Report on MoDeRn

MoDeRn Conference, EU Commission, Luxembourg
MoDeRn Conference, EU Commission, Luxembourg

Report from the International conference on Monitoring Geological Disposal of Radioactive Waste: objectives, strategies, technologies and public involvement.

The MoDeRn conference took place at the EU Commission in Luxembourg this week. Artist Nick Crowe and I went along to learn more about the culture of storing radioactive waste in geological repositories across Europe, Japan and America. The storage of nuclear waste deep underground is commonly understood by the nuclear industry to be the safest solution, leaving the waste to decay over 100,000 years. In January Cumbria County Council in the UK voted against having a repository in Cumbria. With overground storage at Sellafield full to the brim, where to store nuclear waste in the UK is a pressing issue. Meanwhile the government is committed to building new nuclear power stations and the Submarine Dismantling Project will produce new waste over the next hundred years. Whilst geological storage is advocated as a technical solution to waste storage, it does not prevent the production of new waste. Whether people think Nuclear power is the solution to global energy, or not, or that nuclear weapons 'keep the peace', or not: the fact remains, we have generated a stockpile of nuclear waste that needs contant vigilance and disposal.

Attending the MoDeRn conference helped to put the UK case in a wider international context, and provided several models of stakeholder engagement. The main conference sessions included: case studies on repository monitoring, regulatory and stakeholder viewpoints, and presentations on the feasibility and limitations of technology. The workshops explored issues such as governance, responsibilities, spatial distribution and justification. Tackling questions such as: How, why, what, where and when to monitor? for how long? And how to use the results?


Host Rock

In many ways attending the conference was very reassuring: there are a lot of brilliant people working hard to ensure that geological storage is as safe as possible. Even more reassuring was the understanding of most scientists and engineers that there is no exact science, we cannot know the future, and the only certainty in the world is uncertainty. Therefore they are very careful not to make promises they can’t keep, and to be as transparent as possible about the whole geo-storage process. However, there are also engineers who believe that their models are infallible, that they can predict the future because they have anticipated and tested every eventuality. Although their words might seem reassuring at first, there’s a sinister undertone to this kind of blind faith that leaves little room for discussion and debate, and no room for people to change their minds or think differently. These people tended to talk in terms of facts and solutions rather than hypothesis and processes. But everyone had a sense of being answerable to society, and the need to take measurements to ensure that the models behave as predicted, and to be able to revise the safety case and respond appropriately if things don’t go according to plan.

The main technical challenge to storing nuclear waste underground is keeping it cool, dry and still in its host rock. Each country is researching and testing its geology to find stable conditions suitable for reverse-mining radioactive materials deep into the ground (salt, clay, granite). Waste will be stored in large canisters and the bore holes plugged with various materials and dams at different stages of the repository. Most of the monitoring will be carried out whilst the repositories are being filled up, which takes about one hundred years. It is hoped that the data and know-how built up over this period will be enough to model the future conditions of the repository. However, some countries are also researching wireless systems to monitor the waste once the repository has been closed. In either case, the monitoring of environmental conditions on the surface would continue by statutory authorities, although most countries haven’t got to this stage yet. Although France and Switzerland have underground research labs, most nuclear authorities are still in the process of applying for licenses to build repositories. Exceptions include the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico, where three different organisations monitor the site including community stakeholders. The site contains defence generated waste and is 2,150 feet deep. But there are always problems of language: the American terminology of monitoring for ‘Performance Confirmation’ seems to imply pre-determined outcomes rather than a more robust method of checking the performance of the site. There is also a working group planning permanent markers for the site which will be closed in 2033. In the meantime the site has had problems with water in the wells exceeding the permissible range, and after a 4 year investigation the model of how the site behaves has been reviewed to account for the new data.


Social Monitoring

Many nuclear authorities fund anti-nuclear groups (eg SKB in Sweden, DoE in the USA). Their intentions are to gain a wider perspective on the challenges they face, and to gain public acceptability for their programmes.

