Nuclear Waste Event: report

Our Nuclear Waste Weeks have come to a close. Student board member Ankie Petersen reports on the Nuclear Waste Event:

Nuclear Waste Event

During our Nuclear Waste Weeks, local and global news outlets talked about the extent of the pollution of sea water after the Fukushima disaster of 2011, an anti-nuclear weapon campaign won the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Dutch government started handing out jodium pills, in case of a nuclear power plant disaster in Belgium, close to the southern border of the Netherlands.

Jodium tablets

These three different messages all shed a light on the devastation nuclear energy can cause. Environmental destruction, health risks and destructive warfare capable of wiping out human and animal life on earth. But still, despite of its evident destructive characteristics, nuclear energy remains a large part of our energy supply. Indeed, some even plead for nuclear energy as the sustainable alternative for fossil fuels.

However, what often isn’t included in the discussion on the use of nuclear energy are the inevitable remnants. What to do with nuclear waste, a type of waste with a degradation time of so many years it might last longer than life on earth itself? And what are the dangers of nuclear waste, and how do we communicate this danger?

Nuclear waste: a wicked problem

On October 6th 2017, the Environmental Humanities Center kicked off the Nuclear Waste Weeks with several lectures on the topic of nuclear waste, and on how to deal with it. Co-organisers Anna Volkmar (PhD candidate at LUCAS, Leiden University) and Kyveli Mavrokordopoulou (PhD candidate at CRAL, EHESS), gave an introduction on the origins and characteristics of nuclear waste, and the notions of deep time and deep space. After the introduction, the first lecture was given by philosopher Jantine Schröder, who is affiliated with the Belgian Nuclear Research Center SCK CEN in Mol. She reflected on the idea of a final closure in the context of geological disposal sites. Lastly, art historian Sven Lütticken (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) discussed the relationship between nuclear technology and nuclear waste with the arts.

The concept of deep time appeared useful to wrap our heads around the timeframe necessary to deal with nuclear waste. “Deep time” dates back to 18th-century geologist James Hutton, who proposed that Earth was a lot older than 6,000 years, as most people thought at the time, and challenged the notion of biblical time and the idea of evolution as a linear process. However, writer John McPhee officially coined the term in his 1981 book Basin and Range, saying:

“Numbers do not seem to work well with regard to deep time. Any number above a couple of thousand years—fifty thousand, fifty million—will with nearly equal effect awe the imagination.”

The earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old. For humans, whose life expectancy is usually less than 100 years, it’s nearly impossible to imagine something so vast as geological or deep time. When it comes to nuclear waste, the time needed to shield this waste from the living environment ranges from hundreds of years, to millions of years dependent on the level of radioactivity. How do we cope with the complexities of this kind of long term waste management, with waste that remains hazardous for such a long time?

bergingsinstallatie 2015
Artist’s impression of the Belgian geological disposal concept (© ONDRAF/NIRAS).

Deep space disposal

Jantine Schröder introduced us to the latest developments in nuclear waste management ideas: geological disposal. Today, she explained, all waste is stored on the surface in an actively controlled and maintained manner. The ideal future disposal of nuclear waste would be underground, in a way that shields the living environment from its radioactivity, and in a way, that is more suitable for a timescale that surpasses human history. The solution that geological storage could offer is long term containment and isolation in the deep underground, in the most stable environment. Geological disposal would be a type of final disposal, with a much less active type of safety control.

The following question that arose during Schröder lecture was how humans would be able to ensure a continuation of this type of disposal through generations. How do we remember, even after hundreds of years have passed, where the nuclear waste is stored? Do we mark the surface above the storage location in a scaring way? Do we erect a monument to commemorate nuclear waste as human’s ‘heritage’? Or do we purposely forget the disposal site to prevent conscious intervention?

Enrico Baj, Bum (1952)

Nuclear culture and the arts

As the last speaker of the day, art historian Sven Lütticken reflected on the many ways artists have been communicating about nuclear topics. The presented a timeline in which different artists, artistic styles and contexts have resulted in different art works. Early 20th century artworks often presented a fascination with the subject, it being new and representative for the most modern technological advancements. During the 50s and 60s, this fascination became mixed with a feeling of concern, as the destructive possibilities of nuclear technology became more and more evident. Enrico Baj’s Manifesto BUM (1952), is an example showing this mixture of feelings by addressing the physical and psychological realities of the nuclear age in a way that departed from the forward-looking, positive agenda of abstract art from the 1950s.

Lately, more artists have become concerned with the environmental consequences of nuclear technology. One example is the Nuclear Culture Project: a curatorial project that involves artists field trips, commissioning new work and curating exhibitions, film screenings and interdisciplinary roundtable discussions. With projects like these that bring culture and science closer together, complex concepts such as deep time, deep space and the wicked problem of nuclear waste management might become more comprehensible to many!

Ankie Petersen

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