Their mission: Warning future humanity about buried nuclear waste

A landmark with black spikes? A genetically modified blue forest? Or a document in an archive that somebody stumbles across? How can we warn humanity and other living organisms in 100,000 years of dangerous nuclear waste? These are questions that research colleagues Anna Storm and Thomas Keating at Linköping University are going to try and answer in their unique mission of writing warning texts for coming generations.

Magnus Johansson

After a little more than 40 years of research and political negotiations, Sweden’s government decided in January to approve a final storage solution for spent nuclear fuel, the most radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. It will be put into copper capsules and then buried in bedrock and bentonite clay 500 metres underground in the Swedish village of Forsmark, in the province of Uppland. A part of this final storage solution is developing a warning text which must be guaranteed to be legible long into the future.
It is, to say the least, a challenging assignment, and one which has been given to Anna Storm, professor, and Thomas Keating, postdoc, at Technology and Social Change (TEMAT), at Linköping University.

“This is not the easiest of tasks. Of course, we don’t even know if humans will be around in 100,000 years. And at the same time, we have to think in shorter perspectives, so that we also include people 100 and 500 years into the future”, says Anna Storm, who has overall responsibility for the project. Photo credit Magnus Johansson

She has a background in the history of technology and industry, and has run several projects related to nuclear power. As a PhD student, she regularly visited the Baltic countries, and her postdoc project was about the nuclear power plants in Barsebäck in Sweden and Ignalina in Lithuania.

“I discovered that nuclear power is very exciting to study from humanities and social sciences perspectives, and at that time the area wasn’t so well researched”, says Anna Storm.

Thomas Keating is a cultural geographer who looks at the problems that occur in the relationship between people and technology. He is now focussing on the question of how knowledge of the nuclear waste storage can be preserved. For this project, Thomas and Anna have interviewed several experts in Sweden and abroad, and they have arranged workshops with artists, professionals from the nuclear power industry, and young people.

“It is important to get young people involved and include their perspectives in such a question that is so crucial for the future”, says Thomas Keating. Photo credit Magnus Johansson

Years-long discussion

The Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company (SKB) initiated the task of creating a warning text – a project related to international discussions about plans for final storage of highly-radioactive spent nuclear fuel and how knowledge of it can be preserved. The nuclear power industry has engaged archaeologists, linguists and artists before, in order to shed light on the question of how we can warn coming generations about the waste – what it is, where it is, and why it is dangerous.

“Before, some people thought it would be best if the buried nuclear waste was simply forgotten about”, says Anna Storm. “As far as I know, there is nobody who advocates that today. Today, most people agree that the waste is the result of a choice that our generation has made, and we must take responsibility for making future generations aware of it.”

Another paradox lies in communicating a genuine danger at the same time as avoiding creating panic

Many questions to answer

Anna Storm and Thomas Keating have lots of questions to consider. Are words and symbols the best way of reaching out with a warning? Or is there a risk that symbols lose their meaning? Which kind of material keeps best? And how should they word things in anticipation of potential paradoxes, such as the fact that when someone comes across something unknown, they want to “lift the lid” and take a look.

“A warning can easily give rise to curiosity. However, curiosity may be an important element in keeping the message alive. Another paradox lies in communicating a genuine danger at the same time as avoiding creating panic”, says Anna Storm.

There are also several other risks, such as the fact that the large amount of copper used to contain the waste may, in the distant future, be regarded as a valuable metal resource.

Different kinds of message

Anna Storm and Thomas Keating are considering a wide array of techniques with different kinds of messages to warn people about the danger of nuclear waste. This includes, for example, an archive with written documentation.

“The technical nature and level of detail in this documentation may vary, and it may be stored in various locations. Another strategy involves visual messaging, such as landmarks – that is, various kinds of physical formation that show that a place is special.”

Anna Storm and Thomas Keating have examined some examples from other countries. For example, France has held a competition where artists have been invited to suggest ways of marking the storage area.

“One suggestion was to genetically manipulate a forest in order to make it blue. But then, what kind of message is communicated by a blue forest? Does it provoke warning, curiosity, or something else?” asks Anna Storm.

Deterrence not always effective

Another idea from the USA was to form a landscape that deters people from coming closer – for example, with large, black spikes, or symbols communicating “danger”.

“But history shows that most attempts to dissuade people from entering places have failed,” says Thomas Keating. “One example is the Egyptian pyramids.”

The pyramids were the burial chambers for the Egyptian pharaohs. The Egyptians believed that if their bodies were destroyed, the world would end. Today, the pyramids are a big tourist magnet. And their warning is barely taken seriously.

The third method which Anna Storm and Thomas Keating are working with comprises social practices – that is, traditions, rituals and different types of activity to preserve knowledge of the nuclear waste.

Project deadline

SKB estimates that it will be at least 70 years before it is time to seal the storage facility. However, Anna Storm and Thomas Keating are to submit their proposal for the warning message, or “key information file” as it is called, next year. The document will be around forty pages long, and will be aimed at laypeople without expertise in areas such as nuclear physics.

“The key information file will communicate the most important data, and also indicate that more extensive information can be found in archives”, says Thomas Keating.

 

Nuclear power in Sweden

Nuclear power has been used in Sweden since the 1970s. Today there are six reactors operational across three nuclear power plants. The nuclear power plant at Forsmark has three operational reactors. The nuclear power plant in Oskarshamn closed two of its three reactors in 2017, and the Ringhals plant closed two of its four reactors in 2019 and 2020.

Currently, spent nuclear fuel spends two years cooling down in pools at each power plant. Afterwards, it is shipped to temporary storage in Oskarshamn. But this temporary storage is beginning to fill up, so the question of where the nuclear waste will finally be stored has become more urgent. 

On 27 January 2022, Sweden’s government took the decision to build a new final storage facility for spent nuclear fuel.

 

Footnote: This article was published in LiU magazine #2 2022

 

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About Äspö

SKB’s underground hard rock laboratory at Äspö north of Oskarshamn is where much of the research about the final repository for spent nuclear fuel is taking place. The researchers test different technological solutions in full scale in a realistic setting.

Video: SKB

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