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Indigenous nuclear waste management

Nuclear Semiotics



  1. Nuclear semiotics refers to the study of how to warn people atleast 10,000+ years from now about nuclear waste, when all known languages may have disappeared within this timeframe.

    • any warning to the future about nuclear waste will have to be more creative than just posting a sign outside of storage sites.

In a nutshell, this would mean using "atomic folk objects" to create an oral tradition, similar to how Indigenous cultures pass down traditional knowledge, of stories associated with nuclear sites.

“We cannot predict the future or stop the future from happening, but we do need to figure out how to communicate to future generations, at least 240,000 years from now, that these geological repositories must remain isolated and undisturbed” (Madsen, 2010)

Indigenous Waste Management in Oceania

  1. There have been many instances of our communities being the frontline leaders when it comes to ringing the bell on the issues of climate change.

  2. According to Susanne Tölzel, the 1st chairperson of Coastal Plastics Recycling (COPLARE), Oceania means a combination of influences from the Pacific, England, France, Chile, USA and New Zealand. That means: different opinions as to what good waste management looks like and whether Oceania can even afford such waste management operations and citations of different practices in the mother countries, like language barriers and waste disposal in landfills (and not recycling or at least thermal recycling). All of this has to be kept in mind if you want to judge the waste situation in Oceania.

“Pacific Islanders have been fighting environmental crises for centuries, if only the world would notice. The 10 million residents of Oceania are among the most frontline of frontline communities — and they have much to teach the rest of us”. (Ramirez, 2021)

“The top of Pukeatua at Te Rewarewa on an early summer morning” ⓒ Te Tui Shortland.


I began researching nuclear semiotics after a post I saw on social media by @hinenuitepohara where she shared that currently, there are people trying to design signs to let future generations know about the waste sitting in these geological repositories but they don’t know if we’ll still be using English thousands of years in the future and that one idea was to construct large sharp “thorn” gardens that would keep people out but that idea was abandoned and they settled on signs with English and faces displaying disgust. She also mentioned that she thought the thorn garden idea was best, and I personally agree with her. Humans began utilizing nuclear energy not knowing than, that things like Plutonium, transuranic and radioactive wastes don’t completely leave the worlds atmosphere for at least 240,000 years. Using America as an example here; an estimate of 30,000 nuclear weapons were constructed during the soviet cold war after the Bush administration had announced that nuclear energy can power entire countries. This caused an excessive amount of left over waste. We (humans) fucked up basically, is what I’m trying to say, and now we’re left with the task of figuring out how to safely store and decontaminate this waste. There have been many ideas proposed around how to decontaminate and decommission the highly toxic radioactive waste and low-level nuclear wastes. Scientist from all over the world agreed that the safest way to do so, is by isolating the waste. This is where the “underground burial tombs” come in. Since the 1950s, U.S politicians and scientists have worked to bury tons of the nation’s nuclear waste deep underground. Multiple geological repositories have begun construction during this time, including places like the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant or WIPP located 40 miles east of Carlsbad, New Mexico or ONKALO the massive underground bunker located in Eurajoki, Finland that first begun construction in the 1970s. This may be merely a coincidence, but the word Onkalo translates to cabin, hiding place or hideout in Finnish. Approximately 88,000 tons of waste is currently sitting 900,000ft below the Earth’s surface in the geological repository known as WIPP. This treatment plant is known to hold at least twice the amount of capacity it currently holds. My goal is that by the end of this document, you are fully aware about what nuclear semiotics are and what efforts are currently being made around the world by Indigenous Peoples to combat harmful dioxins and radioactive wastes in the atmosphere.

Semiotic perspectives:

Nā: Michelle Rahurahu.

Two examples that spring to mind have been written about by Professor Kepa Morgan. He goes into how the symbol of the Taniwha, communicated through generations in an oralist tradition, and how listening to indigenous people and minding this symbol, could keep us from building on sites that are both tapu (sacred) or dangerous. These examples, that I have linked below, are interesting to me because it sets the Western approach to semiotics apart from an Indigenous or Māori one. The Western approach counts on physical signs that must physically communicate danger alone, whereas the Indigenous Māori approach relies not only on symbols, but the Iwi, hapū and communities’ inbuilt systems to decipher them (or at least pay heed to what they might be saying). Even though we speak a different language to the one we spoke hundreds of years ago, our pūrākau (stories) stay with us and can give us an inkling of an idea of what a symbol like Taniwha might mean.

