In her 14 years at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, editor Linda Rothstein has published many expert opinions on how to dispose of plutonium. The conventional wisdom–bury the stuff–bored Rothstein and didn’t keep the issue out in the open where she thought it should be.

“We had really grown weary about the lack of imagination over this,” says Rothstein. A synthetically created element and the key ingredient in nuclear weapons, plutonium remains radioactive for 240,000 years and may ignite if exposed to air or water–just two of the reasons the impulse has been to shove it in the ground and forget about it.

In recent years some industry wonks have begun to worry about that solution. “Radioactive waste will last much longer than we will and our language will,” says Rothstein. “So people have been asking, ‘How do you communicate to far future generations to stay away from these waste sites?'”

While some have proposed dark, foreboding subterranean settings that scream “keep away,” Rothstein thinks she knows human nature, noting that “if you build something strange and mysterious, people will come to it.” She and her staff wanted to infuse the debate with a little humor and creativity by encouraging proposals–admittedly impractical to realize–designed for interaction rather than avoidance.

In May 2001, the Hyde Park-based magazine invited architects, artists, scientists, and students to develop a plutonium mausoleum–what Rothstein calls a “memorial to the excesses of the nuclear enterprise”–in its Plutonium Memorial Design Contest.

Over the next eight months, the magazine received 150 entries. Contestants were urged to address issues of safety and security, as well as site planning, social objectives, and aesthetics. After September 11 brought the possibility of “nuclear terrorism” to international attention, the contest generated designs from individuals and teams in 20 countries.

From West Chicago middle schoolers to college students in Taiwan, contestants created architectural models, drawings, and booklets depicting amusement parks, a drive-through museum at the entrance to the Las Vegas strip, and a series of black monoliths spread along the Indiana tollway. Nationwide walkways adorned with small, suspended parcels of plutonium compete with an oversize egg meant to encase the waste in its shell.

Las Vegas turned out to be the most common location for the memorial proposal, but many suggested erecting monuments in both the United States and Russia. Designers also pegged Barcelona, the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility in Colorado, and an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean as possible sites. Hollywood was conspicuously absent.

While some submissions were more conceptual than anything else–a team of Italian scientists proposed a giant red pile of suspiciously scatological organic matter entitled “PU”–Rothstein hopes there’s a lesson to be learned from the contest: “This is a problem to be managed, not a problem to be solved.”

The winners of the Plutonium Memorial Design Contest–judged by Rothstein and an interdisciplinary panel that includes an architect, an artist, an academic, and a Nobel-winning physicist–will be announced on Thursday, March 14, at a free public reception held from 4 to 8 PM at Mars Gallery, 1139 W. Fulton. The designs will be on display at the gallery March 16 and 17; call 312-226-7808 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.