A Wall of Walls

[Image: River valley outside Kamdesh, Afghanistan, where the “Battle of Kamdesh” occurred, an assault that loosely serves as the basis for part of John Renehan’s novel, The Valley].

While we’re on the subject of books, an interesting novel I read earlier this year is The Valley by John Renehan. It’s a kind of police procedural set on a remote U.S. military base in the mountains of Afghanistan, fusing elements of investigative noir, a missing-person mystery, and, to a certain extent, a post-9/11 geopolitical thriller, all in one.

Architecturally speaking, the book’s includes a noteworthy scene quite late in the book—please look away now if you’d like to avoid a minor spoiler—in which the main character attempts to learn why a particularly isolated valley on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan seems so unusually congested with insurgent fighters and other emergent sources of local conflict.

He thus hikes his way up through heavily guarded opium fields to what feels like the edge of the known world, as the valley he’s tracking steadily narrows ever upward until “there were no more river sounds. He’d gotten above the springs and runoff that fed it.” In the context of the novel, this scene feels as if the man has stepped off-stage, ascending to a world of solitude, clouds, and mountain silence.

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by Staff Sergeant Adam Mancini].

What he sees there, however, is that the entire valley, in effect, has been quarantined. A baffling and massive concrete wall has been constructed by the U.S. military across the entire pass, severing the connection between two neighboring countries and forming an absolute barrier to insurgent troop movements. The wall has also decimated—or, at least, substantially harmed—the local economy.

Attempts to blow it up have left visible scars on its flanks, resulting in a blackened super-wall that is so far away from regional villages that many people don’t even know it’s there; they only know its side-effects.

“It was an impressive construction,” Renehan writes. “There was no way they got vehicles all the way up here. It must have been heavy-lift helicopters laying in all the pieces and equipment.”

[Image: U.S. military helicopter in Afghanistan, courtesy U.S. Army, taken by by Staff Sgt. Marcus J. Quarterman].

It was a titanic undertaking, “a wall of walls,” in his words, an improvised barrier like something out of Mad Max:

Concrete blast barriers lined up twenty feet high, one against another on the slanting ground, shingled all across the gap, with another layer of shorter walls piled haphazardly atop, and more shoring up the gaps at the bottom. There must have been another complete set of walls built behind the one he could see, because the whole hulking thing had been filled with cement. It had oozed and dried like frosting at the seams, puddling through the gaps at the bottom.

The man puts his hand on the concrete, knowing now that the whole valley had simply been sealed off. It “was closed.”

There are many things that interest me here. One is this notion that a distant megastructure, something of which few people are aware, nonetheless exhibits direct and tangible effects in their everyday lives; you might not even know such a structure exists, in other words, but your life has been profoundly shaped by it.

The metaphoric possibilities here are obvious.

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by Spc. Ken Scar, 7th MPAD].

But I was also reminded of another famous military wall constructed in a remote mountain landscape to keep a daunting adversary at bay, the so-called “Alexander’s Gates,” a monumental—and entirely mythic—architectural project allegedly built by Alexander the Great in the Caucasus region to keep monsters out of Europe. This myth was the Pacific Rim of its day, we might say.

I first encountered the story of Alexander’s Gates in Stephen T. Asma’s book, On Monsters.

Alexander supposedly chased his foreign enemies through a mountain pass in the Caucasus region and then enclosed them behind unbreachable iron gates. The details and the symbolic significance of the story changed slightly in every medieval retelling, and it was retold often, especially in the age of exploration. (…) The maps of the time, the mappaemundi, almost always include the gates, though their placement is not consistent. Most maps and narratives of the later medieval period agree that this prison territory, created proximately by Alexander but ultimately by God, houses the savage tribes of Gog and Magog, who are referred to with great ambiguity throughout the Bible, and sometimes as individual monsters, sometimes as nations, sometimes as places.

On the other side of Alexander’s Gates was what Asma memorably calls a “monster zone.”

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by U.S. Army Pfc. Andrya Hill, 4th Brigade Combat Team].

In any case, you can learn a bit more about the gates in this earlier post on BLDGBLOG, but it instantly came to mind while reading The Valley.

Renehan’s bulging “wall of walls,” constructed by U.S. military helicopters in a hostile landscape so remote it is all but over the edge of the world, purely with the goal of sealing off an entire mountain valley, is a kind of 21st-century update to Alexander’s Gates.

In fact, it makes me wonder what sorts of megastructures exist in contemporary global military mythology—what urban legends soldiers tell themselves and each other about their own forces or those of their adversaries—from underground super-bunkers to unbreachable desert walls. What are the Alexander’s Gates of today?

Machine Quarantines and “Persistent Drones”

scout[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of a “Scout” UAV, via Wikipedia].

There’s an interesting short piece by Jacob Hambling in a recent issue of New Scientist about the use of “persistent drones” to “hold territory in war zones,” effectively sealing those regions off from incursion. It is an ominous vision of what we might call automated quarantine, or a cordon it’s nearly impossible to trespass, maintained by self-charging machines.

Pointing out the limitations of traditional air power and the tactical, as well as political, difficulties in getting “boots on the ground” in conflict zones, Hambling suggests that military powers might turn to the use of “persistent drones” that “could sit on buildings or trees and keep watch indefinitely.” Doing so “expands the potential for intervention without foot soldiers,” he adds, “but it may lessen the inhibitions that can stop military action.”

Indeed, it’s relatively easy to imagine a near-future scenario in which a sovereign or sub-sovereign power—a networked insurgent force—could attempt to claim territory using Hambling’s “persistent drones,” as if playing Go with fully armed, semi-autonomous machines. They rid the land of its human inhabitants—then watch and wait.

Whole neighborhoods of cities, disputed terrains on the borders of existing nations, National Wildlife Refuges—almost as an afterthought, in a kind of political terraforming, you could simply send in a cloud of machine-sentinels to clear and hold ground until the day, assuming it ever comes, that your actual human forces can arrive.

The Disease Reservoirs of the Future

flood[Image: Flooding in Brooklyn during Hurricane Sandy; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Before heading out the other night to see a panel on pandemic diseases moderated by Sonia Shah—author of the interesting new book Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond—I read an otherwise unrelated article about the current rate of sea level rise.

According to a new study, the New York Times explains, sea levels are “rising faster than at any point in 28 centuries, with the rate of increase growing sharply over the past century.” Needless to say, this is having—and will continue to have—extraordinary landscape effects.

Rising sea levels are already “straining life in many towns,” the New York Times continues, “by killing lawns and trees, blocking neighborhood streets and clogging storm drains, polluting supplies of freshwater and sometimes stranding entire island communities for hours by overtopping the roads that tie them to the mainland.”

And true sea level rise has barely started.

8159621140_f891a54884_bFlooded L-train tunnel following Hurricane Sandy; photo courtesy MTA].

Recall, for example, the Guardian’s recent depiction of Miami as a city at war with the sea, as ocean water now surges into the streets from below, assaulting the surface through backed-up storm sewers.

Tidal surges are turned into walls of seawater that batter Miami Beach’s west coast and sweep into the resort’s storm drains, reversing the flow of water that normally comes down from the streets above. Instead seawater floods up into the gutters of Alton Road, the first main thoroughfare on the western side of Miami Beach, and pours into the street. Then the water surges across the rest of the island.
The effect is calamitous. Shops and houses are inundated; city life is paralysed; cars are ruined by the corrosive seawater that immerses them. During one recent high spring tide, laundromat owner Eliseo Toussaint watched as slimy green saltwater bubbled up from the gutters. It rapidly filled the street and then blocked his front door. “This never used to happen,” Toussaint told the New York Times. “I’ve owned this place eight years and now it’s all the time.”

It’s worth pointing out, of course, that Michael Grunwald, author of the excellent book The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise—a Cadillac Desert for South Florida—rebutted most of that article’s more salacious points.

“I’m sorry to spoil the climate porn,” Grunwald wrote for Time, “but while the periodic puddles in my Whole Foods parking lot are harbingers of a potentially catastrophic future, they are not currently catastrophic. They are annoying. And so is this kind of yellow climate journalism.”

However, Elizabeth Kolbert recently picked up the baton in a great and convincing piece for The New Yorker. Kolbert rode around the city, speaking with geologists and water managers, visiting neighborhoods already experiencing the landscape-futures of climate change. “We’d come to a neighborhood,” she writes, “of multimillion-dollar homes where the water was creeping under the security gates and up the driveways. Porsches and Mercedeses sat flooded up to their chassis.”

Tomorrow’s coastal landscape, today.

413595765_b8f3bb69e3_z[Image: Flooding in New York State; photo by Jonathan LaRocca/Creative Commons].

In any case, continue this trend for a century, two centuries, three centuries, and coastal cities such as Miami—and New York and Shanghai and Sydney and Lagos and Rio—are threatened not with Grunwald’s annoyance but with extinction. “Experts say the situation would then grow far worse in the 22nd century and beyond,” the New York Times points out, “likely requiring the abandonment of many coastal cities.”

None of this is news—even here on BLDGBLOG, we’ve been looking at the flooded cities of a climate-changed future since nearly day one—but it was interesting to consider this vision of a drowned world while listening to Sonia Shah and her panelists discuss known reservoirs of microbes and pathogens.

Take the Sundarbans, for example.

sundarban[Image: The Sundarbans, courtesy NASA].

In Shah’s book, Pandemic, she explains that the Sundarbans—which she describes as “a netherworld of land and sea long hostile to human penetration” in the Bay of Bengal—are the natural reservoir of Vibrio cholerae bacteria. These, of course, cause cholera.

The environmental and spatial conditions there are perfect for their survival, and it was only human intervention—and, later, global trade—that allowed cholera to make its great escape.

During the event the other night, Shah also pointed out that our mountains of impermeable plastic waste are inadvertently forming a nearly ideal, artificial ecosystem for mosquitoes, giving those insects a water-logged environment—a different kind of “plastisphere”—in which to breed. The conditions, again, are perfect for mosquitos’ survival, an accidental augmentation of their habitat by way of the consumer packaging industry.

I mention all this because it’s hard not to wonder what future disease reservoirs might form in an era of rising sea levels and flooded cities. Down in the drowned road tunnels of New York, for example, or in the geyser-like storm drains of an uninhabitable Miami—in the basements, parking lots, and silt-filled shopping malls of a submerged world—what future infections will find a route for spilling over into the human world, what disease-ridden insects find ideal conditions for replication?

These sorts of “neglected environments contaminated with human filth,” as Shah describes them, are great shapers of pandemics.

While this is not only interesting from the perspective of a potential novel plot—a Michael Crichton-like thriller set in a flood-ravaged world, where strange diseases emerge from forgotten suburbs engulfed by the sea—it also has clear epidemiological relevance, in terms of scanning ahead for potential outbreaks.

In other words, we know—as Shah’s panel the other night made abundantly clear—that human settlement in previously wild landscapes, such as deep rain forests and coastal mangrove swamps, poses predictable, if statistically complex, dangers in terms of exposing people to new diseases. But we should thus also be able to predict that certain forthcoming landscape-scale events—the permanent flooding of the New York City subway system, say, or Floridian landfills fatally overcome by rising tides—will also come with more or less known epidemiological side-effects.

Consider Bill McKibben’s recent piece in the Guardian, for example, where he writes that the Zika virus “foreshadows our dystopian climate future.” Zika, McKibben writes, is unsettling evidence that a changing climate has forced us to take “one more step in the division of the world into relative safe and dangerous zones,” suggesting “an emerging epidemiological apartheid.”

malaria copy[Image: Mapping the potential future spread of malaria; UNEP/GRID].

So what are the microbes, bacteria, or pathogens—what are the insects, rodents, and invasive species—that might thrive in these as-yet unrealized landscapes? What future disease reservoirs will form, as coastal cities and towns are erased by the sea, and what are the specific thresholds that tomorrow’s epidemiologists should be looking for?

Put another way, what pandemics might emerge from these cities we know will drown?

Powers of Quarantine

[Image: Liberian security forces implement “a quarantine of the West Point slum, stepping up the government’s fight to stop the outbreak and unnerving residents.” Photo by Abbas Dulleh/AP, via Al Jazeera America].

Of Forcible Blockades and Military Isolation

A neighborhood-scale quarantine was forcibly imposed on the slums of Monrovia, Liberia, yesterday to help prevent the spread of Ebola.

Using makeshift roadblocks—consisting, for the most part, of old furniture, wooden pallets, and barbed wire, as everyday objects were transformed into the raw materials of a police blockade—authorities have forcibly isolated the densely populated neighborhood of West Point from the rest of the city.

Unsurprisingly, however, poor communication, over-aggressive law enforcement tactics, and general misinformation about the nature—even the very existence—of Ebola has led to local resistance.

Al Jazeera reports, for example, that “police in the Liberian capital have fired live rounds and tear gas to disperse a stone-throwing crowd trying to break an Ebola quarantine imposed on their neighborhood.” But they were perhaps simply trying to defend themselves against a badly communicated onslaught of police wielding batons and machine guns, and they would be doing so whether Ebola was in the picture or not.

[Image: Neigborhood-scale quarantine; photo by Abbas Dulleh/AP, via Al Jazeera America].

