Reagan and the Atomic Priesthood


Illustrations: Christian Tate

“The Nuclear Waste Policy Act… which I’m signing today, provides the long overdue assurance that we now have a safe and effective solution to the nuclear waste problem… we can and will prevail over the sometimes complex and perplexing problems associated with energy”
– President Ronald Reagan, 7th Jan, 1983

It was an entirely new predicament for the human race. Nuclear waste had been building up in ever-increasing quantities since the world’s first nuclear power station came online on 1st June 1954 in Obninsk, Russia. The waste was highly poisonous to humans and would remain so for hundreds of thousands of years. It had to be kept far away from the food chain, the water supply and the atmosphere, isolated in such a way that no one would come into contact with it for millenia. Wherever it was stored would have to be so geologically stable that there was no risk that the waste would be jolted into the open by an earthquake, flood or volcano. Whatever material it was encased in would have to remain in one piece until the radioactivity subsided. And the society in which it was buried would have to be so predictably stable that its scientists and engineers would continue to safeguard the waste for countless generations to come.

No such place existed. No such material existed. No such society existed. But Reaganwas determined to tackle the problem. He spearheaded a grand bipartisan operation to find a solution, which resulted in his Nuclear Waste Policy Act, signed in 1983. The act laid out a battleplan: multiple potential sites for underground storage of nuclear waste would be identified and evaluated, funds would be raised by levying fees on utilities companies and digging would begin as soon as possible. Then, in 1987, Congress revised the act, halting the evaluation of alternative sites and designating Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the sole repository for the country’s nuclear waste.

There was outcry in Nevada. Not only is Yucca Mountain just 100 miles northwest of the tourist boomtown of Las Vegas, but it is also a site of spiritual significance to the local Shoshone and Paiute Native American tribes, whose ancestors are buried there. To add insult to injury, Nevada is one of the few states with no nuclear power stations. It seemed unfair for the rest of the nation to hollow out one of their sacred mountains and fill it to the brim with toxic waste when Nevada had done nothing to contribute to the problem. A tidal wave of Nimbyism washed through the state.

The next 23 years saw Reagan’s treasured project descend into stasis, as nuclear waste piled up, countless feasibility studies were conducted and a string of appeals were lodged against the plan. Nevadans pointed out that they have the fourth largest number of earthquakes in the US, and that Yucca Mountain is sited on an area of tectonic deformation. Their boldest challenge – which was upheld by the Court of Appeals – came in 2004 when they highlighted the fact that the standards laid down for Yucca by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) specified that the storage facility would have to isolate waste for 10,000 years. The petition pointed out that the National Academy of Sciences, whose recommendations the EPA had a statutory duty to comply with, said that the peak risk period would in fact be a million years – 100 times longer. Even this seemed like an underestimate to some, given that Neptunium-237, a toxic fission product found in spent nuclear fuel, has a half life of 2.14 million years.

The south portal of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump near Mercury, Nevada. Photo: John Locher/AP/Press Association Images

The south portal of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump near Mercury, Nevada. Photo: John Locher/AP/Press Association Images

“A ritual annually renewed can be foreseen, with the legend retold year-by-year (with, presumably, slight variations). The actual ‘truth’ would be entrusted exclusively to what we might call for dramatic emphasis an ‘atomic priesthood’.”
– ‘Communication Measures to Bridge Ten Millenia’, a paper by Thomas Sebeok for the Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation, April 1984

In 1983, as a beaming Reagan was signing into law the act that he thought would resolve his country’s issues with nuclear waste, another, lower-profile project was about to be set in motion. This scheme would perfectly capture the fundamental impossibility of ever truly tackling the nuclear waste problem.

Thomas Sebeok, a world-famous semiologist, was emeritus professor at the University of Indiana when the White House called. They asked him to lead a “Human Interference Task Force” – a team of linguists, lawyers and sociologists dedicated to working out what messages to place on and around the Yucca repository to make sure that for the next 10,000 years no one opened it up. They would have nine months to complete the task.

His interest piqued by the possibility of inscribing a modern day Pandora’s Box, Sebeok signed up for the job and set about creating an entirely new field of research, entitled “nuclear semiotics”. It was clear that there could be no simple solution.  There was no language in which a warning message could be written that would not have changed out of all recognition – or even gone extinct – within 10,000 years. You need only look at the opening lines of Beowulf, written in England around a thousand years ago… Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon. Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum… to see that language cannot withstand the timescales of nuclear decay. Who could say what the language of  Nevada would be in 300 generations’ time?

