The Elephant’s Foot

[Image: Parable of the elephant, illustrated by Katsushika Hokusai].

An article this past weekend in the New York Times introduced us to a man named Sergei A. Krasikov, caretaker for the concrete “sarcophagus” inside of which rest the remains of Chernobyl’s stricken reactor.

The article is at once a sobering introduction to the inhuman spans of time across which matter remains radioactive—the author quips, for instance, that “The death of a nuclear reactor has a beginning… But it doesn’t have an end,” and that “one had to look at [Chernobyl] to understand the sheer tedium and exhaustion of dealing with the aftermath of a meltdown. It is a problem that does not exist on a human time frame.” But, at the same time, it seems to suggest the framework for an expressionist short film: a Sam Beckett-like encounter with something perpetually out of reach, terrifyingly out of synch with those who wait for it and buried in pharaonic concrete.

Krasikov, a keeper of the sarcophagus, visits this site twelve times a month:

Among his tasks is to pump out radioactive liquid that has collected inside the burned-out reactor. This happens whenever it rains. The sarcophagus was built 25 years ago in a panic, as radiation streamed into populated areas after an explosion at the reactor, and now it is riddled with cracks.

Water cannot be allowed to touch the thing that is deep inside the reactor: about 200 tons of melted nuclear fuel and debris, which burned through the floor and hardened, in one spot, into the shape of an elephant’s foot. This mass remains so highly radioactive that scientists cannot approach it.

This abstract “thing that is deep inside the reactor” is thus held outside of human contact, separated from experience by a provisional monument: the sarcophagus shell. Sheltered there, precisely because of its temporal excess, in a state of near-immortality—capable of interacting mutationally with living matter for up to a million years—the “thing” enters into a timeframe more appropriate for mythology.

Indeed, semiotician Thomas Sebeok once proposed the creation of an “atomic priesthood” whose responsibility, for thousands of years to come, would be to pass on information about sites of nuclear waste storage and contamination using a combination of myths, folklore, and annual rituals.

[Image: Sebeok’s report].

In an April 1984 technical report called “Communication Measures to Bridge Ten Millennia,” Sebeok suggested that “information 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.”

This “relay system” to last ten thousand years would thus be comparable to a priesthood—a Vatican of the elephant’s foot, so to speak—a Cult of the Thing—using “whatever devices for enforcement are at its disposal, including those of a folkloristic character.”

These priests would thereby act as effective caretakers for whatever nuclear sarcophagi might yet be to come. (For more on this topic, watch for Volume magazine’s forthcoming issue on “Aging,” in which I have an essay about the long-term storage of nuclear waste).

[Image: Satellite photo of Fukushima Daiichi complex].

Finally, it’s troubling to note—though I don’t mean to suggest equality between this situation and Chernobyl—that Japan might yet need to “to bury the sprawling 40-year-old plant” at Fukushima Daiichi “in sand and concrete to prevent a catastrophic radiation release.”

If this does come to pass, of course, it will be architecturally temporary—for a situation in which the very idea of “permanence” takes on near-incomprehensible scale.

(Thanks to a tip from @_sealegs. Also, don’t miss the earlier interview with Department of Energy geophysicist Abraham Van Luik).

15 thoughts on “The Elephant’s Foot”

  1. There is also the account which suggests that the original ark of the covenant contained a piece of radioactive meteorite; an account which explains both its "magical" powers in battle and the ceremonial leather-and-heavy-metal garb of its guardians. The priesthood of which you speak has already come to pass, in ancient Israel and in Aksum.

  2. It reminds me of the discussion of Chernobyl in the book The World Without Us, about how after all these years people and animals still live there – and that the animals are having more and more obvious genetic mutations but seem to be breeding faster, I guess in an effort to make up for the change in the environment. =/

  3. Indeed, semiotician Thomas Sebeok once proposed the creation of an "atomic priesthood"

    Spooky…kind of reminds me of "A Canticle for Leibowitz" by Walter Miller.

  4. I'd like to second the comment about "A Canticle for Leibowitz." Anyone interested in an exploration of the long term implications of nuclear fallout should read this novel.

  5. And ten thousand years from now, the atomic priesthood loses its credibility as recent events become history, become myth. Myth becomes barrier. Downthrow of the Myth is the rallying cry, and the revolutionaries storm the temples, those great pyramids, built over the ages out of concrete under steel under layers of strange materials that we can't even imagine. Ever more impermeable to radiation they are, but still brittle under the battering rams of the future.

    There is no myth to which we can give birth that will keep these sites secure for the millions of years necessary.

    Over the millennia, radiation itself will probably do the trick of reminding us; like whenever the curious kids sneak over the fence and find a doorway unlocked, a tunnel head not plugged. Or any number of natural phenomena that can crack a building.

  6. The whole discussion re: "information 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." seems straight out of Dune particularly the later books focus on the Golden Path, Bene Gesserit and Fish Speakers…

  7. "The World Without Us" also mentions a highly polluted piece of soil in the US, and the idea of creating neo-monoliths on the perimeter with clear warnings to future generations to stay away – but having to anticipate what symbols would be meaningful and appropriately intimidating. Perhaps future priests will come to revere these crumbling stoa and reinforce the dire warnings to hapless travelers… it boggles the mind.

  8. See also Neal Stephenson's Anathem, which features a priesthood of knowledge which also protects nuclear waste sites (and corrects their own cellular decay via quantum mechanics).

    Incidentally, lots of architecture and principles of very long term construction/lifestyles.

  9. Imagine the priesthood order that will arise over the seed bank in Arctic Norway… they'll know nothing about who built it, only that the seeds must be protected at all costs.

  10. Hmm, I think more of the mutated humans worshipping the ICBM at the end of "Beneath the Planet of the Apes"

  11. Yeah, right. Look at what we do to places marked as sacred now. Hordes of tourists trample over them, believers want to get as close as they can, the locals pillage them and sell the pieces to the tourists, and from time to time they are attacked by a rival sect, or by a neighboring country because the government needs to boost nationalism to detract from its human rights abuses.

  12. We don’t need 10000 years of isolation. 300 years is more than enough. After that, our non-human descendants will be radiation hardened for space travel.

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