Ubiquitous Quarantine

But this is only one of the most recent—and one of the more extreme—examples of the spatial practice of quarantine reappearing in the news in recent weeks. At the end of July, for example, the Chinese city of Yumen was partially quarantined due to an outbreak of bubonic plague, as parts of the city were “sealed off” from the neighborhoods around them; and the ongoing Ebola outbreak has led to involuntary quarantines being implemented at nearly every spatial level, from the individual to the city to entire international regions.

In the latter case, recall that just last week a cordon sanitaire was enforced in the international border regions of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone to stop people possibly infected with Ebola from crossing the borders. As the New York Times described this action, “The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is so out of control that governments there have revived a disease-fighting tactic not used in nearly a century: the ‘cordon sanitaire,’ in which a line is drawn around the infected area and no one is allowed out.”

This spatial technique for managing the spread of microbiological life has “the potential to become brutal and inhumane,” the paper adds. “Centuries ago, in their most extreme form, everyone within the boundaries was left to die or survive, until the outbreak ended.”

[Image: Enforcing quarantine; Photo by Abbas Dulleh/AP, via Al Jazeera America].

Resisting Quarantine

Yet resistance to quarantine is nearly as ubiquitous as attempts to implement it. The very notion of involuntary quarantine is important to emphasize here: this is something that must be spatially imposed on people who have not chosen to bring this condition upon themselves.

Read this dramatic description from the Times, for example, depicting the moment at which involuntary government quarantine is revealed:

Soldiers and police officers in riot gear blocked the roads. Even the waterfront was cordoned off, with the coast guard stopping residents from setting out in canoes. The entire neighborhood, a sprawling slum with tens of thousands of people, awoke Wednesday morning to find that it was under strict quarantine in the government’s halting fight against Ebola.

The reaction was swift and violent. Angry young men hurled rocks and stormed barbed-wire barricades, trying to break out. Soldiers repelled the surging crowd with live rounds, driving back hundreds of young men.

Involuntary quarantine can inspire this type of reaction at any scale. Consider the panic-stricken family who forcibly raided a hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in order to free an Ebola-stricken relative who, they had come to believe, was being held against her will; she later died, but not before passing her infection on to others. Or consider the Nigerian nurse possibly exposed to Ebola while caring for patients who nonetheless “skipped quarantine,” either out of a desperate sense of self-preservation or due to sheer ignorance of the dangers of her actions.

“Don’t Touch The Walls!”

Somewhat incredibly, though, the deliberate breaking of quarantine can also occur not out of survivalist panic or concern for one’s own medical safety, but simply for the purpose of looting. Some of the descriptions here are jaw-dropping, with raiders actually breaking into Ebola wards to steal “property like tents, tarpaulins, buckets, hospital beds, mobile phones and shoes among other things,” literally all of which could bear traces of Ebola and thus spread the contagion elsewhere.

The New York Times had a particularly chilling example of why not to steal from Ebola wards when it ran this haunting sentence two weeks ago: “‘Don’t touch the walls!’ a Western medical technician yelled out. ‘Totally infected.'”

Yet, even in the West Point quarantine zone, misguided acts of theft are rampant: “Residents stormed through” the quarantine zone, we read, also in the New York Times, “running off with a generator and supplies like mattresses, some soaked with the blood of patients who were believed to have Ebola.”

In a situation where even the hospitals are considered to be “death traps,” where the walls themselves are “totally infected” with Ebola, the designation of involuntary and militarily enforced quarantine boundaries is taken to mean the designation of a kind of urban sacrifice zone, a place where patients can be fatally off-loaded and the disease tragically but successfully contained. From this point of view, getting out of the quarantine zone becomes a top priority.

Residents of West Point have even protested that “their community, they believed, was becoming a dumping ground for Ebola patients,” and that quarantine was simply a spatial excuse for putting victims all in one place, uninfected neighbors be damned. “In all,” we read, “residents tried to break through the barricade three times on Wednesday, Col. Prince Johnson, the army’s brigade commander, said Wednesday evening by phone. His soldiers had fired in the air, he said, but he would not comment on whether they had also fired into the crowd.”

[Image: A “quarantine house” in Pennsylvania; courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress].

Powers of Quarantine

Who has the power to quarantine? Where does this power come from—especially in a Constitutional democracy like the United States—and where exactly are this power’s limits? Does it have any?

Nicola Twilley and I explored these questions last week for the New Yorker, looking at, among other things, the Constitutional implications of quarantine powers. As we point out in that piece, there is an ethically troubling overlap between the notion of the quarantined subject, spatially isolated often against his or her will, and the liminal figure of the “enemy combatant” who potentially never faces the prospect of a legal trial whilst being indefinitely detained.

In both cases, extrajudicial detention can occur on the ground of suspicion alone—presumed guilt or infection—rather than legal or medical certainty.

In fact, writing as a coauthor on two Congressional Research Reports from 2005, legal theorist Jennifer Elsea commented on both of these categories: of the combatant held by the state without rights or legal access to resistance, and the medical subject unable to protest his or her segregation due to being held in a state of involuntary quarantine.

As we see massive international quarantine zones enforced at gunpoint throughout West Africa, and as suspected Ebola cases pop up everywhere from Johannesburg to California, it is well worth discussing where these spatial powers come from, who controls them, and when and where quarantine has reached its limit.

The Return of Quarantine

Indeed, as Twilley and I suggested back in 2010 during the “Landscapes of Quarantine” design studio and exhibition at New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture, quarantine is a decidedly pre-modern spatial practice that is nonetheless experiencing a contemporary comeback.

Confronted with widespread antibiotic resistance and increased global air travel that can bring diseases like Ebola to every global metropolis in a matter of hours, quarantine is part of “a 14th-century toolbox” that ironically looks perfectly at home in the 21st century.

[Image: Quarantine station, Pennsylvania; courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress].

Given all these examples of resistance, confusion, and the violence often necessary to impose spatial isolation on people only suspected of bearing a disease, we suggest in the New Yorker essay that quarantine becomes something of a spatial fiction, always and permanently on the verge of collapse. Its premise is a fantasy; the imaginary boundaries it seeks to defend are legally loose and physically porous.

Nonetheless, for all its apparent instability, quarantine offers a necessary fiction of separation and control at a time when the boundaries between health and contagion have become so vertiginous and blurred.

(Note: Parts of this post were co-written with Nicola Twilley).

Quadraturin and Other Architectural Expansionary Tales

While I’m announcing things, I also want to give a heads up to anyone in the Los Angeles area that I’ll be lecturing on Wednesday evening, October 13th, over at SCI-Arc, speaking on the subject of “Quadraturin and Other Architectural Expansionary Tales.” I’ll be delving into the long-running subtheme on this site of the role of architectural ideas in poetry, myth, comics, and fiction, from the ancient to extreme futurity.

From “trap streets” in London and the fiction of China Miéville to the folklore of The First Fossil Hunters and myths of Alexander’s Gates—to, of course, Quadraturin—by way of Franz Kafka, Mike Mignola, Rupert Thomson, 3D-printing bees, haunted skyscrapers, neutrino storms, the Cyclonopedia, and much more, the talk will be a quick rundown of both the narrative implications of architecture and the architectural implications of specific storylines.

It’s free and open to the public, and there’s an insane amount of parking, so hopefully I will see some of you there. Here’s a map. Things kick off at 7pm.

The Quarantine Banquet

New Yorkers with a taste for great—and jaw-droppingly creative—food should take note that, next weekend, two quarantine-themed banquets will be held inside Storefront for Art and Architecture, adding a culinary dimension to the ongoing exhibition Landscapes of Quarantine.

[Image: From a previous a razor, a shiny knife meal; photo by Jennifer May for the New York Times. See more photos here].

As Nicola Twilley describes these nights over on Edible Geography, “on Saturday, April 10, and Sunday, April 11, the Brooklyn-based a razor, a shiny knife team will explore the culinary implications of quarantine, preparing and serving a quarantine-themed dinner inside the exhibition itself. Tickets are not cheap but then this will not be just dinner,” she adds; it will “explore the outside limits of the science of cooking, as well as the theatrical, social, and experiential possibilities of a meal.”

Michael Cirino himself explains that “these events are not only for professional chefs or foodies; they are for anyone who loves food, regardless of culinary knowledge or experience. We produce these evenings to effect a communal environment of social interaction, education and fun.” As such, the quarantine dinners will also include live demonstrations of Cirino’s techniques—including a lesson in “interesting applications for an iSi whipper.”

[Image: From a previous a razor, a shiny knife meal; see more photos here].

I would highly recommend reading the detailed rundowns of the quarantine menu both at Edible Geography and at the event listing itself (where you can also buy tickets). Edible Geography points out, for instance, that “if the dinner guests are passengers on a journey through quarantine, then the first course plays with the idea of exposure to disease, and the second course mimics the first step taken on arrival at the lazaretto—disinfection.”

In our initial conversations, I had told Michael that during outbreaks of the Black Death in fifteenth-century Europe, port officials would “disinfect” suspect cargo and mail by dousing it in vinegar and/or subjecting it to cedar or sandalwood smoke: from that seed of an idea, combined with culinary technology, a new edible experience emerged.

There will be “vacuum-sealed plastic bags,” riffing off the idea of separation and containment, and an “encapsulated” dessert course, all prepared by Cirino using the best ingredients on offer (such as dry-aged steak from the finest purveyors in New York City, white truffles, steelhead trout roe, and specially paired wines from Cabrini).

[Images: Photos from previous a razor, a shiny knife meals; see many more photographs here].

The very idea of a quarantine menu is, I have to say, extraordinarily inspired, as it recontextualizes the spatial tactics of quarantine as unexpected new techniques for cooking, and it takes materials and foods that have themselves, at various points in history, been subject to quarantine and treats them as ingredients for a gourmet meal. Further, an elaborate dinner served and plated after-hours inside Storefront for Art and Architecture will be quite a thrill (for photos of what such a meal might look like, check out the dinner for the Storefront re-opening gala a few years back).

[Image: From a previous a razor, a shiny knife meal; see more photos here].

In any case, all proceeds go to a razor, a shiny knife, and the events sound brilliant; definitely consider supporting Cirino’s culinary experiments, as you’ll get a night of cooking demonstrations and a delicious, once-in-a-lifetime meal in the process.

Alexander’s Gates

One of many books I’ve been enjoying this autumn is On Monsters by Stephen T. Asma, an extended look into where formal deviation occurs in the world and what unexpected, often emotionally disconcerting, shapes and forces can result.

[Image: The Dariel Pass in the Caucausus Mountains, rumored possible site of the mythic Alexander’s Gates].

According to Asma, measuring these swerves and abnormalities against each other—and against ourselves—can shed much-needed light on the alternative “developmental trajectories” by which monsters come into being. This speculative monsterology, as he describes it it, would thus uncover the rules by which even the most stunning mutational transformations occur—allowing us to catalog extraordinary beings according to what Asma calls a “continuum of strangeness: first, nonnative species, then familiar beasts with unfamiliar sizes or modified body parts, then hybrids of surprising combination, and finally, at the furthest margins, shape-shifters and indescribable creatures.” Asma specifically mentions “mosaic beings,” beings “grafted together or hybridized by nature or artifice.”

In the book’s fascinating first-third—easily the book’s best section—Asma spends a great deal of time describing ancient myths of variation by which monsters were believed to have originated. From the mind-blowing and completely inexplicable discovery of dinosaur bones by ancient societies with no conception of geological time to the hordes of “monstrous races” believed to exist on the imperial perimeter, there have always been monsters somewhere in the world’s geography.

Of specific relevance to an architecture blog, however, are Alexander’s Gates.

[Image: Constructing the wall of Dhul-Qarnayn, mythic isotope to Alexander’s Gates].

Alexander’s Gates, Asma writes, were the ultimate wall between the literally Caucasian West and its monstrous opponents, dating back to Alexander the Great:

Alexander supposedly chased his foreign enemies through a mountain pass in the Caucasus region and then enclosed them behind unbreachable iron gates. The details and the symbolic significance of the story changed slightly in every medieval retelling, and it was retold often, especially in the age of exploration.

(…) The maps of the time, the mappaemundi, almost always include the gates, though their placement is not consistent. Most maps and narratives of the later medieval period agree that this prison territory, created proximately by Alexander but ultimately by God, houses the savage tribes of Gog and Magog, who are referred to with great ambiguity throughout the Bible, and sometimes as individual monsters, sometimes as nations, sometimes as places.

Beyond this wall was a “monster zone.”

[Image: The geography of Us vs. Them, in a “12th century map by the Muslim scholar Al-Idrisi. ‘Yajooj’ and ‘Majooj’ (Gog and Magog) appear in Arabic script on the bottom-left edge of the Eurasian landmass, enclosed within dark mountains, at a location corresponding roughly to Mongolia.” Via Wikipedia].

Interestingly, a variation of this story is also told within Islam—indeed, in the Koran itself. In Islamic mythology, however, Alexander the Great is replaced by a figure called Dhul-Qarnayn (who might also be a legendary variation on the Persian king Cyrus).

Even more interesting than that, however, the Koran‘s own story of geographically distant monsters entombed behind a vast wall—the border fence as theological infrastructure—appears to be a kind of literary remix of the so-called Alexander Romance. To quote that widely known religious authority Wikipedia, “The story of Dhul-Qarnayn in the Qur’an… matches the Gog and Magog episode in the Romance, which has caused some controversy among Islamic scholars.” That is, the Koran, supposedly the exact and holy words of God himself, actually contains a secular myth from 3rd-century Greece.