The conference programme states “a successful implementation strategy for radioactive waste disposal should address both technical and societal needs.” And whilst this could be interpreted to emphasize the need to create ‘public acceptability’ for highly controversial stores, there was also a more nuanced understanding of social engagement emerging through the conference.

To help understand the wider perspective on social and technical monitoring presentations included: the UK concept of voluntarism where communities have to volunteer to host a repository; stakeholder perspectives, with insights into community participation in Belgium and the WIPP; a sociological ANT analysis of monitoring and demonstration; and the OECD/NEA project on the Preservation of Records, Knowledge and Memory Across Generations.

Anne Bergmans from the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Antwerp talked eloquently about stakeholder engagement, consolidating many of the key principles raised through the other presentations on this theme. Anne described monitoring as a socio-technical process through a combination of factors: the relationship between monitoring and decision making; the potential role of monitoring in building public confidence; and (local) stakeholder involvement.  Bergmans described the social sciences as representing the position of ‘lay’ people, more accurately described as expert-citizens. But most interestingly she expanded the definition of monitoring to include any data gathering relating to the behavior of a repository and its natural and social environment.  She referenced Alvin Weinberg’s identification of “tireless vigilance” as a combined technical and moral principle of nuclear safety; emphasizing the societal nature of questions about monitoring which need to be discussed more broadly. Based on her research with stakeholders, Anne reflected on the possibility that future monitoring processes could be reinvented, and this checking should keep on going for 100K years. She explained that communities want to monitor comprehensiveness and socio-economic impact as well as post-closure monitoring. They also want to see the concept of monitoring as vigilance followed through, requiring a response plan for unexpected results, with a feasible and available ‘plan B’ in place.

The stakeholder viewpoint presented by Herman Sannen, Belgium, reaffirmed that the community are in fact specialists in various fields and can make a significant contribution. He emphasized that monitoring should act as an early warning system and should be flexible and develop over time. In addition the stakeholders were concerned with maintaining the memory of the repository location to avoid retrieval and re-use of materials in the future.

Sociologist Morgan Meyer also argued that monitoring is a social as well as a technical practice. His presentation gave an analysis of the problem of monitoring something invisible, referencing Foucault’s notion that ‘surveillance makes visible’. Meyer defined monitoring as organizing people in relation to their environment. Focusing on the underground research laboratories in France, he gave a critique of ‘Safety Analysis’ through ‘Technological Demonstration’ which aims to demonstrate safety through technical objects rather than social relations. He argued that because monitoring and demonstration is a practice of “political techniques” (Foucault) it is necessary to define a wider scope of stakeholders.

Social and technical monitoring needs to embed knowledge in society, share responsibility, and ensure a culture of monitoring as an early warning system. The feasibility of this work is being carried out by Claudio Pescatore, Lumir Nachmilner, Meritxell Martell and Claire Mays at the OECD/NEA project on the Preservation of Records, Knowledge and Memory Across Generations. 

“Vision for the RWMC Project on "Preservation of RK&M Across Generations" Preamble

Disposal of long-lived radioactive waste in engineered facilities built in stable, deep geological formations is the reference means for permanently isolating the waste from the biosphere. Although this management method is conceived to be intrinsically safe and final, i.e., not depending on the presence and intervention of man for fulfilling its safety goal, there is no intention to forgo, at any time, knowledge and awareness either of the repository or of the waste that it contains. As repository development is reaching industrial maturity, means are being studied to maintain indirect forms of oversight once the repository is closed including monitoring, applying safeguards according to international agreements, maintaining records, and ultimately maintaining memory. Institutional arrangements need be integral part of those provisions, as continuity of records, knowledge and memory (RK&M) will require, in the first place, identifying a chain of responsibilities. At the same time, novel methods ought also to be studied and applied that are less vulnerable to changes in socio-economic conditions and may be less reliant on institutional presence. Overall, this is a multidisciplinary work area in which much learning is expected over the coming years.”

This openness to 'novel methods' outside institutional frameworks and through multidisciplinary work could enable artists to contribute to the process of preserving records, knowledge and memory across generations.