References and case studies/data:

  1. In the section above “semiotic perspectives”, written by Michelle Rahurahu, she mentions two examples of an approach written by Kepa Morgan in 2011, where he raised concerns by Ngāti Whātua and their proposal to an improved design for the downtown rail link in Tāmaki-makau-rau by implementing Taniwha. I will link the publication which is titled - Kepa Morgan: Heeding the Taniwha can help avert expensive blunders - here:

  2. This was important to note because this botanist stresses the importance of fungi and plants that will be helpful in the process of getting rid of this waste. According to an expert Botanist from New York, the most interesting fact about plants is that they rely on, not only the genealogy of humans but they also heavily rely on environments. For example, in Chernobyl, Ukraine there is a Mushroom or Fungi that have only been found at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant. This is considered a high level environmental area and the fungi’s main diet is weirdly, radioactive waste. (Santore, 2022)

  3. Since the 1950s, U.S politicians and scientists have worked to bury approximately 88,000 tons of the nation’s nuclear waste deep underground. (Hancock, 2013)

  4. In Eurajoki, Finland a company here, were the first in the world to begin constructing an underground “burial tomb” for the countries high-level nuclear waste to be isolated underground – this is the nuclear waste plant called ONKALO. (Madsen, 2010)

  5. Onkalo is a Finnish word that translates to cabin, hiding place or hideout. According to the Sanskrit dictionary Onkalo also translates to cave, cavity or hollow. (Beale, 2017)

  6. America began constructing the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Plant, this was and still is without permission from not only the local and Western Shoshone People, where the plant is located, but also without the permission of local government, as well as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant or WIPP. (Galison & Moss, 2015)

  7. WIPP or The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is a low-level nuclear waste repository located about 40 miles east of Carlsbad, New Mexico. (Galison & Moss, 2015)

  8. An expert explained that WIPP one of the nuclear treatment plants they use in America that’s based in New Mexico has 3000-4000 feet of salt depositories 900 feet below ground level. (Galison & Moss, 2015)

  9. Comments from Allison Macfarlane, who was the chairperson for the U.S Nuclear Regulatory commission during the years 2012-2014 state that “We consider something gone after ten half-lives so 240,000 years. The half-life of plutonium is 24,100 years” (Galison & Moss, 2015)

  10. Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository first began construction in 2002. Since this time there have been many reasons as to why this site should not be used as an “underground burial tomb” for nuclear wastes. One example is that the groundwater in Yucca Mountain could corrode the canisters that store nuclear waste, causing a radioactive leak. (Hancock, 2013) (Sacred Land Film Project (SLFP), 2010)

  11. Yucca Mountain is located within the Western Shoshone Nation and has long been a place of powerful spiritual energy for the Shoshone and the Paiute (Native American tribes). To the Western Shoshone people, it is Snake Mountain, a place with rock rings that transmit prayers to the great spirit and messages back to the people. A late Shoshone spiritual leader, Corbin Harney, told a traditional story about how Snake Mountain would one day be awakened and split open, spewing out poison. This prophecy may or may not predict the potential disaster of volcanic activity and nuclear waste leakage. And if that isn’t enough, Shoshone ancestors are buried within this mountain and the water in the area is sacred, as it is with many Indigenous peoples. (Sacred Land Film Project (SLFP), 2010)

  12. I learnt of another case study in my research which would be handy to reference here. Local iwi in Whakatane have been the driving force behind a study which has found that fungi and other plants can reduce dioxins in contaminated land. More than 36 sites around Whakatane have been contaminated by discharge from the Whakatane Sawmill, and a Waikato University study has found that enzymes from the fungi and poplars degraded the toxins. The university says Ngāti Awa has completely run and conducted the project to bring the land back to a healthy state. Jo Harawira from Ngāti Awa says Māori are the kaitiaki of the lands and the waterways and the iwi wanted to go back to nature to get rid of the toxins in their rohe (district). (Te Ao Maori News, 2011)

Humans and our general behaviours will no doubt play a huge part in keeping this project together and not accidentally blowing the entire planet to pieces in the process.

Questions and answers:

  1. What does salt have to do with the preservation of the nuclear and radioactive waste, isolation process? By the end of this document, hopefully I would have found the answer and this question will be answered.

    1. Salt deposits exist underground. They are self-healing, have very low permeability and conduct heat well. All of these are important to releasing the natural heat of the nuclear waste. Salt formations can make an excellent barrier to long-term releases of radionuclides into the human environment.

  2. Why were billions of dollars invested into the Yucca Mountain treatment plant project, years before getting consensus from the local state government and its people? Currently still under construction. Currently still without consensus. This is a land grab and I think I know a land grab when I see it by now.

    1. The nuclear regulatory commission, the federal agency that approves radioactive-waste storage sites, published a long-delayed report in 2014 deeming Yucca Mountain safe. I have explained many examples as to why this isn’t the case. This is one of those issues where the federal government than tells its people that “we’re going to take this” That doesn’t really sit or work well with me and many others, I’m sure. Indigenous people and the state of Nevada said “We don’t want this because we don’t believe you’ve done this in a safe or consensus based fashion. You didn’t ask us. You basically just told us”. For more than 30 years the state and Indigenous people of Nevada have said no to being a geological repository.

