Operational Lifespan: 100,000 Years

In this series of blogs, I will be exploring Nuclear Energy as a topic of design and technology. I will look at existing technical, environmental, and societal issues – with consideration to how such issues could change in the future. I will research existing and upcoming technologies with the aim of identifying design opportunities and forming personal opinions, including an opinion on the Nuclear Debate as a whole.

To begin my research, I watched the 2010 documentary film Into Eternity by Michael Madsen. This film follows the construction of the Onkalo Waste Repository in Finland. This is the world’s first permanent storage facility for nuclear waste and has a designed lifespan of 100,000 years. The documentary highlights the challenges associated with designing anything to last such a long period of time, longer than any structure previously built by humans.

The most interesting issue raised to me was communication over long periods of time. On the scale of 100,000 years, languages are created and lost, cultures change, entire civilisations come and go in the blink of an eye. And yet this nuclear storage facility must remain constant. It must remain intact and sealed.

This is possible on a technical level. The Onkalo Waste Repository is a network of underground tunnels with the spent fuel rods stored at the very bottom, over 500m below the ground. Twelve rods are placed in a steel canister, which is placed in a copper capsule, which itself is covered in bentonite clay. Once a tunnel has been filled with capsules, it is sealed with concrete and eventually the entire facility will be sealed at the surface.

The Onkalo spent nuclear fuel repository

This site is so secure that the biggest risk has been identified as ‘human intrusion’; the idea that humans in the far future would forget what this place is and want to go inside. So the question arises, how do you communicate the inherent dangers of this site to future people?

The documentary shows that the most obvious approach would be a warning sign. A large obelisk with text inscribed describing the site, probably in many languages. This works on the short term, but after 5,000 years you cannot rely on any language surviving.

I also listened to an episode of the design podcast 99% Invisible called ‘Ten Thousand Years’. It tells the story of the people designing a 10,000 year communication system for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in the US, which serves the same purpose as the Onkalo Waste Repository.

Faced with this challenge, landscape architect Mike Brill turned to instilling a more emotional response. Large fields of spikes, imposing blocks of concrete, the message of danger conveyed by form alone.

Mike Brill’s depiction of an emotion-based warning marker.

The problem with this approach is that these structures attract too much attention. Much like with the great wonders of the world, tourism could turn the site into a landmark. This is the constant struggle with designing a marker; you want to attract the viewer’s attention to the marker, but you want to send the message ‘stay away!’.

The most interesting solution for me was one proposed by Thomas Sebeok in 1984. He pointed out that the most long-lasting messages throughout human history have been those articulated by the Catholic Church and Judaism. These institutions have lasted thousands of years. Therefore we should similarly utilise culture as a means of communication, by creating folklore and legends about the dangers of nuclear waste sites. ‘Folklore Memory’ is a phenomenon that has been shown to last thousands of years; belief in the ancient god Zeus was shared between people in Europe and Indo-Asia, despite these groups living separately for thousands of years. Clearly this is a powerful communication method.

But maybe the best option for nuclear waste is not to communicate. Into Eternity suggests that it might be better that we let ourselves forget about the Onkalo Waste Repository. Any such ‘markers’ could just serve to attract unnecessary attention. I think this is the solution I prefer.





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