"How does one write a sign to warn earthlings away from a radioactive mountain

10,000 years from now? What language should be used?

Laura Elise Schwendinger

About a Mountain (2011) 11:30

for Mezzo-Soprano and Flute (Picc, C, Alto, Bass)

Commissioned and premiered by Julia Bentley and Mary Stolper (see article in Time Out Chicago)



About a Mountain was commissioned by Julia Bentley and premiered at De Paul College in Chicago with flutist Mary Stolper.

"How does one write a sign to warn earthlings (or aliens) away from a radioactive mountain 10,000 years from now? What language should be used? Or what simple iconography? This is an honest-to-god dilemma explored in John D’Agata’s 2010 nonfiction work, About a Mountain. The essayist and University of Iowa creative writing professor examines the U.S. government’s attempts during the last eight years to transform Nevada’s Yucca Mountain into a dumping ground for nuclear waste. The project has been derailed, in part by the impossibility of developing warning placards that could remain universally understandable during its 100-century-plus lifespan. Earlier this year, while reading About a Mountain, local mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley became fixated on the idea of the ephemerality of language. That concern has led to an exciting collaboration with composer Laura Schwendinger."

By Doyle Armbrust, Time Out Chicago

The disposal of radioactive wastes in deep geologic formations provides a means of isolating the waste from people until the radioactivity has decayedto safe levels. However, isolating people from the wastes is a different problem, since we do not know what the future condition of society will be.The Human Interference Task Force was convened by the U.S. Department of Energy to determine whether reasonable means exist (or could be developed) toreduce the likelihood of future humans unintentionally intruding on radioactive waste isolation systems. The task force concluded that significant reductions in the likelihood of human interference could be achieved, for perhaps thousands of years into the future, if appropriate steps are taken to communicate the existence of the repository. Consequently, for two years the task force directed most of its study toward the area of long-term communication. Methods are discussed for achieving long-term communication by usingpermanent markers and widely disseminated records, with various steps taken to provide multiple levels of protection against loss, destruction, and major 1anguage/societa1 changes. Also developed is the concept of a universal symbol to denote "Caution- Biohazardous Waste Buried Here". If used for the thousands of non-radioactive biohazardous waste sites in this country alone, a symbol could transcend generations and language changes, thereby vastly improving the likelihood of successful isolation of all buried biohazardous wastes.

-From The Government Report, BMI /ON W 1-537
Reducing the Likelihood of Future Human Activities That Could Affect Geologic High-level Waste Repositories Technical Report, May 1984


1. Vocalise

2. Permanancy

3. A Symbol

4. Generations

5. Radioactivity