NUCLEAR HERITAGE

 
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A quantitative survey of radiological waste, disaster zones, other contaminated sites, deposition solutions and remediation operations – consolidated as an active index to document our nuclear heritage, for the benefit of informing those who will inherit these long-term hazardous legacies.

 

ABOUT 'NUCLEAR HERITAGE':

 

On September 13th 1987, two men entered a partially demolished hospital in the city of Goiânia in search of items with scrap value. After disassembling an abandoned teletherapy unit, they removed the assembly components for further dismantling work at home, eventually recovering a strange capsule from the equipment's protective rotating head. Fighting back the onset of a sudden illness, one of the men eventually succeeded in puncturing through the capsule cover with a screwdriver, revealing a fascinating deep blue glow emanating from the material within, which was thereafter scooped out for further investigation, before being sold to a local scrapyard. The new owner, perhaps thinking the source to be supernatural or valuable in nature, moved the vessel into his home and, over the next three days, invited his friends and family to witness the strange glowing substance.


The tragic events that followed would become collectively known as the Goiânia accident. The ‘orphaned’ radiological source (in this case, Cesium-127) contaminated a large, uneven swatch of the neighbourhood and residents with an invisible, odorless and tasteless substance, eventually causing the deaths of two close family members and another two scrapyard employees through continuous exposure, in addition to the recurrent exposures of another 249 people in the community to significant doses of radiation that necessitated medical treatment. Moreover, the discovery of this contamination gave rise to a shockwave of fear and anxiety across the local communities, totalling in about 112,000 people requesting medical checks, the demolition of all affected structures, quarantining/ disposal of household artefacts, protests against the burial of radioactive remains in the local cemetery (in lead-lined coffins), and the complete removal of topsoil from several sites, in addition to the psychological trauma and economic costs associated with investigating and cleaning up the area.


The remarkable story of the Goiânia accident draws into sharp relief the obvious dangers associated with inadvertent human intrusions upon radiological waste deposits, and the security and safe management of hazardous substances after they have fulfilled a utilitarian function, in addition to lessons in the worst-case scenarios of ‘radiophobia’ from unfolding events in the absence of any reliable safety standards, risk analysis strategies and knowledge or expert opinion. A brief historical overview of similar radiological contamination events, in addition to the unsettling truths of weapons mishaps, reveal that Goiânia was not an isolated event within our cultural history of interactions with radiological materials. Yet, as with many of these legacies, the events should have been preventable through responsible risk mitigation efforts, and foresight in establishing adequate disposal protocols.


The material imprints of radiological waste are, given the wide proliferation of such substances in medical, academic, power-generation and defensive sectors, readily apparent all around us, as seen in the multitudes of isotopes (e.g. C-14, Sr-90, Cs-127, Am-241)  seen in dendrochronology, coral reefs, ocean substrates, coastal sediments and soil strata on every continent, but also in more tangible, macroscopic legacies. We see these tangible global legacies in decommissioned reactors buried beneath the ground we walk on, hazardous equipment dismantled and stored in nondescript buildings with trefoil symbols, aging reactor compartments from fleets of Soviet submarines now isolated in dockland facilities or scuttled in shallow Arctic waters, expansive exclusion zones turned into ‘radioecological reserves’, past colonial landscapes scarred with craters that betray a past life of weapons testing, and surface storage sites charged with monitoring spent nuclear fuel submerged in cooling ponds, or sealed inside containers populating vast warehouses. Our focus within this ‘Beyond the Horizon’ research programme lies within pioneering record and memory retention schemes as a type of pre-emptive mitigation strategy for what is deemed ‘essential’ stewardship information. We aim to work in international partnership with similar institutes to identify, document and preserve crucial materials about these emergent legacies before creating active records for bequeathal and co-authoring by forthcoming generations. Our vision is to responsibly ensure that the preservation and commensurability of this essential information is maintained for these future generations – to give posterity a factual opportunity to commit informed decisions on behalf of their inherited life-world, regardless of what other cultural documents and materials we simply wish for them to also know about us.


Transcendent wastes are also readily apparent in the broad range of ongoing discussions, plans and theoretical arguments concerning the terminal phase of the nuclear fuel cycle in deep geological deposits pioneered by several nations, in addition to knowledge of nuclear submarine graveyards and historical dumpsites in the world's oceans that are presently deep beyond the reach of modern cleanup operations. Further to these two ‘T’s in nuclear waste heritage, the psychological trauma emanating from direct experiences with these radioactive legacies, is yet another facet arising from the  technical difficulties (but also the routine national secrecy, frequent deceit and ensuing public distrust) surrounding the operation, cleanup and decommissioning of nuclear technologies. For example, the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) provides a metric for the physical impacts of nuclear accidents, but by no means does it address the enduring psychological, social and mental repercussions of radiological landscapes experienced by contemporary populations, much less the advent of distressing behaviour and cultural associations resulting from these events that may be passed down throughout the ages across immediate and successive generations. These psychological landscapes can already be observed today in the Goiânia, Marshall Island and Fukushima populations, in addition to the hibakusha generations, each of whom possess differing cultural and social experiences of the recent Atomic Age across their environmental stages. this of course, does not factor in indigenous populations who later reclaimed their cratered lands.


