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Competition: Nuclear waste warning marker, USA

An open international ideas contest has been launched to design a 10,000-year warning marker outside a nuclear waste repository in New Mexico (Deadline: 22 October)

The competition – organised by arch out loud – seeks conceptual installations to warn future visitors of the dangerous materials buried 600 metres below ground inside the USA’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).

The fenced-off 16 km2 complex is the final destination for all waste generated from the USA nuclear defence program since 1999. The US Department of Energy uses the salt bed site to store clothing, tools, equipment, soils and other materials contaminated with radioactive elements heavier than uranium.

Contest site

Contest site

Contest site

According to the brief: ‘Since political or natural forces may shift the demographic of the site, the customs and languages of future inhabitants will likely be different from those existing today.’

‘In the interests of public safety, how can architectural proposals for markers serve to warn future societies of the dangers of such a place with messages that could endure for millennia?

Located around 40 kilometres from the major city of Carlsbad in the Chiuahuan Desert – the enormous site was completely covered by sea water until 250 Million years ago. The water has now gone leaving behind a stable salt bed where transuranic nuclear waste can be safely and permanently stored.

The WIPP is one of four currently active deep geological repositories in the country and it is the only one currently being used for nuclear waste storage. More similar sites are under construction and in the earlier stages of planning.

Contest site

Contest site

Contest site

The contest jury features partners from several large architectural firms along with maker Michael Madsen, and two senior WIPP scientists. Madsen’s topical film ‘Into Eternity’ documented the construction of the Onkalo nuclear waste repository in Finland.

Submissions must include one ARCH D-sized board featuring plans, sections, elevations, rendered perspectives, diagrams and a 100-word explanation. Yhe competition language is in English.

The overall winner, to be announced 20 November, will receive $5,000 USD. Three runners-up prizes of $1,000 each, a director’s choice award and ten honourable mentions will also be awarded.

How to apply


The deadline for registration is 21 October
The deadline for submissions is 22 October


Early registration from 7 June to 8 July: $55
Standard registration from 9 July to 12 August: $75
Late registration from 13 August to 21 October: $95

Contact details

Arch Out Loud

Visit the competition website for more information

Q&A with Anna Pietrzak

The competition organiser at arch out loud discusses her ambitions for the contest

Anna Pietrzak

Anna Pietrzak

Anna Pietrzak

Why are your holding an international ideas contest for a nuclear site warning marker?

arch out loud’s ‘Open Ideas’ competitions seek creative, architectural proposals that address challenging social, political, and environmental issues. The NUCLEAR competition asks participants to design a landmark that is both durable and legible for 10,000 years (the decay period for transuranic waste) at the site where nuclear waste is buried. This challenge is architectural, yet few architects have addressed or are aware of its issues. This disparity motivated us to organize the competition as an architectural investigation, with the intent of sharing the winning projects with government leaders, scientists, and engineers who are actively resolving this problem. Since participants must also consider linguistic, semiotic, engineering, and anthropological implications of creating an enduring waste marker, we believe consideration of a variety of interpretations is imperative given the brief’s complexity.

What is your vision for the nuclear site marker?

As competition organizers, our aim is to create a forum where anyone living anywhere can propose their ideas. Though we allow participants the freedom to interpret the program however they choose, we require that projects meet the design criteria and address some or all of the competition objectives. For the NUCLEAR competition, durability and effective communication are the two most important design criteria. We also ask that participants consider redundancy in construction and message as well as local changes in culture and language. The project site boundary measures sixteen square miles and was defined by the U.S. government as part of the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act approved in 1992.

Contest site

Contest site

Contest site

What sort of architects and designers are you hoping will apply?

The NUCLEAR competition is open to anyone, including students, young professionals and emerging practices. We reach out to online and print publications both in and outside architecture. Ultimately, our hope is that the winning projects could be shared directly with the scientists, engineers, and international committee members who work together to designate waste sites around the world. To reach this audience, we are talking to scientific symposium organizers to inquire how we can exhibit winning projects during their events. Additionally, we are excited to have two members of the Nuclear Energy Agency serving on our competition jury.

Which other design opportunities are on the horizon and how will the architects/designers be procured?

Looking forward, arch out loud will continue to organize and invite architects to participate in both research-based ‘Open Ideas’ competitions as well as partnered ‘Impact’ competitions. Though we have not yet defined future competition topics, we are interested in the relationship between architecture and climate change, transportation, dense urban housing, and social equality.

Are there any other similar projects you have been impressed by?

The primary reference and inspiration for the NUCLEAR competition stems from the proposals outlined in the 1993 report prepared by Sandia National Laboratories titled Expert Judgement on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. A number of drawings by Michael Brill and Safar Abidi illustrate potential concepts for markers on the site including, Landscape of Thorns, Spike Field, Menacing Earthworks, and Black Hole. We hope the report’s proposals encourage participants to seek innovative solutions that expand the dialogue about architecture and timelessness.