The construction of Dhul-Qarnayn’s wall against the non-Muslim monstrous hordes can specifically be found in verses 18:89-98. For instance:

“…Lend me a force of men, and I will raise a rampart between you and them. Come, bring me blocks or iron.”
He dammed up the valley between the Two Mountains, and said: “Ply your bellows.” And when the iron blocks were red with heat, he said: “Bring me molten brass to pour on them.”
Gog and Magog could not scale it, nor could they dig their way through it.

Think of it as a kind of religious quarantine—a biosafe wall through which no moral contagion could pass.

[Image: Constructing the wall of Dhul-Qarnayn, via Wikipedia].

But as with all border walls, and all imperial limits, there will someday be a breach.

For instance, Asma goes on to cite a book, published in the 14th century, called the Travels of Sir John Mandeville. There, we read how Alexander’s Gates will, on some future day blackened by the full horror of monstrous return, be rendered completely obsolete:

In the end, Mandeville predicts, a lowly fox will bring the chaos of invading monsters upon the heads of the Christians. He claims, without revealing how he comes by such specific prophecy, that during the time of the Antichrist a fox will dig a hole through Alexander’s gates and emerge inside the monster zone. The monsters will be amazed to see the fox, as such creatures do not live there locally, and they will follow it until it reveals its narrow passageway between the gates. The cursed sons of Cain will finally burst forth from the gates, and the realm of the reprobate will be emptied into the apocalyptic world.

In any case, the idea that the line between human and not-human has been represented in myth and religion as a very specifically architectural form—that is, a literal wall built high in the mountains, far away—is absolutely fascinating to me.

Further, it’s not hard to wonder how Alexander’s Gates compare, on the level of imperial psychology, to things like the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, the U.S./Mexico border fence, or the Distant Early Warning Line—even London’s Ring of Steel—let alone the Black Gates of Mordor in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

[Image: A map of the Distant Early Warning Line, an electromagnetic Alexander’s Gates for the Cold War].

Perhaps there is a kind of theological Hyperborder waiting to be written about the Wall of Gog and Magog.

Or could someone produce an architectural history of border stations as described in world mythology? I sense an amazing Ph.D. research topic here.

Plants Without Borders: An Interview with Sara Redstone

[Image: 55 of Europe’s most common plant pests in a wall poster found via the Scandinavian Fishing Year Book].

Sara Redstone is Plant Health and Quarantine Officer for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, home of the world’s largest collection of living plants. In addition to screening and isolating all incoming or outbound plant material, she is currently overseeing the design and construction of a new quarantine facility for the gardens.

As part of our ongoing series of quarantine-themed interviews, Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography and I visited Redstone at Kew, where we drank tea outside the Orangery café. Over the course of nearly two hours, we talked about the impact of current and potential pest outbreaks, the ecological risks of open E.U. borders and global trade, and the complicated governmental infrastructure of plant protection. In addition, we touched on what plant quarantine at Kew actually looks like, in terms of the functional and technical challenges involved in Wilkinson Eyre Architects‘ design for a new Quarantine House. Along the way, we covered plant smuggling, invasive species, and the potential to create a Sudden Oak Death super-strain.

[Image: A diseased pear from the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection].


• • •

BLDGBLOG: What do plant quarantine measures encompass—invasive species, plant diseases, or even genetically modified organisms? And who is in charge of enforcing plant quarantine in the UK?

Sara Redstone: Plant quarantine at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is concerned with controlling plant pests and diseases, to protect our living collections and the wider environment. In the UK, a number of different structures govern plant import restrictions, monitor invasives, and issue licenses for quarantine and for genetically-modified organism—GMO—research. The rules for working with GMOs are laid out and policed by the Health and Safety Executive, but issues that relate to plant health, quarantine, and potential pests and diseases of plants are actually monitored and controlled by an organization called FERA (the Food and Environment Research Agency), which is a new agency within DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs).

It can get quite complicated! Different organizations deal with plant health issues depending on where the plants grow and what they are. Unfortunately, the type of information you can get online relating to plant health and quarantine is not always very user-friendly. For example, inquiries about plant health, imports, and restrictions in Scotland go to the Scottish Office, but in England they either go to FERA or the Forestry Commission, depending on the type of organism. Licenses to operate quarantine facilities depend on what type of material you are quarantining (plant or animal), the purpose of raising such material (to grow the plant itself or to grow potential pests or diseases), and various other factors. Meanwhile, GMOs fall under the Health and Safety Executive, as I said—but inquiries about GMO regulations go to DEFRA.

Ordinary members of the public quite understandably find this very confusing.

Edible Geography: What are some of the most worrying issues facing you in terms of plant pest control?

Redstone: One particularly nasty tree pest, which is also a potential human health hazard, is the Oak Processionary Moth. Kew is just one of many locations in southwest London that has experienced this pest. Like the Browntail and other moths, during various stages of their life-cycle the caterpillars are covered in really brittle hairs that have a toxin in them. It can give you a nasty rash and may cause breathing difficulties or affect your eyes on contact.

The moth came into the UK as eggs on imported trees from Holland—and the challenge we face is that we don’t typically quarantine trees from northern Europe. There is no legal requirement to quarantine material from within the EU, but the pest is widespread in the Benelux countries and in Germany, and it is increasing its range on the mainland.

[Images: (left) The Oak Processionary Moth, pictured in a 2007 Daily Mail article titled: “Gardeners are mercilessly hunting down moths with hairspray and flame-throwers.” (right) Tree infested with Oak Processionary Moth caterpillars. Photo taken by Ferenc Lakatos, University of West-Hungary; found via the Centre for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health’s Bugwood Network].

What happens is that many Dutch, Belgian, and German nurseries raise trees and shrubs in southern Europe, in areas such as Italy, where the Oak Processionary Moth is already established. The climate and local conditions promote better growth than can be achieved in northern areas, so you get bigger plants faster. They then move the plants back north to grow them on the nursery for a period of time, to get the right shape, etc. This kind of movement of plants has resulted in a lot of pests increasing their range and moving northwards.

Once a pest is established in a those northern mainland European states, there’s no way to prevent it from spreading to the others—because there are no real boundaries. There are no geographic features that are going to prevent them from moving, and there are no trade barriers that are going to stop them, either.

Although Britain is an island, everything is very much geared toward free trade; unfortunately, quarantine is usually secondary to trade. Most people involved in pest & disease control and quarantine will tell you that we like to employ what we call “the precautionary principle”—but, for political and economic reasons, governments don’t always choose to operate that way.

One of my concerns is that we know about these tree movements on the European mainland, and we know that the Citrus Long-horned Beetle, for instance, is now fairly well established in the Lombardy district in Italy—which is not that far from some of the major tree-growing areas in Tuscany. But what’s going to prevent those Long-horneds from spreading to northern Europe, given the movement of plants, and then coming over to the UK?

We’ve already had an instance where infested Acers were grown in China, shipped over to mainland Europe, and then sold in the UK. The beetle has a long larval phase—two to three years when it is undetectable by normal means, though I understand stethoscopes are now being used by some plant inspectors in an effort to detect larvae feeding. Usually the only way to detect them is finding the emergence hole in the tree base—or finding the adult beetle, after the fact. Were all the infested trees found? Were all the beetles present in the consignment destroyed? We don’t even know where all those plants have gone. It’s really bad news.

[Image: Sample “Plant Passport” from DEFRA’s Plant Health Guide to Plant Passporting].

BLDGBLOG: What sort of measures are in place to deal with these threats?

Redstone: Material that comes in from the European Union is generally uncontrolled. There are “Plant Passport” regulations that apply to certain types of plant, but there’s no record of exactly what plant material is moving and where it’s from.

For instance, even if it says it is from, say, Holland, it doesn’t mean that that material originated in Holland. It may have arrived via Holland in a container ship from China.

Different countries have different standards for quarantine and plant health. You can understand that, in some countries where it’s really a struggle to make a living, different rules apply. There is an organization called the International Plant Protection Committee (IPPC), which makes recommendations—but there is a real lack of shared standards for plant quarantine.

One thing that would be really useful now would be a series of suggested blueprints for quarantine buildings. For example, quarantine houses in places like the tropics can be relatively simple: mesh-screen, poly-tunnel-type structures with restricted access are fine. You don’t always have to use chemicals to sterilize things—in the tropics, you can use heat. Even in the UK, we can quite often use solar gain in our glasshouses to sterilize an area, provided we know what we’re trying to kill. The same methods have been used for years in agriculture; farmers will put polythene over an area of land, and then rely on the sun to sterilize the soil.

[Image: Healthy and diseased plants in a side-by-side comparison, via the USDA Agricultural Research Service].

Edible Geography: Here at Kew, what is it that you are quarantining? Why does Kew need a quarantine house?

Redstone: We use plant quarantine—isolating, screening, and treating plants—for incoming and outgoing plants where we’ve determined they may be a risk associated with their movement. For example, if we want to repatriate material to a country as part of a conservation project, the last thing we would want to do is inadvertently introduce a new pest or disease; so we isolate and treat plants before moving them, to reduce that risk to an absolute minimum.

At present we’re in the process of planning a new quarantine facility. Our intention with the new building is that all plant material that is sent to Kew and to our sister-garden, Wakehurst Place in Sussex, will come to this one point—our new “plant reception”—regardless of its origin. This means we can improve our data capture; we can make sure that all incoming material is compliant with the necessary legislation; we can do an initial inspection; and, if we think there’s a risk, we can also do the isolation and screening.

England is not like the United States, where the USDA maintains the plant quarantine service. If, say, the New York Botanical Garden requests plant material from us, they will send us an import permit and shipping labels, and the labels will direct those materials to the USDA quarantine service, who then send the material on. But we operate quite a different system in the UK and European Union.

What happens here at Kew is that we have a licensed quarantine facility, which is approved by FERA and licensed by DEFRA. This gives us the ability to quarantine plant imports that come to the gardens from outside the European Union.

[Image: UK Phytosanitary Certificate, via the Plant Health (England) Order (2005)].

These usually fall into two main types. One is the type of material that comes in with a phytosanitary certificate.

If, for example, somebody went to Costa Rica and they wanted to bring back material from a botanic garden there, they would arrange for all the necessary permissions, but they would also arrange for an inspection by a representative of the national plant protection organization there. If the plant material was free of pests and diseases, it would be issued with a phytosanitary certificate. Normally, that’s only valid for two weeks—so there’s quite a short window of time in which the plant can travel. Once material reaches Kew, it then has to have another inspection—because, at the time it was inspected in Costa Rica, there may have been no visible signs of pests or diseases, but, in the time it takes to reach the UK, something might have developed. So that’s one kind of material that is received into quarantine.

The other type of material we receive into quarantine is what we call “natural source,” or “wild-collected,” material. We operate under a Letter of Authority to import wild-collected material whose movement would normally be prohibited or controlled. An example of that kind of material would be vines from Kyrgyzstan. Their movement is strictly controlled because, in the European Union, vines are a really important crop. You’ll find the same thing in most countries: a lot of cereal crops are controlled, for example, because they can have such a dramatic impact on the horticulture and agriculture of a country.

[Image: Kudzu-infested forest; photo courtesy John D. Byrd, Mississippi State University].

BLDGBLOG: Do you ever quarantine controlled or banned plants, such as kudzu or marijuana, to prevent them from entering the country?

Redstone: We wouldn’t normally consider that quarantine. It’s more a case of restricting access of non-authorized people to those plants, or restricting the release of non-native species into the environment. When we quarantine plants, it’s not to do with excluding a particular plant type so much as excluding the diseases or pests that those plants might be harboring.

Invasive plants like kudzu (Pueraria montana) aren’t banned, although we have a few species like Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) and Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) which are illegal to intentionally allow to spread to natural areas.

I’m not sure whether UK authorities would prevent specific plants being imported. Marijuana (Cannabis sativa), whether in THC-containing forms or hemp, requires a Home Office license to produce and process.

We do also provide a service for UK customs authorities. If they make a CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) seizure, we have a department here that will go out to help identify the plant and tell them whether it’s been wild-collected and if it’s of conservation value.

Edible Geography: Can you give any examples of outbreaks that have happened while you’ve been here?

Redstone: We haven’t had any outbreaks here due to failure of quarantine. The impact of an outbreak on our collection could be very serious, particularly if it involves a known quarantine organism where the only sensible treatment is to destroy the plant material. That could cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds to eradicate. It could also threaten rare species, restrict people’s access to the collections, and prevent us from supplying material for research to our own labs and to other botanic gardens.

We have had a couple of recent pest outbreaks in the UK. I’ve already referred to our ongoing Oak Processionary Moth problem. The interesting thing is that when that outbreak happened, the moth wasn’t even recognized as a quarantine organism and it wasn’t clear which government department was going to manage it.

The problem with all of these things is that it’s so much easier to prevent an outbreak than it is to deal with one that’s already in progress. Unlike in the U.S., where you seem to be more geared up to a rapid response once something has been identified, it takes us a long time in the UK and we need more resources in place to do the monitoring and undertake control.

One issue, for example, is making sure we have the right chemicals in place. It’s not enough to do a risk assessment; we also need a list of specific, recommended control measures. And if the recommendation is, for example, “Use this particular chemical,” then we need to make sure that somebody in the UK is able to supply it.

