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Mar. 05, 2010

The Biohazard Aesthetic

by Shelley DuBois

Click to enlarge images

Think of a warning sign. Now think of a really big warning sign. Now think of a warning sign big enough for a mountain filled with radioactive waste.

That was the concept behind a 2002 competition called Universal Warning Sign: Yucca Mountain, put on by the Desert Space Foundation in Nevada. The exhibition’s organizers asked artists from around the world to design a sign for Yucca Mountain that would hold up as well as the nuclear waste inside, which could be hazardous for at least 10,000 years.

As of Wednesday, it looks like Yucca Mountain might be in the clear. But before the U.S. Department of Energy put up a major roadblock on the project that would house the waste from commercial nuclear plants inside the Nevada mountain, the contestants in the Universal Warning Sign competition were taking an artistic approach to a very real problem.

Today’s guest, About a Mountain author John D’Agata, describes some of the art from this exhibit in his book. You can see what’s left of the show in the digital gallery.

Here’s the piece that won “best in show.” The artist illustrated the mountain, covered in genetically engineered bright blue yucca plants:

yuccamt

blueplants

The artist, Ashok Sukumaran, describes his thought process behind his design on his webpage:

I proposed to plant a genetically modified form of vegetation on the Yucca Mountain ridge. The yucca is a robust plant indigenous to the Nevada desert. A cobalt blue avatar of this cactus would be planted on a mile-long stretch of the mountain, forming a local, self-replicating system. (It is possible to prevent this from spreading by treating the soil as well…or not). This becomes a living warning sign- a landscape intervention, a marker for other mutants buried below.

“It won because of the idea of using one mutation to protect another mutation,” says Joshua Abbey, the director of the Desert Space Foundation. “But the added irony is that there are no yuccas on Yucca Mountain.”

Smurf-colored plants won’t be necessary this time. And honestly, artistry probably won’t be top priority when the government finally does figure out what to do with nuclear waste. Still, the artistic approach to the warning sign problem yields the same conclusion that people are facing in all aspects of nuclear energy–we have no idea what to do with all the radioactive trash headed our way.

[Image Credit: Ashok Sukumaran]

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About Shelley DuBois

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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