“This is not a place of honour, you should not have come here” – nuclear waste repositories and their messages for the future
March 6, 2013 Leave a comment
In the 1960 cold war sci fi classic novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr, a post apocalyptic history is charted through the eyes and research of an order of desert dwelling monks who preserve the last vestiges of pre-doomsday culture. They problem is they can’t decipher the documentary fragments that they are dedicating their lives to transmit through successive generations. In this future dark age, the monks operate in a similar fashion to those of the pre-medieval Dark Ages. In both cases they are withdrawn into their remote redoubts, praying, contemplating and seeking to extract meaning from the ancient cultural fragments in their care. The irony in Canticle is that the fragment venerated by these monks yet to be, is actually a mundane shopping list.
This blog post is about the difficulties of transmitting messages into the future, specifically warning messages about high level nuclear waste burial sites. This essay is a companion piece to my short article for popanth.com here on the limits of human contemplation of deep-time in connection with such sites. That other piece is entitled Why it’s very hard to think like a mountain, and links its rumination on the limits of human temporality to the ‘geologic turn’ heralded recently by Ellsworth & Kruse (2013) and the notion of the anthropocene, the man-made strata being laid down in the current epoch. This blog post does not pre-tread the steps of that other piece. Instead it will contemplate how time affects the transmissibility of key messages about such places, into the deep future.
There are over 250,000 million tonnes of high level radioactive waste in the world today. It is presently held in surface (or shallow) interim storage facilities, solutions that depend upon human management and power systems. ’Permanent’ disposal will see this material buried within purpose built deep rock repositories. None of these places of ‘final’ disposal have yet been commissioned, but construction has commenced in Scandinavia (and is currently stalled in the US and the UK). Finland’s repository, Onkalo, is most advanced, and over the coming decades over 6km of roadways will be driven deep underground there, with a network of disposal chambers then fanning out from the subterranean terminus.
These facilities will take over 100 years to design, authorise, build and fill with waste. But sometime in the 22nd century they will be sealed, the wastes inside entombed to remain isolated from future people and their environment for 100,000 years (in the US Congress has recently revised this required period of confinement to 1 Million years, and there are signs of other national law makers following suit). But how do you ensure than an abandoned underground repository will remain undisturbed by future generations?
Here we come closest to the monks of A Canticle for Leibowitz, for experts commissioned to think through how best to project the information needed to understand this toxic legacy into the deep future consider that this task might require – amongst other things – a trans-generational nuclear priesthood to raise up this technical information to religious-like veneration so that it has best chance of persisting through the centuries ahead. How one would go about founding a religion for this timescale, and energising its sacred knowledge in this way, has not – to date – been mapped out. But the talk, within these otherwise sober circles, is of the greater power and durability of myth, legend, faith and ritual than of science. Indeed, this call for a sect-like focus on preserving nuclear knowledge into future generations has even been seriously advocated as a way of addressing the feared nuclear trade-skills shortage that may otherwise arise later this century and jeopardise future nuclear decommissioning and/or new build.
Onkalo means ‘hiding place’ in Finnish. At the heart of nuclear waste repository programmes is an unresolved tension between those who counsel that that non-disturbance will best be attained by erasing all surface indications that the facility exists at that location, and those who argue that future generations can only be protected against inadvertent encounter with these waste by provision of ‘future proof’ warning markers and related technical archives.
Legislators have decided that steps must be taken to ensure that future generations will be warned of these places and their properties, and that the information needed to understand the hazards there will be transmitted through culture. At the US Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, an underground repository for low level waste that has been in development since the 1970s, that site is to be physically signified as hostile using ‘forbidding blocks’, ‘hostile markers’ and ‘menacing earthworks’. There will be text warnings written in the six main UN languages, plus the local Navajo language, but aversion will be courted also through hostile symbolic architecture-sculptures. These proposed landscape features will aim at triggering affective – pre (or post) linguistic stimuli based upon an assumed universal human instinctual aesthetic reflex. The aim is that the site itself signals its message – following Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “the medium is the message”, in words of the expert report, that “the most emphatically delivered message is the meaning-bonded-to-form in the site itself” (Sandia National Laboratories, 1993: para 2.1). According to the US Department of Energy (2004) the final plan for the WIPP site markers is due to be submitted to the U.S. Government around 2033 (yes time moves very slowly on these deep-time projects).