[Image: West Virginia Department of Agriculture’s pest collection, via the Massachusetts Introduced Pests Outreach blog].

BLDGBLOG: What’s involved in thinking through the design of a new quarantine facility?

Redstone: One of the design challenges is to make sure that we not only meet current legislation, but that we also anticipate some of the changes that might need to happen. Global trade and climate change are having an impact already.

Even trying to decide the scale of our building is a challenge: we want to build-in flexibility, and we don’t want to hamstring the organization in the future. At the same time, we have to be able to afford to run the facility!

What we know from the experience of others is that there have been lots of examples of institutions where they’ve spent vast sums of money—tens of millions of pounds—on creating fabulous infrastructure, but it has then been so expensive to run that they haven’t been able to operate it. We can’t afford that. That’s not what we’re about at Kew.

On the other hand, to contain pests and diseases, we need to assess the risks associated with every single plant movement. As a result, over the past few years we’ve routinely quarantined material that there’s no legal need to quarantine. However, we’ve felt that there was a practical need and a moral obligation to quarantine seed material that comes from, for example, California, or from other states where we know there’s a really severe problem with Sudden Oak Death. Particularly with the understory material, we’ve germinated it all in quarantine and grown it on so that we can screen it. The last thing we want to do is introduce Sudden Oak Death—particularly the American form, because there’s an American and a European strain, and the concern is that the two will meet and produce a super-strain.

The other factor is the human resource. It’s not enough just to have a building: you need to have people who are trained and who understand how to operate it.

[Image: Bay leaves showing symptoms of infection by Phytophthora ramorum, the “causal agent” of Sudden Oak Death. Photo courtesy D. Schmidt, Garbelotto Forest Pathology Lab, UC Berkeley, via the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute].

Edible Geography: Quarantine is always a question of time. How do you decide how long to grow these understory plants, for example, before you can determine whether they are healthy or sick?

Redstone: That’s all part of the risk assessment process. I work with our local inspector and an excellent scientific support team at FERA to make those kinds of decisions. For example, the inspector might look at a batch of seedlings and say: “That group hasn’t grown very well—but this group is fine, and they’ve reached three months and we can see that they’re still healthy.” What he might then say is, “The healthy ones can move on”—and he’ll do me a release certificate—“but those other ones ought to stay for a little bit longer.” Or he might say: “I don’t like the look of that first group: destroy them.”

This is always decided on a case-by-case basis—which is very different from genetically-modified organisms, where there are fixed containment levels. What we’ve done with our new building is use the containment levels for GMOs as a guideline when talking to potential suppliers. For example, in terms of treating our water waste, we’re saying to them that we need an equivalent for containment level 3. That means we’re looking at steam-sterilizing all our liquid waste. We’ll take off the solid fraction, and that will be dried and incinerated—or it will be sent through the autoclave—but the liquid will all be steam-sterilized.

The other thing is that all the technology we use needs to be proven and validated. For example, I know of some places where they use an ultraviolet system for treating water, but there are potential problems with that, because if you have high levels of organic matter in the water, things can, in fact, survive. We just can’t take that risk, because it might result in us not getting a license. And if you put an awful lot of effort—and millions of pounds—into doing something, then it would be an awful shame to fail just for the sake of wanting to try something new and cool.

[Image: Proposed façade for the new Quarantine House at Kew, courtesy of Wilkinson Eyre architects].

Edible Geography: Where does the innovation and experimentation in quarantine design take place, if not in designing a new facility?

Redstone: That’s the problem—it doesn’t. It’s the kind of thing that somebody somewhere should do so that we can test new systems. The trouble is that resources are usually limited in this area and facilities tend to be expensive both to build and operate well. Usually you can’t afford to experiment.

We do test our systems once they’re in place, of course. With the steam-sterilization system that we’re planning to install, we’ll be regularly inoculating it with particular organisms and then testing the processed material to make sure it works. It’s simple, but it’s effective.

I’ll show you the plans as they stand now. [unfolds plans] In the scheme as it stands, we have a reception area which will receive all plant material that comes into Kew: seeds, bulbs, shrubs, trees, everything—whether it’s from the EU or not.

[Images: Site plan for the new Quarantine House at Kew, showing the proposed site (marked with red, top) and the proposed floor plan of the new structure (bottom). Courtesy of Wilkinson Eyre].

Edible Geography: What sort of volume is that?

Redstone: Kew receives, on average, between three to five and half thousand accessions a year, and an accession can be quite a large group of plants—it needn’t necessarily be a single plant, if they’re all genetically identical.

The material will then be processed via the inspection area and then either go into the licensed facility (medium and high containment pods) or into the unlicensed large specimen store. The large specimen store’s primary function is to enable us to hold, monitor and, if necessary, treat or destroy trees, shrubs and other plants originating from within the UK and EU.

The large specimen store is basically what we call a high hat. It has a solid roof, which can be shaded, and insect-proof sides. The insect-proofing is aphid proof, so it’s not particularly small—it’s around the 1mm² mark.

Adjoining the store will be the licensed quarantine facility, which will be split in two: high containment and medium containment. Both spaces will be governed by the licence issued by DEFRA. Both units have air cooling—though they each use a different cooling method—and they’re going to be kept at negative air pressure.

We also have to build in systems to allow for a failure in the power supply. As we’re on the edge of a flood risk zone, the building itself will sit on top of a concrete raft and the plants will be on benches. That will give us quite a lot of leeway as far as any risk from flooding goes. As added protection we also intend to have slots at the doorways; we can then put in barriers and reinforce them with sandbags, in the case of a serious flood. I also want to have an operating procedure that says, if we get advanced warning that there’s going to be a really catastrophic flood event, we’ll load everything in the incinerator and destroy it. Frankly, if that happens, most of London is going to be completely stuffed—so there’ll be bigger problems to deal with!

At the entrance to the licenced area, we’re putting in a cold lobby. It will be kept at 0ºC and it will have a freezer for lab coats. People will put on lab coats before they go into the medium and high containment areas and put them back in the freezer when they come out, where the coats will be sterilized. There will also be an air-circulation fan so that, if anything like seeds or pollen has got stuck to people, it will be blown off into the cold.

[Image: “Gradations of Containment” in the proposed floor plan for the new Quarantine House at Kew, courtesy of Wilkinson Eyre].

Edible Geography: Will there be chemical showers as well?

Redstone: No, that would be considered excessive, to be honest. It’s all about assessing and managing risk proportionately. We’re not a research facility raising pests or diseases for experimentation, so the risks are somewhat less. We have an emergency shower in case somebody’s been contaminated, during pesticide spraying, for example, but our working procedures and precautions like the cold lobby and freezing of lab coats should provide the appropriate level of bio-security.

At every stage, we’re assessing and trying to minimise risk. If we received particularly precious seeds that I thought might harbour a problem, what I would look to do is send them to the seed bank so that they can X-ray them and we can weed out the bad guys straight away, to be destroyed. We also use external treatments – for example, peroxide or other chemicals. Apart from anything else, peroxide is great because it can help trigger germination and is biodegradable.

With everything, you have to give it a bit of thought first. Which is why we say to staff, for goodness sake, please don’t turn up on the doorstep with plant material. We need advance notice so we can risk assess the material.

Other parts of the facility include the loading bay, where there’ll be some storage, the incinerator area, and the inspection bay.

[Image: Wall detail and section of the new Quarantine House at Kew, courtesy of Wilkinson Eyre].

BLDGBLOG: What do you do with the output from the incinerator?

Redstone: The ashes are usually incorporated into the soil heap. It doesn’t go into the compost because it blows around; instead, we usually dig it into the soil piles, so it doesn’t go to waste and it is recycled.

The facility also includes a potting area, which contains a small chemical store and a water-treatment area. And there are going to be insectocutors everywhere!

One important design feature is that the plant room is entirely separate, so that the only way people can enter is through that external door. This means that anyone coming to do maintenance on the electrics or whatever doesn’t have to go through any of the quarantine procedures, because they don’t have access to any other part of the building. It’s human nature to prop open the door if you’re feeling warm—but that sort of thing just can’t be allowed to happen inside the licenced areas.

Edible Geography: How will the temperature-control system work?

Redstone: For the individual zones within the greenhouse, each “pod” will have its own small unit climate control panel on the outside of the house, which will control air circulation, fans, and fogging. We’re going to use fogging not just to control relative humidity, but also, in part, to control temperature gain. It’s quite an effective way of modifying the temperature without huge energy input. And we’re going to use external shading—rollers in tracks—because that’s more efficient than internal shading. Although this is the UK, you may be shocked to hear that heat is the biggest problem we have in maintaining the right kind of environment for our glasshouses.

There’s going to be limited lighting because we’ll be either propagating material or maintaining material—we’re not trying to promote lush growth. There will also be a central computer that controls all the zones, and my intention with the new one is to have direct access from my mobile phone and home computer.

One of the intentions with the new building is to minimize energy costs as much as possible. The building also needs to be capable of being operated by only a few staff—it mustn’t be labor or energy intensive!

For plants that have really critical temperature requirements at the lower end of the spectrum—for example, we had some orchids in from Patagonia—it’s hard to provide those kind of environmental requirements reliably through a glasshouse system. So what we’re going to use is a couple of growth cabinets with lighting, because we feel that’s the most cost-effective solution to that particular headache. We’re also hoping to use rainwater harvesting for part of our irrigation system, and we’re trying to use the most energy-efficient materials.

One of the vendors we’re considering makes quarantine houses using curved polycarbonate sheets. You get a lot of lengthways expansion with polycarbonate sheets, and the curve helps accommodate the expansion and contraction, while maintaining a really good seal. The other thing I like is that we can pump air through a cold water spray and then actually circulate it up and over the curve of the structure, which can give a much more even temperature regime across the bays.

[Image: Curved polycarbonate sheets for glasshouse construction, courtesy Unigro].

BLDGBLOG: I see the facility has been designed by Wilkinson Eyre. How is working with them going?

Redstone: Well, the design isn’t finished yet. The final version will be designed and built within the restrictions we’ve incorporated—we are really getting into this now, I think. It’s quite different from anything else they’ve done and the combination of very specific needs, with a lack of specific technical guidelines, makes it a challenging and interesting exercise. We want the building to look attractive, but containment and functionality are its key priorities.

The other interesting design feature is that there’s a five-meter exclusion zone around the building—a completely solid surface with no plant material. We arrived at that measurement through discussion with the Plant Health and Safety Inspectorate, and it’s important to have a clearly marked exclusion zone. Although the old quarantine building began its life being relatively isolated, pressure to use every available square metre of behind-the-scenes space for support activities at Kew means this is no longer the case. We’ve located the new building so we can make use of some of the existing roadway as exclusion. That way we’re not wasting space, and we’re closer to some of the services.

This particular layout also enables us to add on another block, if we need to in the future.

[Images: Proposed elevations—from the NW, NE, SE, and SW—of the new Quarantine House at Kew, courtesy of Wilkinson Eyre].

Edible Geography: How many plant pest & disease quarantine facilities are there in the UK?

Redstone: A lot of universities have small quarantine facilities, often used for GMO work or raising pests & diseases rather than specifically quarantining plants. Rothamsted have a really excellent facility for experimental work. Central Science Labs at the FERA headquarters in York also have quarantine facilities.

Edible Geography: Does the Royal Horticultural Society have one?

Redstone: No, not that I’m aware of. The National Trust doesn’t have specific quarantine facilities either—although, having said that, they have been working very hard on biosecurity issues, triggered, as they will tell you, by outbreaks of Sudden Oak Death in their collections in the West Country. They have taken stock of the situation and realized that they, like many organizations across the UK, needed to improve current practices. I think it says a lot for the organization that they have been so open and self-critical.

The head of this program for the National Trust is Ian Wright, a head gardener from a Trust property in Cornwall. He realized that through lack of resources, budget challenges, and other difficulties, we’ve moved away from basic good practices: cleaning your materials, cleaning your boots, sterilizing your blades, all those kind of things. For example, if you bring in new plants, you should keep them isolated for a period of time, just to make sure they’re clean—but we seem to have lost a lot of those good habits.

So Ian has worked with David Slawson from FERA to produce a lot of information, as well as posters like this. [unfolds poster] These would go up inside potting sheds, to remind people that quarantine doesn’t have to be fancy. It can be something as simple as a poly-tunnel, or an area behind a shed, where you keep things separate. Containment can be as simple as remembering to wash your boots and wash your hands—basic good hygiene.

In fact, one of the things that we’ve been encouraged to think about by DEFRA is providing a limited commercial service, because there are so few plant quarantine facilities in the UK. This new quarantine facility at RBG Kew will be quite a major one, relative to what’s available in the UK. The thing I’m really excited about is the fact that we’ll have the capacity to control more tightly the stuff that comes in from the European Union and around the UK. That’s increasingly important.

[Image: The National Trust’s “Clean Leaf” plant quarantine poster].

Edible Geography: Did you have any qualms about the decision to locate such a major quarantine facility in the middle of one of the world’s greatest collections of rare and valuable plants?

Redstone: We are in a vulnerable location, in a number of ways. We’ve done a major environmental impact assessment, and even looked at the option of having it off-site, but that in itself created major problems. One of the real issues is that it’s not enough just to have the building; you have to have the human resource.

