Visualising Radioactive Waste Storage

Posters by Cecile Massart. InSOTEC, Berlin 2013.
Posters by Cecile Massart. InSOTEC, Berlin 2013.

The InSOTEC Seminar on 'Rethinking what is Social and What is Technical in (Long term) Radioactive Waste Management' took place in Berlin, 12-13 November 2013. The first day included sessions on reversibility and retrievability, siting, demonstrating safety and technology transfer, as well as our panel on 'Visualising radioactive waste management as a socio-technical challenge' with myself, Ele Carpenter, and artists Lise Autogena and Cecile Massart.

My presentation on the 'Cultural Challanges of Vizualising Radioactive Waste Storage' drew on my recent trip to Japan and the way artists are re-imagining the nuclear industry and radiation since the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power plant meltdown. I also presented Thomson & Craighead's artwork for a Nuclear Semiotic Totem, a marker of both site and time which will visualise the decay rates of specific radioactive sites, objects and isotopes. Lise Autogena gave a compelling introduction to the life and work of James Acord, the only artist licenced to handle nuclear materials. Whilst Cecile Massart presented her designs for 'Cover' a series of site markers which are designed to be added to over generations (see the picture of her posters above).

This excerpt below is taken from the introduction to the InSOTEC report "Socio-Technical Challenges to Implementing Geological Disposal: a Synthesis of Findings from 14 countries" (Catherine Landstrom & Anne Bergmans, 2012). The insightful reflection on social and technical relations is also a key focus of artistic enquiry which explores the agency of objects in the world:

"As of the 1980’s, a new strand of social scientific research emerged, which considered the social world to be shaped or influenced just as much by the technology it uses, as that technology itself is shaped by its social environment (e.g. Bijker et al., 1987; Callon et al., 1986; Elliot, 1987; Latour, 1986; Law, 1986; MacKenzie and Wajcman, 1985). From a Science and Technology Studies (STS) perspective, actions and decisions take place within hybrid collectives, that is, combinations of what we usually call the social (human actors, relationships, norms, groups, values, etc.) and things deemed technical (technical equipment, measures, calculations, tools, texts, etc.) (Callon and Law, 1989: 78). When we look at the making and design of aircrafts, bicycles, ships, buildings, nuclear reactors, light bulbs, diesel motors, or bridges, what we see is that beyond what might look like mere technical questions lie assemblages of humans and non-humans, subjects and objects, the social and the technical. In this sense, “artifacts have politics” (Winner, 1986): artifacts embody political visions of society and, at the same time, they have consequences upon the ways in which humans relate to each other and to their environment. Consequently, when actors modify and translate their interests they simultaneously modify and translate the knowledge and technological artifacts they use, develop and believe in, as well as their identities as actors. This is a reason to talk about socio- technical combinations instead of technical aspects on the one side and social aspects on the other, or about a technical ‘content’ surrounded by a social ‘context’. What goes on in an innovation process is mutual adaptation between many factors gathered together in one and the same process, where involved actors - whether engineers, politicians or engaged citizens - do not seperate between what is usually defined as technical and social factors. On the contrary, they know that they have to include both technical and social aspects in order to be successful. For many technologies, the relationship between  social and technical has indeed become stable, relatively unambiguous and not open to fundamental controversy. Today it would be hard to imagine a world without cars, microwaves or the internet, while less than 150 years ago bicycles were considered a controversial technology and several different models competed for social approval (Pinch and Bijker, 1989). Conversely, technologies disappear (e.g. steam engines, cassette recorders, VCRs, or the Concorde airplane), and this for a host of different reasons. For geological disposal, although commonly presented by the expert community as the best available technology today to deal with the long- term management of high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel, such stability is clearly not present. In fact, deep geological disposal remains today in many respects a hypothesis, of which the functionality has not been empirically demonstrated for actual long-term safety. Furthermore, the question remains if it will ever be possible to ‘demonstrate’ long-term safety given the extreme long timescales involved."

InSOTEC partners are: University of Antwerp (Belgium), University of East Anglia (UK), OEKO Institute (Germany), Göteborg University (Sweden), CNRS Ecole des Mines de Paris (France), MTA TK (Hungary), GMF (Spain), University of Tampere (Finland), University of Jyvaskylan (Finland), University of Ljubljana (Slovenia), Charles University (Czech Republic), Merience Strategic Thinking (Spain), University of Oslo (Norway).

The photograph above shows conference participants Karena Kalmbach, Radiation and Borders: Chernobyl as a National and Transnational Site of Memory and Peter Simmonds, from the School of Environmental Sciences at UEA, and partner on MoDeRn and InSOTEC.