Nuclear storage and the future: “Welcome to the new age”

Recently, I went on a field trip to a nuclear waste storage facility called COVRA in the south-west of the Netherlands. The area is called Zeeland, the least populous province of this densely populated country. This watery land is criss-crossed by a series of large barriers, dams, and dykes which were put in place after a devastating flood in 1953 which killed more than 1,800 people. The wind blows hard here; scattered wind turbines pierce the skyline.

Approaching the storage facility in grey weather, one senses that this is a secretive place. There is a moment, not quite identifiable, when an invisible line is crossed, and beyond which hushed tones are adopted, laughter is subdued, and doors are opened only with fingerprints and keycards by special staff in white uniforms.

At COVRA, they are planning for a future none of us will live to see. Nuclear waste can have a half-life of 100,000 years. Concrete barrels of the most dangerous waste are stored 400 metres below the ground in rocks that are deemed resistant to earthquakes and erosion, that have endured for millions of years. Safe and warm, deep in geological time.

By necessity, working here is dull. The job is the same every day: their only task, as staff repeatedly told us, is to keep the people of the Netherlands safe through the secure storage of its nuclear waste. And that safety depends on maintenance. It depends on a commitment that itself is dependent on nothing changing. No power failures; no break-ins; no floods forecast – all is well. The barrels, warm and cosy with their own heat, slumber in their underground beds.

Once upon a time, people were intrigued, even excited by, nuclear energy. American football teams were named the Atomics. Beauty pageants in Las Vegas, not far from the Area 51 nuclear test site, sought to crown “Miss Atomic USA”. In the 1940s, the first women’s two-piece swimsuit was called a “bikini”, after the Bikini Atoll, on which one of the first public tests of a nuclear bomb had just taken place. 

There’s a reason COVRA is in sparsely populated Zeeland, hidden partially from view by trees and wind turbines. Chernobyl alone has ensured that nuclear energy has the worst of reputations, and it’s a hard job convincing people the storage site is safe. Attempts are made to educate the public; taking photos is encouraged. As we move around the site, we lose more and more of the group to the allure of photographing the unimaginable. Attention spans are short, but collective memory is long.

Neither nuclear radiation nor climate disaster respect the borders humans have constructed for themselves. Soviet authorities only admitted that there had been an “incident” at the Chernobyl plant when higher radiation levels than usual were detected in Sweden. Part of the fierce fear – or denialism—that sometimes accompanies discussions on climate change may have its origins in this. Volcano eruptions, extreme storms, polluted oceans, nuclear fallouts – they violate the very idea of the nation-state. Disrupted weather doesn’t listen to imaginary lines and abstract laws; and when it comes to radiation, we can’t control what we can’t see.

When you are standing near nuclear waste, everything feels like a threat. Your skin prickles with imaginary radiation. You swear you can hear a background buzz. The air itself feels thicker. You’ve seen Chernobyl: you eye ladders and machinery warily. Each slam of a door quickens the pulse. You make sure you know where the exit is.

Entering the high-security room through a rolling, radiation-proof door several inches thick….

In 1977, a project called the Voyager Golden Record was launched, led by Carl Sagan at NASA. It was a time capsule for the deep future – a physical record that would be sent into outer space, containing recordings of music, languages, and messages from across the human world. Beethoven and Chuck Berry were included. Line drawings of a naked woman and man were part of the package, later changed to silhouettes (perhaps the aliens would be offended or even provoked by nudes). A child’s voice said, “Hello from the children of planet Earth.” If there was intelligent life out there, this would be what they would learn of humanity.

Global warming has changed that world. From our vantage point, it now seems an optimistic endeavour to send messages to the future, to faraway beings. Now, we are facing the idea that our own planet won’t survive as it is. What do we want to tell our future selves? What do we want them to say about us?

Perhaps it’s time for nuclear energy to be back on the cards. There are already 450 plants across the world, but public opposition remains strong. Yet if we want to maintain our lifestyles, it may well be that the only way of providing enough energy for the future is to replace the threat of an unstable planet with the unstable isotopes of nuclear power.

Nuclear waste is our message in a bottle to the deep future. It might even be the only sign of humanity that survives. Welcome to the new age.

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