It also makes sense to have a quarantine facility where the movement occurs. We’re not just accessioning new plant material—we’re also doing quite a bit of repatriation. I think it’s really important that we should be able to return safe material to its country of origin, especially if it’s seriously endangered or on the verge of extinction. We have to be able to hold our hand on our heart and say, “It’s clean, there are no problems, and your only challenge will be making sure it grows and that something doesn’t eat it or squash it.”

It’s not just for stuff coming in—it’s for stuff we’re sending out that quarantine is crucial, too.

BLDGBLOG: How do you interact with the Millennium Seed Bank? Do you quarantine seeds for them?

Redstone: No, they have a quarantine area in their own lab for seed material. However, if they want to grow any controlled or prohibited seeds—for verification by herbarium staff, for example—then that has to be done within our facility. So they can examine seeds, but if they want to germinate them and grow them on, then they have to come here.

[Image: Electron micrograph images of seeds. (top) Lamourouxia viscosa; (bottom) Franklin’s sandwort, conserved at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank. Photographs by Rob Kesseler and Madeline Harley, via the The Guardian].

Edible Geography: You mentioned that, in the UK, there isn’t a system where the government gives you the approved quarantine facility plans and you follow them to the letter. How can you be sure your design will qualify for the appropriate license?

Redstone: Well, that’s the case for plant quarantine—the system for GMOs is very different, and I don’t know how animal quarantine operates. In our case, I have constant contact with my colleagues in FERA who will be involved in evaluating the new build plans. If they have an issue with a particular system, they’ll let me know.

For example, I had an inspector on site yesterday who asked, “Have you thought about the door seals? I know that these are really good doors but, to get a good seal, what you want is a little up-stand at the bottom of the door for the seal to butt up against.” It’s all sorts of small details like that.

The difficulty with the project from my point of view has been to make sure it gets enough time and attention now—because I know that if I’m still here when it gets built, my ongoing sanity is going to rely on having made the right choices so that we can physically manage the building. I think that, for projects that are very specialized, like this one, the people who are going to use the buildings often don’t get enough time to actually sit and evaluate what the building needs to do.

Edible Geography: Just writing the brief for it must have been quite a challenge!

Redstone: To say the least. Version 10 got issued about three weeks ago. My biggest worry is that I’ve missed something. There’s just no wriggle room.

Edible Geography: Did you take any of your ideas for your plan from other facilities that you’ve seen?

Redstone Yes. I actually persuaded them to employ a colleague from Rothamsted, Julian Franklin, as a consultant. He is a major quarantine nerd—not only is he really knowledgeable about the plant side of things, but he’s obsessed by technology, so he can tell you that so-and-so needs to be at this many atmospheres, or amps, or whatever. He’s been a real find.

In fact, one of the risks of a project like this is that there are very few experts around—and, especially in the current climate, there are lots of companies who are desperate for work who may claim expertise they don’t really have.

BLDGBLOG: You said you need to avoid innovation at all costs, but is there any aspect of the facility that will be genuinely new or unprecedented?

Redstone:: Nobody’s built a screening house quite like ours, I don’t think, but it’s really just an adaptation of things that we’ve seen done elsewhere. Ultimately, it will all be technology that’s been used elsewhere, but perhaps not in quite the same way. Other facilities have air showers, for example, but most of those haven’t also had a cold lobby. We are combining things—but we’re also trying to play safe.

[Image: Air Shower diagram, via the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA)].

Edible Geography: What is the old quarantine facility like—and what will happen to it once the new building is completed?

Sara Redstone: It’s a modified commercial glasshouse, about twenty-five years old. It wasn’t specifically designed as a quarantine house: it has no automatic shading, and controlling the internal climates reliably can be a challenge. The water here is very hard, as well, so the building has had a lot of issues with equipment.

The new facility should be operational by late autumn 2010. This time next year, we’ll be thinking about doing the smoke tests and the pressure tests and so on. And once stuff has been screened in the new facility, it will go into the old house and be held there for short periods of time until it goes onward to the display houses.

[Image: A fairly standard list of materials that must be declared at the border and potentially quarantined to prevent the import of pests and diseases; this particular brochure is Canadian].

BLDGBLOG: I’m also curious about what happens off-site—for instance, if there is an outbreak somewhere in the Midlands or up in Yorkshire, do you have a field quarantine unit of some sort who can rush out and seal the place off in situ?

Redstone: Not yet, that I know of. You’d need to talk to DEFRA and the Non-Native Species Secretariat who monitor and deal with invasive alien species, or IAS. There is a working group working on developing a protocol for a rapid response against non-native species—NNS—but I’m not sure if they have agreed the way forward.

If the outbreak relates to plants then you’d have to notify—depending on what the host and pest or disease is—either FERA or the Forestry Commission. If the organism isn’t quarantine-listed, then a pest risk analysis (PRA) and other detailed work may be required, and this can take some time to do thoroughly. Depending on where the outbreak is and what it is, there’s then also the need to identify who will attempt to eradicate it and how—and where the resources will come from.

What we really need to do is make everybody aware of the dangers of moving plants. It doesn’t matter if you’re a business or an individual.

I had a person tell me recently that they deliberately altered their suitcase so that they could bring back cuttings from their holidays overseas without being detected. People get very confessional—when they hear what my job is, they have this urge to tell me about all of the plant material they’ve brought through customs without declaring, or all of the farms they visited overseas and didn’t mention on their immigration forms. It’s my worst nightmare.

There have been outbreaks of quite serious pest problems in botanic gardens and plant collections. These have probably, according to the experts at FERA, been the result of things like exotic flower arrangements or of bringing in fruits from around the world to explain to children about plants. Those routes need to be cut off, as well.

Individuals can sometimes be ignorant of the impact they could have by smuggling—in fact, sometimes they don’t even realize that they are smuggling—plant material into and out of the country. We’ve got a bit of money as part of the project to actually do some interpretation on site. I’m hoping that we can do quite a lot to explain to people the risks of moving plant material, and the impact of plant pests and diseases, by having signage in the display houses and in public areas on site.

For example, did you realize that there’s a risk, when you’re moving plants that have soil around the roots, of introducing a pest called the small hive beetle, which can eradicate honeybees? Bees are getting a lot of press at the moment—for very good reason—and so one of the things I’m hoping we can do is use that sort of example to show that the consequences when you smuggle that plant back from your holiday, or when you bring back a jar of local honey, or wax candles, or a wooden sculpture, may be more far reaching than you realize.

If you put things in context, most people are responsible enough not to flout the rules—I hope. We’re all in this together—we all share the same planet.

• • •

This autumn in New York City, Edible Geography and BLDGBLOG have teamed up to lead an 8-week design studio focusing on the spatial implications of quarantine; you can read more about it here. For our studio participants, we have been assembling a coursepack full of original content and interviews—but we decided that we should make this material available to everyone so that even those people who are not in New York City, and not enrolled in the quarantine studio, can follow along, offer commentary, and even be inspired to pursue projects of their own.

For other interviews in our quarantine series, check out Until Proven Safe: An Interview with Krista Maglen, One Million Years of Isolation: An interview with Abraham Van Luik, Isolation or Quarantine: An Interview with Dr. Georges Benjamin, Extraordinary Engineering Controls: An Interview with Jonathan Richmond, On the Other Side of Arrival: An Interview with David Barnes, The Last Town on Earth: An Interview with Thomas Mullen, and Biology at the Border: An Interview with Alison Bashford.

More interviews are forthcoming.

Until Proven Safe: An Interview with Krista Maglen

[Image: Airfield at Guantanamo Bay converted for the quarantine of 10,000 Haitian migrants; via Wikimedia].

Krista Maglen is Assistant Professor of History at Indiana University, where her research explores the nature of infectious disease prevention, including quarantine, during the latter part of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.

In her published work, which includes “‘In This Miserable Spot Called Quarantine’: The Healthy and Unhealthy in 19th Century Australian and Pacific Quarantine Stations” and “‘The First Line of Defense’: British Quarantine and the Port Sanitary Authorities in the 19th Century,” she focuses on the interrelationships between quarantine defenses, economic traditions, and medical restrictions on immigration.

As part of our ongoing series of quarantine-themed interviews, Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography and I spoke to Maglen about the ways in which different economic and cultural forces have shaped the practice of quarantine in Australia, the U.K., and the U.S.A. In this wide-ranging interview, we discuss the absence of a design philosophy for quarantine, quarantine’s potential for political misuse, and the differences between quarantine and other forms of incarceration.

• • •

Edible Geography: What led to your interest in quarantine?

Krista Maglen: My original interest was immigration, and I was looking at the way that immigrants had been restricted from coming into Britain for medical reasons. I had some assumptions about how that process occurred, but I realized it wasn’t as straightforward as in the U.S.A. or in Australia. When I looked a bit more deeply, I realized that this was because of the relationship that Britain had towards quarantine.

There is a long-standing opposition to quarantine in Britain, which meant that when Britain started to enact restrictions on immigration and immigrants, it was quite difficult, because those restrictions use many of the same mechanisms and much of the same language as quarantine. Both of them are designed to exclude certain groups of people, and they’re very closely interrelated.

That intersection between immigration and quarantine was where I began—and then I started to see all these amazing things about quarantine. It doesn’t only relate to medical and public health policy, or even just to immigration policy—it’s also very bound up with economic and political policy, as well. It is both shaped by, and a tool of, these larger geopolitical forces.

[Image: Map of the Australian Quarantine Service].

BLDGBLOG: I’m interested in your understanding of the relationship between quarantine and the construction of national borders.

Maglen: Quarantine differs very much depending on where a country is in relation to a disease source or perceived disease source. Australia, for example, has actually historically had one of the strictest quarantine policies, even though it’s so far away. Quarantine became a very big deal there. First of all, there’s a perceived proximity to Asia, which in the West has traditionally been seen as this great source of disease—the “Yellow Peril.” Quarantine is also a way to draw a line around White Australia, racially, just as much as it is to draw a line around the notion of a virgin territory that doesn’t have the diseases of the rest of the world.

Britain has a different relationship to quarantine because its borders are much more fluid. It can’t have borders as rigid as somewhere like Australia, for lots of different reasons: because of its empire; because it relies on maintaining open borders to let trade flow; and because Britain is itself quite undefined, in a way. It’s a composite of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The borders of Britain are much more fluid, so quarantine takes a different form there and has a very different history.

Edible Geography: You’re now based in the States, where I would assume quarantine is different again?

Maglen: Yes, exactly. Quarantine is closely tied to immigration in the United States: Ellis Island was a quarantine processing site, as well as an immigration processing site. Until the 1920s, immigrants arriving into the United States came into facilities that were also quarantine stations, and also places where you could isolate people for disease control reasons. Part of the processing of who can and can’t get into the United States is always about quarantine—what bodies are seen to be diseased and undesirable.

[Images: Asian immigrants arriving at the Angel Island immigration station, San Francisco, and a man quarantined at Ellis Island; courtesy of the National Library of Medicine].

Edible Geography: That raises an interesting question: By looking at a particular country’s quarantine regulations, can you construct in reverse what that country wishes it could be, or imagines it is?

Maglen: I think you can. Quarantine borders—just like national borders—are seeking to draw a line between us and them, inside and outside, desirable and undesirable, and so on. The United States is interesting because it has land borders as well as sea borders. The defining of a biological border, and its role in defining a national border, becomes more complex on land.

Edible Geography: Could you discuss the design of quarantine facilities and the way that also varied from country to country?

Maglen: When you’re thinking about quarantine, one really important thing to keep in mind is that there is a distinction between quarantine and isolation. Quarantine is a word that’s used quite freely. The way it’s used quite often now is to refer to the isolation of sick and infected people. But quarantine more accurately refers to the isolation of anyone who’s deemed to be a risk. That means that you can have perfectly healthy people in quarantine—and being held in quarantine for quite a long time.

One difference is that, in Australia, the quarantine facilities are designed to house all quarantined people—people who are sick and people who are healthy, but have either been in contact with an infected person or have come from somewhere that’s perceived to be an infected place. Australian quarantine stations have an isolation hospital—which is separated, but still part of the main facility—and then they have a big dormitory for all the healthy people who are having to be quarantined as well.

In Britain, the facilities that are set up are almost exclusively for the reception of sick and infected people. They’re really isolation facilities rather than quarantine facilities. Britain has a long history of taking the stance that quarantine is completely unnecessary, because you’re perfectly able to look after healthy people who may have been in contact with an infection if you have a public health system within the country, and that system works properly. From the 1870s or so onwards, Britain says that they’ve got the best sanitary system in the world, so they don’t need to worry about quarantine. Even today, there’s an argument made in Britain along very similar lines, which says that people arriving into Britain potentially carrying tuberculosis shouldn’t be excluded from the country or put into any type of isolation—they just need to be monitored within the National Health Service (NHS). The NHS, in this argument, has everything that is needed to control the spread of tuberculosis from immigrants to the population of Britain, so you don’t need to exclude immigrants on a medical basis.

[Image: “Testing an Asian immigrant” at the Angel Island immigration station, San Francisco; courtesy of the National Library of Medicine].

BLDGBLOG: Does some of the difference in attitudes towards quarantine stem from different national political traditions and notions of individual human rights? For example, do the British have a stronger history of arguing for the right to resist involuntary government-imposed detention?

