The biggest problem with producing nuclear waste is that safe places to store it are few and far between. For decades, the U.S. batted around the idea of using Yucca Mountain, a large swath of land in Nevada, as an underground repository for this toxic waste — a place where it could be safely stored for thousands of years years.
Federal funding ended for the project in 2011, leaving us still without a substantial spot to store our nuclear byproducts. But the government once had ambitious plans for Yucca Mountain, including one that involved the use of genetically engineered cats.
In 1981, a group of scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, and other assorted characters came together to form the Human Interference Task Force, a US Department of Energy task force charged with figuring out how to keep future humans out of Yucca Mountain’s radioactive repository. They came up with all sorts of plans, but by far the most amusing was proposed by a pair of philosophers named Paolo Fabbri and Françoise Bastide.
Their idea: genetically engineering a cat species that changes colour when there is radiation around, creating a new adorable kind of Geiger counter. If one of these so-called “ray cats” changed to a new colour, you’d know that you were encroaching upon dangerous territory.
The idea was predicated on humanity’s ability to pass down the folklore of the ray cat to generations living thousands of years in the future. But alas, the Yucca Mountain project was shut down before colour-changing cats could see the light of day.
Last year, the 99% Invisible podcast asked a musician named Emperor X to come up a song that could be a piece of ray cat folklore. Here’s the catchy “10,000-Year Earworm to Discourage Settlement Near Nuclear Waste Repositories.”
The government may never implement a ray cat solution, but that doesn’t mean scientists have given up on the idea.
Bricobio, an open biology laboratory in Montreal, Canada, wants to resurrect the ray cat idea, engineering a variety of species to change colours before working their way up to cats.
The Bricobio team doesn’t actually think we need to use ray cats to warn future humans about radiation, but they write on their website that “There are tons of potential dangers that could be detected by a colour changing cat. Examples can include cadmium, mercury, carbon monoxide and many other hazardous molecules.”
As for the ethical grey area of experimenting on cats? They are aware of that too. The primary goal for the immediate future is to work on colour-changing C.elegans, a type of nematode worm. Nonetheless, Bricobio “would love to have some people who do research using cats involved.”
Maybe we’ll get our ray cats one day after all.
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