  3. What are transuranic wastes? I noticed I’ve mentioned these are few times now and haven’t given an explanation on what they are.

    1. Transuranic radioactive waste is waste that contains manmade elements heavier than uranium on the periodic table. This refers to waste which has been contaminated with alpha emitting transuranic radionuclides possessing half-lives greater than 20 years. There are two main types of transuranic wastes. Contact handled transuranic waste – which is the kind that’s kept in 55-gallon drums that you or I could walk right up to and not get a significant dose of radioactivity because the container provides good shielding for handling. And remote handled transuranic waste which you and I can’t walk up to without getting a significant dose of radiation and in some cases a dose that could kill you pretty quickly.

  4. Can you explain what geological repositories are or what they refer to? I forget that things like these are not common knowledge to the general public but let’s change that.

    1. These are excavated, underground facilities that are designed, constructed and operated for safe and secure permanent disposal of high level radioactive waste.

  5. In the case study mentioned that was based here in Whakatane, what type of fungi were used? Curious. Plant names in general always confuse me, considering most of them sound like you could be casting spells from off of Harry Potter.

    1. Since beginning the case study mentioned, many fungal species were tested to see which had the most effective outcomes for land restoration usages and speeding up the end-life process of dioxins and other radioactive wastes. The study was conducted using two Aōtearoa (New Zealand) strains of white rot fungi and two other fungi which were isolated from soil at the sites. A total of five fungal species were evaluated. The four strains from Aōtearoa (provided by The University of Waikato Fungal Culture Collection) were Phanerochaete gigantea, Resinicium bicolor, and the two fungi that were isolated from the site soil, referred to as the “East Side” and “West Side” strains based on where the soil they were isolated from was in relation to the concerned site location. A United States strain, Pleurotus ostreatus, was also evaluated for comparative purposes.

Recommendations/Call to action:

  1. An Idea I had after looking into the information that we have available publicly about the efforts that are currently being made to dispose of these wastes was this; In Chernobyl, the capital of Ukraine, they have a fungi that has only been found in and around the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant, which is now identified as “Cladosporium sphaerospermum” There are currently still studies going on to understand the implications and genealogy of the fungus itself but in most recent studies by scientist, during experimentation they found that the fungus was able to block some of the incoming radiation, not only was this fungi blocking the radiation, but it was also consuming it. Scientist agree that this will be handy for use in future space missions. In my opinion these funguses will be of better use to us here on Earth and the nuclear waste we currently have sitting isolated in the Earth’s core. Creating a fungus garden with Cladosporium sphaerospermum similar to the thorn garden idea, both above ground and underground, can and will, only benefit us by speeding up the process of the nuclear wastes end life. Combining these with the bacteria and other fungi scientist have found that can also feed on radiation will also help speed up this process and in my opinion, this tactic would be most liable.

  2. Another action or recommendation would be that you reach out to your government officials or depending on where you are your congressional representatives and continue to remind them that we stand with Indigenous peoples everywhere and oppose nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain or any other sacred areas. We also acknowledge that the Western Shoshone peoples supported the Obama administration’s efforts to shut down the Yucca Mountain program and find alternative waste disposal options.

  3. Further, my last recommendation is that we take the time to learn more about what efforts are being made by indigenous peoples here in Aōtearoa and around the world, Snake or Yucca Mountain, the Western Shoshone People, the local iwi of Ngāti Awa in Whakatāne, Aōtearoa (New Zealand) and their efforts to eradicate PCP dioxins, Fungi and its healing properties, and nuclear waste on indigenous lands, like so-called Australia for example, through these and other resources:

These are my personal views and recommendations that reflect wholly on myself. Indigenous land restoration for the win?


Since beginning this piece I have a brand new perspective and passion for things like natural properties and how indigenous peoples here in Aōtearoa and across the world are the driving force of applying natures natural healing properties to many restoration projects when it comes to our sacred ancestral lands and waterways. I want to thank everyone who helped me put this piece together, Michelle Rahurahu or @hinenuitepohara on Instagram, for inspiring me to write this piece in the first place and for giving me so many little gems of information I would not have come across if it wasn’t for her awhi, Eilish McEwan or @tiredtipua on Instagram, for many things, but mostly for proofreading my writing and giving me the confidence to share my mahi with you all, and everyone reading this, I hope that you also have a newfound love and passion for these mushrooms and all these things too. Mauri tū, Mauri ora, oh and it’s still #LANDBACK.

And its #Landback still

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