeo.
In case you don’t believe me about the cats thing, here’s a 15 minute documentary on it (not made by me).
With culture being one of humanity’s longest-running contributions — from religion, folklore, belief systems, etc. — these “ray cats” could become more popular than the Indiana Jones ride and keep us humans who would rather sing the Ace of Base song “The Sign” when they see one than actually follow directions on it to be safe from radiation just a little longer. 

Guaranteed the ray-cats will be a hit if they are genetically modified after Draven Rodriguez’s with the lasers shooting out and all.
What do you think would be an effective warning system to keep people away from areas with nuclear waste for the 10,000 years to come? Leave a comment below and watch Containment January 9th at 10 PM on PBS’s Independent Lens to see if the experts agree with you or if you have the next best idea!