Maglen: It’s an interesting question but, in my research, I haven’t found much of that. Quarantine is much more closely tied to economic political traditions. Britain has a tradition of economic liberalism and free trade, which requires, to a great extent, open borders. Trade requires ships to come in and out, and those ships carry people.

Of course, discussions about human rights and individual liberty are a little bit beyond my period—but everywhere, even now, the argument is made that there are times and instances where individual liberty has to be given over to the greater good. Quarantine, in that argument, is just one of these instances where an individual’s liberty has to be curtailed in order to protect the broader community.

Something that was talked about a lot in the nineteenth century, and still now, is the difference between quarantine and other sorts of incarceration. Quarantined people might be perfectly healthy—they’re not necessarily physically or mentally ill—and they don’t really fit into the normal categories of people with reasons to be incarcerated.

What’s interesting about quarantine is that it assumes that people have the potential to cause harm without having to prove it; it presupposes guilt, in a way.

There’s a quotation from the Australasian Sanitary Conference in 1884 that I think captures a very important aspect of quarantine. It says, “Quarantine differs from a measure of criminal police in this respect: That it assumes every person to be capable of spreading disease until he has proven his incapacity; whereas the law assumes moral innocence until guilt is proven.”

Quarantine is really one of the singular instances in a liberal democracy where it’s possible for the state to incarcerate somebody without proven guilt. It’s a complete inversion.

What I’ve found in my research—which is focused on the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century, so I can’t speak for today—is that most people who were quarantined agreed in principle with their incarceration and with quarantine. They believed that it was a just thing for them to be quarantined—in principle. They often talk about that at the very beginning of their period of quarantine. Once they’ve been placed into quarantine, it all seems quite different.

So, in theory, people believe in quarantine—but when you’ve been sitting for two months in a facility that often isn’t very well-equipped for people to live there, because they’re set up just for the occasions they might be needed, and often they’re not very nice or comfortable places to be, things seem very different.

One of the things that comes across consistently in people’s quarantine experiences is boredom. They complain about the accommodation and the food, and they get sick of the people they’re quarantined with—all those very normal human responses.

[Image: Medical inspection station at Ellis Island. The 1891 U.S. immigration law called for the exclusion of “all idiots, insane persons, paupers or persons likely to become public charges, persons suffering from a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease,” as well as criminals. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine].

Edible Geography: Following on from that, I’m interested in hearing more about your research into the experiences of the quarantined, but also about the experiences of those who were doing the quarantining. Are there recurring similarities or differences between those two points of view? And are there changes in the perception of their experience over time, or residual stigma, post-quarantine?

Maglen: The question about residual stigma is really interesting. My research hasn’t uncovered anything that reveals anything about that. If there was residual stigma, people aren’t talking about it. Not that I can find, in any case.

As I argue in my article, “In This Miserable Spot Called Quarantine,” it seems that quarantine is set up to deal with the singular problem of keeping people who are a potential risk away from the rest of the community. How that then works itself out in practice is really an afterthought. You put in place a facility, whether it’s on an island, a remote peninsula, or a huge moored boat, and you put in place the regulations that govern how a long a ship or people are supposed to stay in quarantine—but that’s about it. People are put there and forgotten about until it’s time for them to be released. Something that people who are being quarantined and people who work in quarantine both have in common is that most of them express great frustration at this.

It’s a “What do we now?” kind of thing: we’ve all got to sit around and wait, but there’s probably not sufficient accommodation for people, and we’ve been given these really crappy rations, and there’s no way of getting away from the other people held there.

[Image: Isolation Section, Sydney Quarantine Station].

Edible Geography: It’s as though the only design philosophy that exists for quarantine is keeping people away. You get a community that isn’t designed to function; it’s simply designed to contain. It’s a place that’s not designed as a place. It’s designed as a non-place.

Maglen: Exactly—that’s a perfect description. It’s designed as somewhere to deposit people temporarily—although, in some cases, that meant several months–but that’s about it. We just shut the doors and leave.

That’s what’s really great about reading the personal sources and stories of people who were in quarantine, because none of the official sources or government agencies see quarantine as anything other than a way to solve a problem. They don’t see it as individuals with their liberty being curtailed and their economic autonomy being frozen. They don’t see any of these problems; they’re just looking at the larger public health issue. It’s more of a macro view of disease control rather than a micro view of individual people’s lives.

[Image: A “Quarantine Act” banner from the Torrens Island Quarantine Station collection, held by the National Museum of Australia, Canberra].

BLDGBLOG: Talking about quarantine stations as a place simply to dump people reminds me of a bit of the architectural criticism of refugee camps. Refugee camps are often criticized as being nothing but utilitarian: built with no concern for community, culture, or how people will live once they’re placed there. Have you found other spatial types that are similar to quarantine facilities—whether that’s refugee camps or supermax prisons—where the same types of psychological and cultural issues emerge?

Maglen: Absolutely. The places I have studied that are similar are detention centers for asylum seekers in Australia.

There was a policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers who arrived in Australia; they were put in horrible camps out in the middle of the desert until they could be processed. There was an assumption that if you were a “proper” refugee, you would have stayed in the refugee camps, in wherever it was that you were from, and waited until your application had been processed. You would have been given a visa saying that you were a refugee, and then you would have come to Australia on a plane and gone through the immigration line with the requisite stamp in your passport. This is obviously ridiculous—the life of a refugee doesn’t usually work that smoothly.

In any case, people who arrived in boats—or any way they could—in Australia and who didn’t have a refugee stamp in their passport—or a passport at all—were put in detention centers for long periods of time, sometimes years. The psychological problems that occurred amongst people who were isolated and detained in these places for that long were enormous. Not only were many of the people already psychologically damaged by the experiences that had led them to become asylum seekers and refugees, but they were then put into these temporary camps and isolated in the middle of nowhere.

The difference, however, between that example and people who have been put in quarantine, or people who are put in solitary confinement in prisons and so on, is that quarantine has a time limit. It’s limited, by definition—although, of course, it can be continued and extended. In fact, one of the problems of not setting quarantine facilities up properly is that you then get situations where poor design can lead to unnecessary extensions to the period of incarceration. So, for example, if I have been in quarantine for 15 days of a 20 day quarantine incarceration—with only 5 days left until I am released—and then you are newly placed in quarantine with me, if we are not adequately separated, I will have to start the 20 day quarantine period all over again—making my total quarantine 35 days. This is because I have been freshly exposed to a suspected disease source—you—and so my previous quarantine is rendered useless.

Quarantine facilities, therefore, need to be able to separate instances of exposure in order to avoid compounding the duration of incarceration. However, poor design of quarantine facilities—created essentially, as we said before, only to keep people away from the broader community and with little thought given to internal structures—has, at times, resulted in quarantines that have, unnecessarily, lasted for months.

Even so, there is always a limit with quarantine. First of all, epidemics only have a limited lifespan. Secondly, quarantine periods often have something to do with incubation periods, although the relationship is not as direct as you might think.

So, to speak to your question, I haven’t seen any long-term residual damage inflicted by quarantine, strictly as quarantine. When quarantine is strictly about disease, it doesn’t have the same kind of psychological effects, because you know that, in two months or so, you’re going to be let out. When quarantine is tied to other ideas, or when it becomes a way of keeping a particular class or race—or whatever category of people—outside, it quickly shades into something else.

[Image: View through the perimeter fence at Port Hedland Immigration Reception and Processing Centre in Western Australia, June 2002, from the Australian Human Rights Commission].

Edible Geography: If quarantine has an end date, then surely it doesn’t actually function to exclude people from a country. In that case, is the point to use quarantine as a way of reinforcing prejudice and social hierarchies, so that people know their place, as it were, before they even come in the door?

Maglen: Quarantine can do that. It can also be designed as a way to dissuade people from wanting to try to come to your country in the first place. Quarantine is also very much about reaffirming models and stereotypes within the community: to create a feeling that “everybody knows that people from a particular country or region are dangerous, because look, the government has to quarantine everybody from there.” It gives a seemingly scientific backing for ethnic or racial prejudice.

An example of that is people from Haiti being quarantined by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, because of the risk of HIV and AIDS. You can read much more about this in Howard Markel’s book, When Germs Travel. There’s a really interesting chapter in there called “No One’s Idea of a Tropical Paradise: Haitian Immigrants and AIDS.” In it, Markel talks about how Haitian immigrants were being quarantined off-shore because they might be HIV-positive, and how that just re-confirmed—and put a government stamp on—prejudices against Haitians as being a dangerous and untrustworthy people.

That raises another very interesting point about quarantine: it can manipulate the public’s understanding of a particular disease. A disease might not be transmissible person-to-person, or it might not be highly contagious, but the imposition of quarantine automatically implies that there’s a person-to-person mode of infection (in the sense that, if I was sick and I stood in the same room and breathed on you, you would get sick). Quarantining people with HIV/AIDS implies that just coming into contact with them will expose you to infection.

Edible Geography: It seems, then, by virtue of being a practice of detention, quarantine can be misused very easily.

Maglen: Absolutely. It’s not just because it’s a practice of detention, but because quarantine, unlike isolation, is about keeping people who are deemed to pose a risk to public health separate. They’re not known to be a danger, but they’re judged to be a risk—and it’s that idea of risk that can be very easily manipulated. Risk could mean that they’re carrying a pathogen, or it could be that the place that person has come from is deemed to be diseased. It’s a very loose and dangerous term.

Edible Geography: What direction is your research taking now? Are you still exploring aspects of quarantine, or has it led you on to somewhere else?

Maglen: At the moment, I’m working on a book to develop my work on quarantine in Britain. I’m particularly looking at the border, and the idea of British ports being in-between spaces—spaces that are much more fluid than their American or Australian equivalents. I’m using that idea to examine the reasons behind the difficult relationship the British have with quarantine and immigration control, and also to explore how Britain sees itself within the United Kingdom and its former empire. I’m hoping to show how looking at immigration and quarantine can help us understand what’s happening in Britain as a nation and why it behaves as it does, both internally and internationally.

In the future, I want to continue looking at quarantine, but I want to move back to looking at Australia, and in particular, the Western Pacific. The French, British, and German imperial forces came in and tried to divide the islands up between them, even though the island populations had a long history of moving around in completely different patterns. I want to look at how disease control and quarantine were then used by the imperial powers as a way to control that movement of people.

• • •

This autumn in New York City, Edible Geography and BLDGBLOG have teamed up to lead an 8-week design studio focusing on the spatial implications of quarantine; you can read more about it here. For our studio participants, we have been assembling a coursepack full of original content and interviews—but we decided that we should make this material available to everyone so that even those people who are not in New York City, and not enrolled in the quarantine studio, can follow along, offer commentary, and even be inspired to pursue projects of their own.

For other interviews in our quarantine series, check out One Million Years of Isolation: An Interview with Abraham Van Luik, Isolation or Quarantine: An Interview with Dr. Georges Benjamin, Extraordinary Engineering Controls: An Interview with Jonathan Richmond, On the Other Side of Arrival: An Interview with David Barnes, The Last Town on Earth: An Interview with Thomas Mullen, and Biology at the Border: An Interview with Alison Bashford.

More interviews are forthcoming.

One Million Years of Isolation: An Interview with Abraham Van Luik

[Image: Yucca Mountain, Nevada; courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy].

Abraham Van Luik is a geoscientist with the U.S. Department of Energy; he is currently based at the nuclear waste-entombment site proposed for Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Yucca Mountain, a massive landform created by an extinct supervolcano inside what is now Nellis Air Force Base’s Nevada Test and Training Range, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is the controversial site chosen by Congress for the storage of nuclear waste. Its political fate remains uncertain. Although the Obama Administration has stated that Yucca Mountain is “no longer… an option for storing nuclear waste,” Congress has since voted to continue funding the project—albeit only with enough funds to allow the licensing process to continue.

[Image: Resembling some new breed of Stargate emerging from the Earth, the tunnel-boring machine at Yucca Mountain reaches daylight; view larger! Courtesy of the Department of Energy].

As part of our ongoing series of quarantine-themed interviews, Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography and I spoke to Van Luik about the technical nature of nuclear waste storage and what it means, on the level of geological engineering, to quarantine a hazardous material for more than one million years.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: How did you start designing a project like Yucca Mountain, when you’re dealing with such enormous timescales and geological complexity?

Abraham Van Luik: You start with a question: how do you perceive the need to isolate a material from the environment?

I think most people would begin to answer that by looking at the nature of the material. Wherever that material is currently, we make sure that there is either a thick wall or a deep layer of water to protect the people working around it. That’s what’s being done at a reactor: when spent fuel comes out of a reactor, it’s taken out remotely with no one present, and put into a water basin that’s deep enough that there is no radioactive shine from the spent fuel escaping out of that water. If the pool is getting full, after five years or so of cooling, then the utility company will take the material out of the pool—remotely manipulated from behind leaded-glass windows—and put it into dry storage. Dry storage uses very thick steel and concrete. And there it will sit until someone disposes of it, or until it’s reprocessed.

Now, in most countries, what they have done next is asked: What geology would be very good for isolating this material from the environment? And what geologies are available in our country? The Swedes have gone to their granites, because their whole country is basically underlain by granites. The French looked at granites, salts, and clay, and decided to go with clay. The Belgians and Dutch are looking at clay and salts; and the Germans are looking at salts right now, but also at granites and clay. The Swiss are looking at clay, mostly, although they did look at crystalline rock—meaning rock with large crystals, like granite, gabbros, and that kind of thing. But they decided that, in their particular instance—since the Alps are still growing and slopes are not all that stable over hundreds of thousands of years—to look instead at their deep basins of clays close to the Rhine River as a repository location. We’re all looking to isolate this material for about a million years.

