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A Religion for Radiation

A Religion for Radiation

A cooling tower at a nuclear power plant. Plants like these produce nuclear waste that can potentially pose a hazard to future humans. (Source: Duke Energy)

Fears of radiation are well known in our culture, from science fiction stories of nuclear mutation, to practical concerns of nuclear meltdowns and fallout. However, it’s rare that we think of the far future when it comes to radiation which is ironic given nuclear materials' long contamination period. Sites like Chernobyl won’t be safe to inhabit for thousands of years. How then are we to communicate this threat into the far future, when all modern languages are extinct?

Nuclear semiotics is a field dedicated to just that, creating symbol systems to dissuade future humans away from radioactive fallout or nuclear waste sites. Many ideas have been proposed, from simple pictographic images of stick figures sickening from radiation, to inventing a new religion centered around warning away our descendants from radioactive hotspots.

The atomic priesthood is a proposed religious order that would create rituals and myths warning our future descendants away from such sites, to be passed on into the far future. The idea is to rely on a system that doesn’t require our descendants to have a scientific understanding of how radiation works. Instead, it would rely on more basic human behavior of mythmaking and storytelling to keep future generations safe.

The idea is not without its controversies, but the elaborateness of the proposal reminds us of the challenge we face in dealing with the long term effects of radiation. The atomic priesthood will likely never exist, but the fact that we could need it is perhaps a reminder of the steps we need to take to ensure the safety of future generations.

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