Alongside the proposed landscapes of thorns, spike fields and forbidding blocks, the WIPP site will also feature a text based warning not to drill or dig at the site before A.D. 12,000 augmented by drawings of human faces modelled on Edvard Munch’s The Scream it seems that the international experts regard Munch’s potent image as a universal expression of terror. But, if Munch’s painting always carries that allusion, if it can be a timeless synonym for ‘go away from this place’, could it not equally be interpreted by a slightly misinformed future traveller as the advertising hording announcing the concealed treasures of some ancient funky underground art gallery? Conversely, should a visitor to the National Gallery of Norway flee that place upon sight of that painting, due to an instinctive reaction that lingering in that place would be to expose him or herself to the invisible danger of an odourless, tasteless and delayed action dose of radiation?
The image above is an internationally agreed symbol (ISO 21482) for warning the public about radiation dangers. Jointly developed by the International Atomic Energy Authority and The International Organization for Standardisation it is intended to intuitively communicate hazard warning to a non-technical audience. It is the outcome of a five year project conducted in Brazil, Mexico, Morocco, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, China, India, Thailand, Poland, Ukraine and the United States. Yet it’s meaning still rests upon a host of cultural assumptions: that red is danger, that a trefoil is a hazard indicator, that a skull and crossed bones is bad, and that the stick figure is fleeing. Equally the sign could be read as a welcome to a splendid festival zone at which there is a fantastic sound-system, free food (served off the bone) and a charity fun run in the right-hand corner of the auditorium. I’m reminded of Grossberg et al’s (1998) retelling of the fate of an anti-malarial programme conducted by the US Army in the far east during the Second World War. The ‘natives’ were shown posters with blown-up images of mosquitoes and spray equipment for insecticide. Upon later enquiring why there technologies had not been put into use, the clan chief replied: “because we do not have any mosquitoes that big”. In that culture there was no notion of the ‘blown up’ image – that increasing an item beyond its natural size will draw attention to it.
In his haunting documentary on the Finnish Onkalo repository, Into Eternity (2010), director Michael Madsen sets his narrator to address an imagined deep future audience for his film, vocalising the intended aversion thus: ”this is not a place of honour. No esteemed deeds are commemorated here. You should not have come here”. But any attempt to deter attention to a site, particularly one based upon monumental scale artificial markers, portentous images and tablets on stone all serve to attract the attention of future generations to such places, sparking their curiosity. In reality, the only effective warning marker will be the radiation itself. Exposure will send the most compelling message to the community from which the irradiated tomb raiders hail.
There must be the distinct possibility that we may not be understood by the future – especially the distant future. History shows that knowledge, and civilisation itself can be lost – future civilisations may regress, lose a central fixation with science and technology. And even if the markers, nuclear-priests and distributed archives work to transmit a sense of aversion to these places, that very knowledge of their contents may spur some to seek to burrow into these places, whether for copper, plutonium or motivations that we cannot yet comprehend. Warnings appended to the entrance to the pyramids and to Viking tombs have each proven to be of little or no effect in deterring intrepid explorers or looters alike.
The post is a.k.a. Avoiding New Uses For Old Bunkers #29
Ellsworth, E. & Kruse, J. Eds. (2013) Making the Geologic Now – responses to material conditions of contemporary life, punctum books: New York, available for free at: http://geologicnow.com/index.php
Grossberg, L., Wartella, E. & Whitney, D.C. (1998) Media Making – mass media in popular culture, SAGE: Lomdon.
IAEA (2007) ‘New symbol launched to warn public about radiation dangers’ www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/2007/radiationsymbol.htm
Madsen, M. (dir) (2010) Into Eternity, Magic Hours Films
Sandia National Laboratories (1993) Expert Judgement on markers to deter inadvertent human intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (ref: SAND92-1382/UC-721, p. F-49) excerpts at: http://downlode.org/etext/WIPP
US Department of Energy (2004) Permanent Markers Implementation Plan, WIPP (rev.1)(DOE/WIPP 04-3302) Carlsbad, New Mexico: www.wipp.energy.gov/picsprog/test1
Photos / drawings: Sandia National Laboratories (1993) and IAEA (2007).