In the U.S. we did a sweep of the country, looked at all the available geologies, and we decided that we had many possible sites. We investigated some, which basically involved looking at what we knew from geological surveys of the states, and then we made a recommendation to go look at three of the possibilities in greater detail. There was then a decision process: it went from nine sites, to five, to three.

At that point, Congress stepped in. They started looking at the huge bills associated with site-specific studies—excavation is not cheap—and they said: let’s just do one site and see if it’s suitable. If it is not, then we’ll go back and see what else we can do.

So that’s how Yucca Mountain, basically, was selected. It was a cost-saving measure over the other two that were in the running for a repository. Those were a bedded salt site in Texas and a basalt site—a deep volcanic rock site—in Washington State.

But all three were looked at, and all three were judged to be equally safe for the first 10,000 years—which, at that time, was the regulation. Since the selection of Yucca Mountain, the regulation has been bumped up to a million years, which is pretty much where the rest of the world is looking: a million years of isolation.

[Images: Views inside the tunnels of Yucca Mountain; top photo by Rick Gunn for the Associated Press].

Now, the reason that you want to isolate this material for a million years is that the spent fuel—meaning fuel that no longer supports the chain reaction that keeps reactors making electricity—contains actinides. These are metal elements, from 90 to 103 on the Periodic Table, most of which are heavier than uranium (which is 92). Actinides are generally very slow to radioactively decay into smaller atoms—which then decay more rapidly—and some of the actinides actually do remain hazardous for a million years and beyond. The trick is to isolate them for that length of time.

At Yucca Mountain we took the attitude that, since we basically have a dry mountain in a dry area with very little rainfall, we would use a material that can stand up to oxygen being present. The material we selected was a metal alloy called Alloy 22. Our design involves basically wrapping the stainless steel packages, in which we would receive the spent fuel, in Alloy 22 and sticking them inside this mountain with a layer of air over the top. What we know is that when water moves through rock or fractured materials, it tends to stay in the rock rather than fall—unless that rock is saturated. Yucca Mountain is unsaturated, so water ought not be a major issue for us at Yucca Mountain—yet it is.

We have to worry about future climates, because, right now in Nevada, we are in a nine year drought—and, basically since the last Ice Age, we have been in a 10,000-year drought. 80% of the time, if we look a million years into the past, we have, on average, twice the precipitation we have now. Most of the past is—and the future will be—wetter and cooler. Which is nice for Nevada! [laughs]

In any case, we tried to take advantage of the natural setting, as well as take advantage of a metal that stands up very well to oxidizing conditions. That is how, in our safety analyses, we showed that we are basically safe for well beyond a million years—if we do exactly what we said we would do in that analysis.

[Image: An engineer stands inside one of the tunnels in Yucca Mountain; courtesy of the Department of Energy].

Other countries have decided not to go in a similar direction to us. The only other country that’s contemplating a similar repository to ours is Mexico. All the other countries in the world are looking at constructing something that is very deep—and under the water table. If you go under the water table deep enough, there is no oxygen in the water, and if there is no oxygen than the solubility of a sizable number of the radionuclides is a non-problem. Many are just not soluble unless there is oxygen in the water.

Going that deep then allows those countries to use a different set of materials, ones that last a long time when there is no oxygen present. For example, the Swedes are using granite—so are the Finns, by the way, and the Canadians, though the Canadians might decide to go for clays. With the granites, the older they are, the more fractured they are, and they can’t predict a million years into the future where the fracture zones are going to be. So they have chosen a copper container for their spent fuel; copper is thermodynamically stable in granite. In fact, copper deposits naturally occur in granite. They then wrap a very thick layer of bentonite clay around the container, which they put in dry. When that clay gets wet, as it will do eventually, it expands. When there is a fracture zone that is created by nature, the clay will basically decompress itself a little bit, fill the fracture zone, and you will still have a lot of protection from that clay layer. It’s a similar set up with salt or clay repositories, they eventually close up against the waste packages. Nothing moves through clay or salt very rapidly.

Those are basically the three rock types that the whole world is looking at in terms of repositories.

So you can rely more on the engineered system or more on the natural system. Either way, it’s the combination of the two systems that allows you to predict, with relative security, that you’re going to isolate a material for well over a million years. By that time, the natural decay of the material that you’ve hidden away has pretty much taken care of most of the risk. In fact, by about half a million years, most of the spent fuel is less radioactive than the ore from which it was created. That’s a wonderful argument—but the spent fuel still isn’t safe at that point. You still need to continue to isolate it, just as you don’t want to live on top of uranium ore, either. It’s a dangerous material.

In a nutshell, that’s our philosophy of containment.

[Image: Yucca Mountain diagrammed; courtesy of the Department of Energy].

BLDGBLOG: I’m interested in how you go about testing these sorts of designs. Do you actually build scale models, like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ hydrological models, or do you rely on lab tests and computer simulations, given the timescale and complexity?

Van Luik: What we do is safety assessments that project safety out to a million years. What I used to say to my troops, when I was a manager of this activity, was: “Safety assessment without any underlying science is like a confession in church without a sin: without the one, you have nothing to say in the other.”

To collect the science needed to make credible projections of system safety, we have dug several miles of tunnels under this mountain; we’ve done lots of testing of how water can move through this mountain, if there was more water; and we’ve done testing of coupons of the materials that we want to use. These tests were performed using solutions, temperature ranges, and oxygen concentrations that we think are representative over the whole range of what can be reasonably expected at Yucca Mountain. Those kinds of physical tests we have done.

We have also utilized information from people who have taken spent fuel apart in some of our national laboratories and subjected it to leaching tests to see how it dissolves, how fast it dissolves, and what dissolves out of it. We have done all of that kind of testing, and that’s what forms the basis for our computer modeling.

One thing we have not done, and can’t do, is a mock-up of Yucca Mountain. It just doesn’t work that way. It’s too complicated, too large, and too long a time-scale.

[Image: Yucca Mountain, courtesy of Wikipedia].

In compensation for that spatial- and time-scale difficulty, what we have done is looked for similar localities with uranium deposits in them, like Peña Blanca, Mexico, just north of Chihuahua City. There, we have rock very similar to Yucca Mountain’s rock, and we have probably a 30-million year old uranium deposit—quite a rich one—that was going to be mined until the price of uranium dropped considerably. We’ve studied that piece of real estate—it has roughly similar rock, sitting under similar conditions except for more summer rainfall—and we’ve looked at the movement of radioactivity from that ore body. From that we’ve gained confidence that our computer modeling can pretty much mimic what was seen at that uranium site.

We’ve looked for natural analogues of other possible conditions—for example, the climate at Yucca Mountain during an ice age. We’ve studied six or seven sites that mimic what we would see during a climate change here.

And, in terms of materials, there are some naturally occurring materials that have a passive coating on them. We’ve studied metals found in nature that are similar in the way they act to the metals that we are using for our waste packages.

So we have gone basically all through nature looking for analogous processes—but none are exact matches for Yucca Mountain. It’s going to need something more unique than that. I think the same is true for every other repository being contemplated.

We have worked in cooperation with fourteen other countries through the European Commission’s Research Directorate in Brussels, and the Nuclear Energy Agency in Paris, to compare notes on natural analogues and discuss what is useful and what is not for which concept. All these countries are doing the same kind of thing: looking at natural occurrences that are hundreds of thousands, if not hundreds of millions, of years old.

In some cases, the natural analogues we’ve studied are billions of years old. We’ve looked at the Oklo mining district in Gabon, Africa. We studied several occurrences in that mining district where, for the last few million years, ore bodies have been subjected to oxidizing conditions, because uplift of the land brought them above the water table. We’ve looked at these natural reactor zones, which were active two billion years ago when the earth was much more radioactive than it is now, to see what we could learn about the movement of radioactivity in an oxidizing zone. We can use that data for corroborating the modeling of Yucca Mountain.

On top of all that, we have the problem of unlikely volcanic events, as well as strong earth motions from equally unlikely seismic events, at Yucca Mountain. These are problems you won’t have at most of the other repository sites being considered in the world. To study that, we brought in expert groups with their own insights and models to evaluate what the chances are, from a risk perspective, of a volcanic event actually interrupting or disrupting the repository. They also looked at the possibility of a very large ground motion adding stress and causing eventual failure of one or more of the waste packages. Although volcanic events are highly unlikely—as are very large ground-motion events—they must be factored into our analyses, based on the likelihood of their occurring over a one-million year time span.

We have basically done all safety-evaluation analyses from the perspective of the things that could happen, given the nature of this geologic setting. Looking at analogues for processes in nature has given us confidence that what we expect to see at Yucca Mountain is what we have seen nature produce elsewhere. These are indirect lines of evidence that support us—but we have also made a lot of direct measurements and observations, as well as testing in laboratories of materials and processes, to make sure that we’re on the right track.

The National Academy of Sciences has reviewed our research and our situation, and they’ve agreed that we have predictability for about a million years. That judgment influenced the EPA, who then gave us a standard for a million years.

[Image: “Coupons” of metal tested for their long-term weathering and resilience; courtesy of the Department of Energy].

BLDGBLOG: Could you discuss the material selection process in more detail? I’d like to hear how you found Alloy 22, for example. Also, when my wife and I visited Yucca Mountain a few years ago, we were given a black glass bead at the information center—what role does that glass play in the containment design? Finally, are the materials you’ve chosen specifically engineered for the nuclear industry, or are these simply pre-existing materials that happen to have the requisite properties for nuclear containment?

Van Luik: No, the materials are not specifically engineered for the purpose of nuclear containment.

Let’s look at Alloy 22 first. We looked at the whole range of what is commercially available, in terms of pure metals and metal alloys. We also looked at things like ceramic coatings. There are some very, very hard ceramic coatings that, for example, are used on bearings for locomotives. There are also ceramics that the military uses on projectiles to penetrate buildings. There are some very good ceramic materials out there, but we had a problem with the predictability of very, very long-term behavior in ceramics. That’s why we decided to go with a metal; a metal will fail by several different corrosion mechanisms, but not by the breakage that is typical of ceramics.

One of the things that the metals industry has been doing—for the paper-pulp industry, for example, which creates the worst possible chemical environment you can imagine—is that they have been developing more and more corrosion-resistant materials. One of the top of the line of these corrosion-resistant materials was Alloy 22. We tested it alongside about six other candidates in experiments where we dripped water on them, we soaked them in water, and we had them half in and out of water, with varying solutions that we tailored for what we would expect in the mountain over time. The one that stood out—the most reliable in all of these tests—was Alloy 22.

The black glass that you saw is not something that the waste is wrapped in. This material will be made at Hanford and maybe at Idaho, too—and at Savannah River they are making that black material right now. It’s an imitation volcanic glass—a borosilicate glass—in which radioactive materials are dispersed. Material would be released from that if the waste package breaks, and if the material is touched by water or even water vapor. It would then start to alter, and as it alters it would start to release the radioactivity inside. So what you and your wife were looking at was basically a glass waste-form. We don’t make it here—that’s how radioactive waste will be delivered to us from the Defense Department and Department of Energy. We will receive it in huge containers, not as beads.

We also have little pellets of imitation spent fuel, similar to pencil lead in color, to show visitors what the fuel rods look like inside of a reactor. The fuel rods are ceramic, coated on the outside with an alloy.

[Image: Nuclear fuel rods].

Edible Geography: Could you walk us through the planned process of loading the waste into the mountain, all the way up to the day you close the outer door?

Van Luik: Sure. The process, depending on whether Yucca Mountain ever goes through, politically speaking, will be as follows.

From the cooling pools or dry storage at the reactor, we’ve asked the nuclear utility companies to put their spent fuel—or waste—into containers that we have designed and that we will supply to them. The waste will be remotely taken out of whatever container it is in now, put into our containers, which are certified for shipping as well as disposal, and then we would slide those containers onto trains. We want to use mostly trains—we try to avoid truck use.

Rail shipping containers currently in use are massive—some approaching two-hundred tons fully loaded. The trains would bring the containers to us and then we would up-end them remotely and take the material out in a large open bay—all done remotely, again. If it comes in the shipping cask that we have provided, we will be able to put it directly into the Alloy 22 and stainless steel waste package and weld it shut. Then, with a transporter vehicle that’s also remotely operated, we would take it underground and place it end-on-end, lying down in our repository drifts. That’s what we call the tunnels; tunnels without an opening are called drifts. We would basically fill the drifts until we get to the entrance, put a door on, and then move on to the next one. That’s the basic scheme of how this would be done. Everything is shielded, of course, so that people are not exposed to radiation; workers are protected, as well as the public.

[Image: The “drifts” inside Yucca Mountain; view larger. Courtesy of the Department of Energy].

Edible Geography: How many containers could you fit inside a single drift, and how many drifts do you actually have in the mountain?