But it’s not just language that loses its meaning outside the context of its society – symbols do too. The nuclear warning symbol has overtones of menace to us, but it has no inherent message. Show it to a child for the first time and they’ll guess it’s a fan or a Mercedes badge. The skull and cross bones might denote danger, or a graveyard, or pirates – or none of these. Even something as basic as an arrow connecting up two images won’t necessarily show a cause and effect link in the future – it’s just a convention accepted within our current societies.

As Sebeok grappled with the problem, suggestions came in from other academics and thinkers across the world, prompted by a poll in the journal Zeitschrift für Semiotik. Stanislaw Lem, the Polish writer, put forward the idea of launching satellites which would constantly broadcast information about Yucca Mountain down to Earth. This might solve the issue of information delivery, although it would leave open the problem of language, presupposing that future generations of humans would know how to pick up signals from space, and the potential for a stray asteroid or piece of space debris to knock the satellite out of orbit.

Two Frenchmen suggested that scientists should breed special genetically altered ‘ray cats’, whose fur would change colour”

Lem also suggested creating “information plants”, whose DNA would encode information about the contents of the mountain. The flowers would replicate throughout the years, preserving the information genetically. This system relies on the somewhat unlikely scenario of all future visitors to the mountain making sure to pick nearby flowers and analyse their DNA for encoded warning messages from long-dead Polish science-fiction authors before proceeding into the repository.

Meanwhile, Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri of France suggested that scientists should breed special genetically altered “ray cats”, whose fur would change colour in the presence of radioactivity. The significance of these feline Geiger counters would be built into human societies through “proverbs and myths”.

Sebeok’s final conclusion was no less outlandish. Given that human messages are meaningless outside of their context, he decided that the solution was to build a self-perpetuating context into human societies. The model he took for this was religion, and in particular Christianity – which has been very good at relaying a series of complex messages throughout two millenia, regularly updating their language and their reference points to keep them understandable.

The idea, then, was to build a religion around the central tenet of avoiding Yucca Mountain. This key idea, said Sebeok, would be “launched and artificially passed on into the short-term and long-term future with the supplementary aid of folkloristic devices, in particular a combination of an artificially created and nurtured ritual-and-legend”. The main component of the new pseudo-religion would be a “false trail”, meaning that “the uninitiated will be steered away from the hazardous site for reasons other than the scientific knowledge of the possibility of radiation and its implications; essentially, the reason would be accumulated superstition to shun a certain area permanently.”

This new religion would be started and maintained by what Sebeok called an “atomic priesthood” of “knowledgeable physicists, experts in radiation sickness, anthropologists, linguists, psychologists, semioticians, and whatever additional expertise may be called for now and in the future”. How people were to be persuaded to believe in a religion with such a limited, uninspiring and geographically specific central message was not covered in Sebeok’s report. “The best mechanism for embarking upon a novel tradition, along the lines suggested, is at present unclear,” he concluded, somewhat forlornly.

Sebeok’s suggestions were greeted with derision. No scientists wanted to be part of what sounded like a cult, and the report was quietly dropped by Reagan’s nuclear waste team. Sebeok returned to academia and died in Indiana in 2001.


“America’s nuclear waste management program is at an impasse. The administration’s decision to halt work on a repository at Yucca Mountain is but the latest indicator of a policy that has been troubled for decades and has now all but completely broken down… This generation has a fundamental ethical obligation to avoid burdening future generations with finding a safe permanent solution for managing hazardous nuclear materials they had no part in creating.” 
– Congressman Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, 1st February 2012

The death knell for the depository at Yucca was sounded when Steven Chu, the US energy secretary, announced the dismantling of the programme in 2010. By this stage, almost $15 billion had been spent on the project and utilities companies were being compensated around $300 million per year, having been promised a waste facility would be ready by 1998.

Chu set up a Blue Ribbon Commission to examine the nuclear waste issue, and by the time it reported to the House Energy and Commerce Committee on 1st February 2012, there were 65,000 metric tons of nuclear waste in temporary storage across the US. Much of this was housed in cooling ponds at 76 nuclear power plants, a practice also pursued at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan, where flooding from the March 2011 tsunami almost caused a disastrous explosion of stored waste.

The commission’s central and highly optimistic proposal was that the siting of future facilities for nuclear waste management should be consent-based. As co-chairman General Brent Scowcroft said, “If our approach is accepted, Yucca Mountain, Nevada, or anyone else can come forward as a volunteer site.” As the stasis continues, each year America’s grim inventory of unmanageable, highly toxic nuclear waste grows by a further 2,000 metric tons. Unsurprisingly, no volunteers to house it have yet been found.

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