The uncomfortable reality of nuclear waste is ideally a legacy we would not wish to be known for, however the deep-time lifespan and proliferation of such toxic, ionising radioisotopes and contaminated infrastructure across all terrestrial environments will ensure elements of this inheritance will be remembered by posterity nonetheless – either through unintentional exposure events within these environments, like in the case of Goiânia, or through our responsible attempts to mitigate these risks, and preserve knowledge of these legacies. For instance, the measured half-life of Plutonium-239 – a toxic isotope that does not exist in nature – is approximately 24,110 years, highlighting the apparent deep-time reach of these material legacies. Enriched quantities of this material alone are readily apparent in global environments as a result of weapons testing programmes, in addition to the reprocessing facilities that produced and stored it.

The inconvenient lifespan of many radiological isotopes pose multitudes of physical, economic, political, moral, ethical and technical challenges for contemporary civilisations living out their lives under the perceived benefits and risks of these technologies, but perhaps the clearest implications for the use of these substances is the perennial risk they pose for the silent majority of future generations who do not directly benefit from or ‘have a say’ over their present-day use, but will, nevertheless, inherit these wastes from our deposition behaviours. At present, there are substantial international conversations and articulate designs to responsibly secure and varyingly isolate low, intermediate and high level wastes, in addition to developing risk management strategies and pioneering safeguards that may adequately prevent accidental human exposure to these materials for periods of geological time. The Onkalo spent nuclear fuel depository is intending to store such fissile materials for approximately 100,000 years until radioactivity levels have sufficiently degraded – a timescale in our species ancestry comparable to the record of etched ochres and pigment workshop of Blombos Cave.

Much of these discussions concern the development and materials testing of geological depositories, in addition to producing storage solutions, and signposting of these hazardous radioactive caches using architectural features, abstract linguistic and semiotic markers, and a plethora of other creative proposals to simply forewarn a future discoverer. There is little agreement on the effectiveness of one strategy over another, and even less consensus on whether there are moral or legal obligations to collectively mark such hazardous sites. However, much of this archival and marker work to date has centralised upon the development of preventative barriers for isolating specific depositories or burial sites, rather than conveying the scope of these interrelated legacies as part of a broader, collective material heritage. Understanding the extent of this nuclear heritage for ourselves is perhaps crucial for us – to successfully map these experiences onto semiotic signs for communicating this essential information to posterity, in addition to also simply keeping track of these depositories.

As part of the Beyond the Horizon library and our effort towards retaining the memory of essential information, the Beyond the Earth foundation is compiling the extended catalogue Nuclear Heritage: A quantitative survey of radiological waste, deposition, contamination, remediation and apparent long-term legacies. The catalogue, presently consisting of over 5,000 unique entries, intends to fundamentally address several near-immediate to deep future applications. Firstly, the catalogue is formalised as a third-party directory for identifying the emergent impacts and recognised legacies from present-day technological applications – essentially, to provide an evolving overview of the various threads now comprising our nuclear heritage from several international and trans-industrial services. The directory will also aim to progressively chronicle remediation operations worldwide, while integrating this information into a digital platform for further public education and engagement with these protracted legacies as a secondary goal. Finally, the assembled catalogue will be used as a starting point for addressing the semiosis dilemma of adequately communicating this essential information across intervals of deep time in classic ‘disrupted’ information-exchange archaeological devices (see the Companion Guide to Earth for the foundation’s approach), or as a formal component of living memory-retention customs, while also contributing to best-practice guidelines for conveying information across generations. Simply put, to understand the problem to communicate, we need to initially understand it’s purview.

Notes to the catalogue: The Nuclear Heritage catalogue is compiled to map known geophysical regions with elevated radiation levels from documented anthropogenic sources, with emphasis placed on inheritance from the terminal phase of the nuclear fuel cycle for transuranic materials in storage, distribution, disposal sites (intentional or otherwise) and occurrences of contaminated regions. The listed contents are compiled through peer-reviewed academic investigations, third-party literature and prior international journalist investigations, in addition to occasional freedom of information requests. As such, it does not document active defensive networks, facilities considered to be classified, nor does it track defined ‘orphan’ radioactive sources. Given the obscure history of some of these accounts, there are some instances of conflicting information present throughout the archive. In the case of some security sensitive sources of radiological materials and active sites, the coordinates have been generalised. Locations are defined as physical sites with elevated radioactive levels, but some zones of atmospheric releases and liquid effluence discharges have been detailed due to the significance of environmental fallout. No judgements on defining a tolerance dose, or exposure metrics for human or animal health, have been applied to these logged incidences. The entire catalogue remains an active document, subject to updates, amendments and peer review.

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