Van Luik: The drifts are each about 600 to 800 meters long. They vary a little bit, depending on where they are in the mountain. We will have 91 emplacement drifts—with an average of about 120 waste packages, set end-to-end, in each drift—to take care of the 70,000 metric tons that we are authorized to have. If we receive authorization to have more than 70,000 metric tonnes, then we’re prepared to go up to 125,000 metric tonnes of heavy metal. That metric tonnage figure doesn’t represent the total weight that goes into the mountain, by the way—it means that the containers have the equivalent of that many tonnes of uranium in them. In other words, 70,000 metric tons is about 11,000 containers that weigh about ten metric tons each, so it’s a huge amount of weight. Each container contributes a significant amount of weight in itself: the steel and the Alloy 22 are very heavy.

In terms of what the repository would look like, if built, it would be a series of open tunnels, one after the other, with a bridging tunnel that allows the freight to be brought in on rail. Everything is done remotely. The 40km of tunnels would all be filled up at some point, and then we would seal up the larger openings to the exterior, but leave everything else inside the mountain unsealed.

This is very different, by the way, from every other repository in the world, which would tightly compact material around the waste packages. We want to leave air around the waste packages, because of our situation. We have unsaturated water flow, rather than saturated flow, and as I’ve mentioned, water does not like to fall into air out of rock—it would rather stay in the rock, unless it’s saturated and under some degree of pressure (such as from the weight of water above it). So if we put something like bentonite clay around our packages, that would actually wick the water from the rock toward the waste packages—which is a silly thing to do if you’re trying to take advantage of an unsaturated condition.

[Image: An engineer uses ultraviolet light to analyze water-movement through rocks; courtesy of the Department of Energy].

Edible Geography: What process have you designed for sealing the exterior door? Does that also require a uniquely secure set of material and formal choices?

Van Luik: Sealing the repository wouldn’t happen for at least 100 years, so what we have done at this point is basically left that decision for the future. We have done a preliminary design, which uses a heavy concrete mixture—as well as rock rubble for a certain portion—to seal the exits from the main tunnel that goes around and feeds all the smaller tunnels.

The idea is that these openings have nothing to do with how the mountain itself functions, because the mountain is a vertical-flow system. Coming in from the sides, as we are, has nothing to do with how the water behaves in the repository, or with the containment system we’ve designed. So we just want to block the side exits and make it very difficult for someone to reenter the mountain—to the point where they would basically be much better off reentering it by drilling a whole new entryway beside one of the old ones that’s filled in.

Then there are going to be about seven vertical shafts for ventilation that will be sealed at the time of final closure. Those will be filled to mimic the hydrological properties of the rock around them; we don’t want them to become preferred pathways of water, because those will point directly into the repository.

So there are two different closure schemes for the two different types of openings: three large entryways that will be completely sealed off to prevent reentry, and seven ventilation shafts that will be filled with materials that have been engineered to mimic the hydrological properties of the rock around it.

[Image: A diagram of hypothetical water-movement around the waste packages at Yucca Mountain; courtesy of the Department of Energy].

Edible Geography: And the ventilation shafts are required because the material is so hot?

Van Luik: Yes. Once we put the waste in, we want to blow air over it by drawing in air from the bottom and blowing it out the top to take heat away until we shut off the vents for final closure. The idea is to take enough heat out of the system so that, when we close it, it doesn’t exceed our tolerances for temperature.

Edible Geography: Is there any chance that having such a large amount of heavy material at Yucca Mountain could actually pose a seismic risk for the region?

Van Luik: When we selected this particular location, we looked very carefully at faults. But you’re right: if you get beyond a certain amount of weight, as under a growing mountain range, you do start shifting things in the ground. If you build something right on a fault line you can probably change the frequency of vibration at that location, and maybe aggravate the earthquake that’s eventually going to happen.

However, even if we fill this repository to 125,000 metric tons, that is only something like .01% of the weight of the mountain itself. Plus, we are surrounded by two major faults, on both sides of the mountain, and even though there’s movement occasionally on those faults, the block in the middle—where Yucca Mountain sits—is like a boat, riding very steadily. It’s been like that for the past twelve million years, so we don’t see that it’s going to change in the future.

That said, we are in an area that’s moving all the time. The entire area now is moving slowly to the northwest, and the basin and range here is still growing—the distance between Salt Lake and Sacramento is already twice what it was twelve million years ago, and they will continue to be pulled apart. We’re well aware of the consequences of basin and range growth, and the possibility that the faults Yucca Mountain is sitting next to could be active again in the future. We factored that in. In fact, it’s those earthquakes that might actually lead to failures in the system that would allow something to come out before a million years—otherwise nothing would come out until beyond a million years.

But you can’t put enough weight in that mountain to change the tectonic regime in the area.

[Image: Future warning signs scattered across the Yucca Mountain site, part of “the monumental task of warning future generations“; courtesy of the Department of Energy].

BLDGBLOG: Of course, once you have sealed the site, you face the challenge of keeping it away from future human contact. How does one mark this location as a place precisely not to come to, for very distant future generations?

Van Luik: We have looked very closely at what WIPP is doing—the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. They did a study with futurists and other people—sociologists and language specialists. They decided to come up with markers in seven languages, basically like a Rosetta Stone, with the idea that there will always be someone in the world who studies ancient languages, even 10,000 years from now, someone who will be able to resurrect what the meanings of these stelae are. They will basically say, “This is not a place of honor, don’t dig here, this is not good material,” etc.

What we have done is adapt that scheme to Yucca Mountain—but we have a different configuration. WIPP is on a flat surface, and their repository is very deep underground; we’re basically inside a mountain with no resources that anybody would want to go after. We will build large marker monuments, and also engrave these same types of warnings onto smaller pieces of rock and metal, and spread them around the area. When people pick them up, they will think, “Oh—let’s not go underground here.”

Now if people see these things and decide to go underground anyway, that becomes advertent, not inadvertent, intrusion—and we can’t protect against that, because there’s no way to control the future. All we’re worried about is warning people so that, if they do take some action that’s not in their best interest, they do so in the full knowledge of what they’re getting into. The markers that we’re trying to make will be massive, and they will be made of materials that will last a long time—but they’re just at the preliminary stage right now.

What I have been lobbying for with the international agencies, like the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Energy Agency is that before anybody builds a repository, let’s have world agreement on the basics of a marker system for everybody. Whoever runs the future, tens of thousands of years from now, shouldn’t have to dig up one repository and see a completely different marker system somewhere else and then dig that up, too. They should be able to learn from one not to go to the others.

Of course, there’s also a little bit of fun involved here: what is the dominant species going to be in 10,000 years? And can you really mark something for a million years?

What we have looked at, basically, is marking things for at least 10,000 years—and hopefully it will last even longer. And if this information is important to whatever societies are around at that time, if they have any intelligence at all, they will renew these monuments.

[Image: Aerial view of Yucca Mountain; courtesy of the Department of Energy].

BLDGBLOG: What kinds of projects might you work on after Yucca Mountain? In other words, could you apply your skills and a similar design process to different containment projects, such as carbon sequestration?

Van Luik: I think so—if we ever get serious about carbon sequestration. I don’t know if you know this, but we laid off a lot of people here because there were budget cuts, and many of those people, because of the experience they had with modeling underground processes, are now working on carbon sequestration schemes for the energy sector and the Department of Energy.

No matter what happens to Yucca Mountain—whether it goes through or not—dealing with spent fuel and other nuclear waste will still be a problem, and that’s the charter that was given to our office. What I’m hoping is that, as soon as Yucca Mountain gets completely killed or gets the go-ahead, I can go back to what I loved doing in the past, which was to look at selecting sites for future repositories.

One repository won’t be enough for all time; it will be enough for maybe a hundred years, at the very most. You have to plan ahead. As long as you create the nuclear waste, you need to have a place to put it. Even if you reprocess it—even if you build fast reactors and basically burn the actinides into fission products so that they only have to be isolated for 500 years rather than a million—you still have to have a place to put that material. Even if we can build repositories less and less frequently, we will still be creating waste that needs to be isolated from the environment.

BLDGBLOG: You mentioned that your favorite pastime was looking for repository sites. If you had the pick of the earth, is there a location that you genuinely think is perfect for these types of repositories, and where might that location be?

Van Luik: My ideal repository location has changed over time. When I worked on crystalline rock, like granites, I thought crystalline rock was the cat’s meow. When I worked for a short time in salt, I thought salt was the perfect medium. Now that I have worked with the European countries and Japan for the past twenty-five years, learning of their studies of various repository locations, I’m beginning to think that claystone is probably the ideal medium.

In the U.S., I would go either to North or South Dakota and look for the Pierre Shale, where it grades into clay: there, you get the best of both worlds. I have been quoted by MSNBC, much to the chagrin of my bosses, saying that, if I were to get the pick of where we go next, that’s where I would go. They really didn’t like that—I was supposed to praise the Yucca Mountain site. But let’s get real: Yucca Mountain was chosen by Congress. We have shown that it’s safe, if we do what we say in terms of the engineered system. But it was not chosen to be the most optimal of all optimal sites, the site-comparison approach was taken off the table by Congress. As long as a chosen site and its system are safe, however, that is good enough.

Our predicted performance for Yucca Mountain, lined up to what the French are projecting for their repository in clay, and next to what the Swedes are projecting for their repository in granite, shows about the same outcome, over a million years, in terms of potential doses to a hypothetical individual. We’re safe as anybody can be—which is what our charter requires. We told Congress in 2002 that, yes, it can it be done safely here—but it’s going to cost you, and that cost is in Alloy 22 and stainless steel. Congress said OK and it became public law.

[Image: Map of repository sites across the United States; courtesy of the Department of Energy].

Edible Geography: Are any countries actually using their repositories yet?

Van Luik: They’re getting very close to licensing in Finland and Sweden. Those are going to be the first two. We have a firm site selection in France, which means that they’ll be going into licensing soon. Licensing takes several years in every country. In fact, we’re in licensing now, except we had a change of administration and they’ve decided that they really don’t want to do Yucca Mountain anymore. They want to do something else. They have every right to make those kind of policy decisions—so here we are.

No one is actually loading high-level waste or spent nuclear fuel into a repository yet. We have our own repository working with transuranic waste from the Defense program, in New Mexico, and both the Swedes and the Finns have medium-level waste sites, which are basically geological disposal sites, that have been active for over a decade.

The Swedes and Finns have a lot of experience building repositories underground, and their situation is interesting. The Swedes are building a repository under the Baltic Sea, but in granites that they can get to from dry land. When there is a future climate change, however, there’s going to be a period when the repository area will be farmable; it will be former ocean-bottom that is now on the surface. Their scenario is that, at the end of the next ice age, you might actually get a farmer who drills a water-well right above the repository.

The Finns actually have a very pragmatic attitude to this. They have regulations that basically cover the entire future span, out to a very long time period—but they also say that, once the ice has built up again and covered Finland, it won’t be Finland. No one will live there. But it doesn’t matter whether anyone lives there or not: you still have to provide a system that’s safe for whoever’s going to be there when the ice retreats.

We—as in the whole world—need to take these future scenarios quite seriously. And these are very interesting things to think about—things that, in normal industrial practice, you never even consider.

The repository program in England, meanwhile, went belly-up—because of regulatory issues, mostly—but it’s coming back, and it’s probably going to come back to exactly the same place as it was before. That’s a sedimentary-metamorphosed hard-rock rock site at Sellafield, right by the production facility. No transportation will be involved, to speak of. That’s not a bad idea, but they had to prove that the rock was good. The planning authority rejected their proposal the first time, so they dissolved the whole waste management company and now the government is going to take over the project; it’s not going to be private anymore. In the end, the government takes over this kind of stuff in most places because the long-term implications go way beyond the lifetime of one corporation.

If there’s any country that’s setting a good example for waste disposal, it’s Germany. They’re the only country I know of who have the same kind of regulations for hazardous waste and chemical waste as they do for nuclear waste. There are two or three working geological repositories for chemical waste in Germany, and they have been working for a very long time. They’re the only ones in the world. The chemical industry in the U.S. has basically said, no, no, don’t go there! [laughs]

[Images: Like a scene from Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado“—as rewritten by the international chemical industry—hazardous materials undergo geological entombment].

But I think Germany is right: if one thing needs to be isolated because it’s dangerous, then the other thing—that never decays and is also dangerous—needs to be treated in the same way. The EPA does have a standard for deep-well injection of hazardous waste—they have a 10,000-year requirement for no return to the surface. That was comparable to what we had here, until the standard for Yucca Mountain got bumped up to a million years by Congress. But with some chemicals, regulations only require a few hundred years of isolation—that’s all. Those things don’t decay, so that doesn’t make sense to me.

Anyway, I applaud Germany for their gumption—and they’re very dependent on their chemical industry for income. It’s not like they’re trying to torpedo their industry. They’re just saying: you have to do this right.

• • •

This autumn in New York City, Edible Geography and BLDGBLOG have teamed up to lead an 8-week design studio focusing on the spatial implications of quarantine; you can read more about it here. For our studio participants, we have been assembling a coursepack full of original content and interviews—but we decided that we should make this material available to everyone so that even those people who are not in New York City, and not enrolled in the quarantine studio, can follow along, offer commentary, and even be inspired to pursue projects of their own.

For other interviews in our quarantine series, check out Isolation or Quarantine: An Interview with Dr. Georges Benjamin, Extraordinary Engineering Controls: An Interview with Jonathan Richmond, On the Other Side of Arrival: An Interview with David Barnes, The Last Town on Earth: An Interview with Thomas Mullen, and Biology at the Border: An Interview with Alison Bashford.

More interviews are forthcoming.