Monitoring as Visibility: my concluding notes

The burial of radioactive waste deep underground was meant to be a safe and cheaper solution for the disposal of nuclear waste – out of sight and out of mind. But by taking responsibility for monitoring the waste, we continue to have a close relationship to this deadly material for the forseeable future. By modeling the life-span of a repository, engaging the community in monitoring, marking sites and developing new technologies for monitoring we keep the waste alive in the world, revealing it’s agency and keeping vigilance.

So where are the cultural blind spots in the discourse on monitoring?

From a wider cultural perspective the monitoring of waste storage needs to move beyond ‘public acceptability’ to ‘public responsibility’. Not simply getting public permission to build a site, but to embedding the planning and monitoring process in long-term social patterns. Only then will the intergenerational transfer of knowledge take place. Only then will the implications of storing nuclear waste be fully publically aired and understood.

Scientists often struggle to make their data accessible to a general public, communicating complex data and provisional analysis often without a wider context. Modern encourages transparency, yet more work is required to generate a wider context for public understanding. There seems to be a missing skill-set in the discussion, where artists and designers could help to reconceptualise the problem alongside sociologists, and help to communicate complex technical data to wider audiences over time. Rather than one-off data visualization a long term mapping approach could also help to engage stakeholders in the monitoring process.

Thomas Sebeok, wrote a paper for the American Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation in 1984 which advocated an ‘Atomic Priesthood’ to carry information about geological radioactive storage sites across the generations (see Dennis Duncan's article Backwards and Forwards with the Atomic Priesthood, 2012). At the WIPP site the public stakeholders are loosing interest as the monitoring process is not revealing any unexpected data at the moment. Some scientists will query the point of monitoring what they have identified as an indefinitely stable site. So careful thought is needed on how to embed knowledge in a place and in a community for the future. This is not a straightforward task as art-historian Julia Bryan-Wilson discusses in her paper on the WIPP marker ‘Building a Marker of Nuclear Warning (In: Nelson & Olin, 2003). More recent examples of humans ignoring ancient risk markers include rock markers for the Japanese Tsunami. The role of visual artists needs to recognise the conceptual and social investigations of art, and not be relegated to simply documentation, monument building or data visualisation. Contemporary artistic practices today investigate modes of rhetoric and representation, the nature of materiality, meta-data coding, working between online and physically located social spaces, archiving images for the future, as well as an investigation of the agency of objects, entropy and forms of social engagement and relational aesthetics.  Just a couple of artists long term approaches to time and data include: Jem Finer's Long Player (1999-2999) a musical composition which is being played over 1,000 years, and Trevor Paglen's project The Last Pictures (2012), placed on a high orbit satellite to outlive humans. In Britain the Old Weather project is transcribing weather data from ship-logs to create a longer data map for monitoring climate change.

Communicating information over time between technical and social platforms is a huge challenge. Some people a the conference raised compatibility problems with technologies over the last five years, so where might we be in 30, 100, 1000 or 10,000 years time? Throughout the Modern Conference scientists and engineers were adamant that monitoring should not be relied on for the safety case. This means that the argument for the safety of a geological repository cannot be based on the fact that the site will be monitored. The site should be proved safe from the start. This is another reason why some feel that monitoring is an expensive and time wasting process. But at the very least young people need to be recruited within all areas of research, implementation, regulation and monitoring of geological storage to pass on expert knowledge through the generations.

One of the challenges of working internationally and over-time is the issue of translation. Terms such as repository/depository and storage/disposal are used interchangeably. Terms such as oversight are used to describe overseeing repositories and not overlooking them entirely. I would argue that whilst the conceptual frameworks of ‘oversight’ in the RKM project are robust, the terminology presents a stumbling block in the English language, and raises further problems of mistranslation in the future.

Finally, and outside the remit of the Modern conference, the elephant in the room is that geological repositories built in the 21st and 22nd Centuries should be the lasting legacy of the nuclear age. If the human species puts more resources into renewable rather than nuclear energy, we will very soon have safe and reliable forms of power without the need to fill all our remote and near landscapes with radioactive burial sites.