smudge is a collaboration between Jamie Kruse and Elizabeth Ellsworth. We locate our work at sites and moments where the geologic and the human converge. We creatively respond to the complex of forces we encounter there: the natural, built, historic, social, strategic and the imagined.
MARKING DEEP TIME STUDIO: SIGNAGE FOR SITES OF U.S. UNDERGROUND NUCLEAR TESTS
U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Legacy Management
“The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE or Department) is committed to managing its responsibilities associated with the legacy of World War II and the Cold War. This legacy includes radioactive and?chemical waste, environmental contamination, and hazardous material at over 100 sites across the country… In order to effectively manage remaining legacy responsibilities and to fulfill commitments to our former contractor work force, the Department established the Office of Legacy Management (LM). The Office of Legacy Management was formally established as a new DOE element on December 15, 2003. This Office is responsible for ensuring that DOE’s post-closure?responsibilities are met and for providing DOE programs for long-term surveillance and maintenance, records management, work force restructuring and benefits continuity, property management, land use planning, and community assistance.” From the LM website April 2011
Ten underground nuclear tests have been conducted in the United States outside of the Nevada Test Site. Many are located on “public lands” and some are adjacent to or within National Forests. Today the Office of Legacy Management manages these sites. Each is marked with on-site plaques that are minimal, sometimes difficult to find, and uncontextualized. The signage does not include information about the presence of radioactive isotopes that resulted from the tests, nor about the long-term dangers they pose to humans at the sites and downstream water tables—for thousands of years into the future. Currently, the Office of Legacy Management has no plans for marking the sites for the duration of time during which the sites’ radioactive isotopes remain dangerous (Plutonium 239 has a half-life of 24,000 years).
As consultants to the Office of Legacy Management, we propose to facilitate the Marking Deep Time Studio. The studio will constitute a collaboration between the Office of Legacy Management, masters level design students at a school of design, and smudge studio. The task of this collaboration will be to (re)design and (re)install updated marker systems at each location every five years. The marker systems will directly name and warn of the long-term presence and evolving effects and dangers of radioactive materials at each of the sites. Smudge studio will work closely with the school of design to plan and re-convene the Marking Deep Time Studio for two consecutive semesters and one summer every five years for the next 50 years. Each year-long session design session will: reassess the marking system’s effectiveness and appropriateness in light of social and cultural changes that have taken place; produce a new iteration of the system responsive to changes in design aesthetics and thinking; and update the information it conveys given new data and new scientific understandings of the sites.
The studio will deliver its designs to The Office of Legacy Management, which will then contract to manufacture and install each marker at its intended site. This approach allows us to address, in a responsive and sustainable way, the issue that has vexed those who are charged with stewardship of these sites: How do you design a warning system capable of enduring and continuing to “make sense” for the next 960 generations (24,000 years). We hope that this first 50-year long series of reconvening studio sessions will catalyze an even longer-term engagement with these sites. The Marking Deep Time Studio would constitute the first of the 480 additional 50-year long studios needed to shepherd the sites to the moment when they no longer need to be marked with warnings.
Ten underground nuclear tests have been conducted in the United States outside of restricted territories: Central Nevada Test Site, aka Faultless (NV, 1968), Shoal (NV, 1963), Gasbuggy (NM, 1967), Gnome (NM, 1961), Rulison (CO, 1969), Rio Blanco (CO, 1973), Salmon (MS, 1964), Sterling (MS, 1966), Long Shot (AK, 1965), Milrow (AK, 1969), Cannikin (AK, 1971). In 2009 we visited four of the ten sites and found their signage to be minimal, sometimes difficult to find, and uncontextualized. The signage did not include information about the presence of radioactive isotopes that resulted from the tests, nor about the long-term dangers they pose to humans at the sites and downstream—for thousands of years into the future. According to Office of Legacy Management fact sheets, there is no capability to remediate these sites in the foreseeable future. Likewise, there are no plans to design and install plaques at the sites that directly and specifically address the long-term dangers present.
Current fact sheets include language such as: "Because no practicable technology exists to remove the radioactive material from the underground cavities formed by the nuclear tests, DOE will leave the material in place… "Amchitka Fact sheet (Long Shot, Milrow and Cannikin tests)
“Subsurface use restrictions within the Rulison Site boundary will remain in place in perpetuity. A permanent monument at surface ground zero bears a plaque with an inscription denoting the historical significance of the site and states that excavation, drilling, and removal of subsurface materials below a depth of 6,000 feet is prohibited without permission of the U.S. Government” – Ruilson Fact Sheet
The Marking Deep Time Studio’s approach is both similar to and different from that being used at the only U.S. nuclear waste repository site, WIPP (the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant), near Carlsbad, NM. In 1980, the Department of Energy created a Human Interference Task Force (HITF) for WIPP, “to investigate the problems connected with the post-closure, final marking of a filled nuclear waste repository. The task of the HITF is to devise a method of warning future generations not to mine or drill at that site unless they are aware of the consequences of their actions. Since the likelihood of human interference should be minimized for 10,000 years, an effective and long-lasting warning system must be designed.”
The HITF report recommends a “hard-wired” solution to the communication problem at the WIPP site: a large scale system of monuments, archives, and barriers intended to endure for 10,000 years and to communicate to future humans who might not understand any currently existing languages.
Like the HITF, the Marking Deep Time Studio will create an international marking system that offers information and warnings about what lies beneath. But the sites we are concerned with differ from the WIPP. The WIPP contains nuclear waste in a repository designed to fully control its location. The radioactive waste at the underground test sites, however, is “uncontained.” It is capable of migrating into ground water, its current locations can be set into motion by geologic events, and humans could access it (intentionally or unintentionally) by mining or drilling. In fact, the Office of Legacy Management says that one of the reasons it does not have a long-term plan for marking the sites is that the sites remain “volatile.”
For these reasons, the studio will experiment with an approach designed to meet these sites' volatility: namely, successive groups of designers will relay communication efforts across 5-year spans of time; continuously renew our current social and cultural commitment to warn future generations; and incrementally adjust that warning so that it remains “readable” to humans in the vicinity.
The ideal outcomes of the project are: a renewable informational warning system at each of the sites and a long-term commitment and collaboration among the government, scientists, the public, and schools of art and design. The project has the additional potential to involve the Office of Legacy Management, Department of Energy in activating a process that is as much about communicating and engaging with publics who might come into contacts with the sites now, as it is about addressing humans in the deep future. As with previous projects, our intended impact is to assist all parties to expand capacities to imagine and creatively respond to urgent human needs across immensely long spans of time. We believe that as humans evolve such pathways of cognition, their abilities to sense, design, and act in accord with deep time will grow.