For some reason I woke up this morning thinking of a story from nearly two years ago: that LLWR, new owners of the English nuclear facility at Sellafield, had arrived at their new property to find so little paperwork about where nuclear waste had been stored—and by whom, and how—that they had to put an ad in the local newspaper asking if anyone else remembered where the nuclear waste was dumped.
“We need your help,” the ad began.
Did you work at Sellafield in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s? Were you by chance in the job of disposing of radioactive material? If so, the owners of Britain’s nuclear waste dump would very much like to hear from you: they want you to tell them what you dumped—and where you put it.
In turn, having just moved back to LA last week, I’ve been thinking of a story from this past spring, when part of the the Los Angeles neighborhood of Carson was discovered to be built above a 50-acre sea of contaminated soil. “In March,” the Los Angeles Times reported at the time, “the water quality board told residents not to eat fruit or vegetables grown in their backyards. Shell Oil Co., which once stored millions of gallons of crude oil in giant tanks where the houses now stand, sent letters to more than 20 homeowners recommending they minimize contact with ‘exposed soil in your yard.'” In one case, a local resident—and avid gardener—”watched investigators pull dark, wet soil from her backyard that smelled like oil.”
[Image: A circulation diagram of the underground nuclear waste repository at Onkalo, Finland, from Containing Uncertainty by smudge studio, exhibited as part of Landscapes of Quarantine at New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture. “Deep geologic repositories are difficult spaces to imagine,” the artists write. “They exist below us, hundreds of feet into the earth. Their spaces are not easily accessed by the public, if at all. The most challenging thing to imagine about a deep geologic repository is invisible to human eyes: its relationship to geologic time.”].
Dealing with the toxic after-effects of an earlier industry—or an earlier civilization altogether—especially if that contaminated geography remains insufficiently marked, is also the topic of a remarkable film released last spring by director Michael Madsen. Called Into Eternity, that film explores the philosophical and technical challenges involved with safely storing nuclear waste underground for a minimum period of 100,000 years. As Madsen explained to NPR, however, in slightly broken English:
100,000 years from now would most likely, in my mind, also mean another kind of human beings. It’s perhaps 100,000 years that we left Africa, the human, the Homo sapiens species; 40,000 years ago in Europe there were Neanderthals, a different kind of human species. So in 100,000 years from now, I think that we humans will be something different from today, and when you’re building something to last for that time span and to be safe under all circumstances, I thought that these people, they must have some considerations about the scenarios that might arise in the future and how to counteract upon these scenarios.
Put another way, how on earth might a transformed human inhabitant of the earth, 100,000 years from now, put out an ad in the local newspaper asking if someone whose ancestors once worked at Sellafield—or Onkalo, the repository explored by Madsen’s film, or even the coastal waters of Somalia or San Francisco—could remember if there were any life-threatening toxins buried in the ground nearby? Even if those nameless predecessors have left signs?
Or will future myths of this planet consist not of Mediterranean scenes of sun-blessed fertility—a world like none other—but lamentations of deformity and radioactive clouds, its rivers chemical weapons, its kings plagued by amnesia? Demeter replaced by Moros—forever?
[Image: The entryway to Onkalo’s moribund underworld, from Michael Madsen’s Into Eternity].
In any case, perhaps my favorite scene in Madsen’s film—or, at least, one of the most thought-provoking—comes when the engineers in charge of blasting down through the Scandinavian bedrock to create vast artificial caverns in which copper barrels of nuclear waste will be stored, joke that they sometimes half-expect to reach the proper depths required for disposal… only to dig up a collection of copper canisters buried there 100,000 years ago by a forgotten civilization, one that otherwise left no marks, no archaeology, no traces or remnants of paperwork describing its health-threatening (mis)deeds.
(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the Sellafield link. Related: One Million Years of Isolation: An Interview with Abraham van Luik).