Tapestries and Radiation: the EHC visits COVRA

By Ruby de Vos, PhD Candidate at the University of Groningen

On 9 October 2019, the Environmental Humanities Center left a very rainy Amsterdam behind for a visit to Zeeland. More precisely, our bus drove to COVRA, the one nuclear waste management facility of the Netherlands. After the many nuclear events previously hosted by the EHC, my colleague Kyveli Mavrokordopoulou (PhD candidate at the EHESS in Paris and currently a visiting scholar at the VU) and I wondered what it would be like to visit a waste facility and to see in practice what we’ve been discussing for so long. Luckily for us, the EHC was very supportive of our quandaries, and COVRA is very open to visitors, and thus we and eighteen other interested attendants went on our way.

Located nearby the only nuclear power plant generating energy for Dutch households in Borssele, the Central Organisation for Radioactive Waste is responsible for the storage of all low-, medium-, and high-level radioactive waste produced in the Netherlands past, present and future. It is not very common for nuclear waste facilities to be open to the public, but COVRA makes a point of their transparency. Ewout Verhoef, vice-director, explained to us that if COVRA wants to be accepted on local and national levels, it is vital to communicate clearly what goes on inside the facility. This is also why were allowed to take photographs of everything we saw and we could ask questions without end during the extensive three-hour tour we received from researcher Erika Neeft.

So what exactly is there to be “transparent” about? As I wrote, COVRA stores and will continue to store nuclear waste at least until 2100. This material is produced at several nuclear power plants (which generate energy or facilitate research), but also in hospital for medical purposes and in several industries. All of this material is radioactive, which makes it a threat to humans and the environment. The waste is therefore transported to COVRA, following the first step of the national policy to isolate, control, and monitor. At the facility, the waste is processed according to the level of radioactivity of the materials. Low- and medium level waste is put into barrels, which are stored in a thick layer of concrete. High-level waste is the biggest concern, however, for this will remain radioactive, and therefore dangerous, for up to 250.000 years – an unimaginable time span. By 2100, this high-level waste needs to find a permanent location, either in the Netherlands or in some form of international constellation. It is exactly this combination of longevity and danger that makes nuclear waste such a contentious topic. Clear communication, according to COVRA, makes the process more legible, and thus ideally also less contested.

Surprisingly perhaps, art has been enlisted to aid in this process of communication. Throughout our visit, and also in the reading materials available for visitors, COVRA repeatedly made reference to art and literature. The Odyssey and cave paintings from Lascaux feature as examples that objects and their stories can persist over time, just as must happen with the waste. I definitely raised an eyebrow at the stability of meaning presumed here (clearly engineers and physicists are not aware of the endless debates on the Odyssey fuelled by different interpretations or translations of a single word!). Nevertheless, the connection drawn between nuclear waste and cultural heritage opens up new ways of considering radioactive material. It is no longer something that must be forgotten (as is often the case with waste) but transformed into heritage that we must take care of, and which may also tell us something about ourselves.

To drive this connection between nuclear waste and heritage home, COVRA stores art too. With its perfectly temperature-controlled buildings, it is the ideal spot for museums with insufficient depot space to store their objects. It does look odd: at one point during our tour, we stopped to take in the surreal site of some 400-year-old tapestries, hanging next to barrels cast in concrete. These tapestries were copies, Neeft told us, but the real ones did hang here. Ironically, the fake tapestries underline that the favour clearly goes two ways: not only do museums get to store objects here, but COVRA also gets some helpful PR. After all, who would store their century-old heritage here if this place were not perfectly safe? The story of transparency here becomes tied up with a strong conviction about the certainty and predictability of safety.

Art is not just inside of COVRA, however, but also outside of it. The building that stores high-level radioactive waste, which still emanates heat, received its bright orange colour from the Dutch artist William Verstraeten. He proposed to re-paint the building a lighter shade every 20 years, to visualise the process by which the waste gradually cools down. In a hundred years, the building will be completely white. This metaphor only tells a partial story though: in a hundred years, the waste may have cooled down, but it will still be highly toxic, and will still need storage. The building underlines how COVRA employs story-telling as a way to manage anxieties about nuclear waste. As with the other examples, nuclear waste management becomes a story about time management, as Verhoef put it himself.

But do we really know how to “manage” a period of 250.000 years? This particular narrative presented by the facility makes everything seem terribly clear and well planned, but it leaves very little room for uncertainty. This is problematic, given nuclear waste’s many speculative dimensions. Even if the building is able to withstand all natural or man-made physical disasters, we may well wonder what happens if political regimes change, or if there is a war, and management is no longer supported or becomes impossible, as PhD candidate Anna Volkmar pointed out during a discussion. In reply, Verhoef told us that COVRA cannot prepare for all possible risk scenarios.

I agree with him. Rather than seeing this an answer to dismiss complicated questions, however, I would see it as an opportunity to integrate anticipatory uncertainty into the stories we tell about nuclear waste, rather than leave it out. There is a coming together at COVRA of art and heritage with technology and science. This is an admirable approach, one that appears to be appreciative of art’s potential to investigate and make understandable the nuclear condition in which we find ourselves. Perhaps if COVRA wants to take seriously the connection they are making here, then, art could play a role in giving uncertainty a place at COVRA as well. This need not undermine the important work they are doing; it would just be a first step to telling a more complete story.

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