A quantitative survey of radiological waste, disaster zones, contaminated sites, deposition solutions and remediation operations – consolidated as an active index to document our radioactive heritage, for the benefit of informing those who will inherit these long-term hazardous legacies.
ABOUT 'RADIOLOGICAL HERITAGE'
On 13th September 1987, two men entered a partially demolished hospital in the city of Goiânia to search for 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. This 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 infamously 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 (essentially, undetectable to human senses), 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 treatments. 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. This was only one year after Chernobyl.
The remarkable story of the Goiânia accident, and several eerily similar incidents documented by the IAEA in Istanbul (1998), Henan (1999), Samut Prakarn (2000), Liya (2002), Kola Harbour (2003) and Mayapuri (2010), 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. If anything, these stories simply highlight how history seemingly repeats itself in cases of careless disposal, and unwitting rediscovery, of hazardous orphaned materials, often resulting in radiological injuries or fatalities. A brief historical overview of other related 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. Rare mishaps will always occur, but risk is significantly increased in the face of short-term negligence.
The material imprints of ‘Tangible’ radiological wastes are, given the wider proliferation of such substances in medical, academic, power-generation and defensive sectors, readily apparent across all facets of our biome – both natural, and built environments. Examples are abound, including the multitudes of isotopes (e.g. C-14, Sr-90, Cs-127, Am-241) now embedded within dendrochronology, coral reefs, ocean substrates, coastal sediments and soil strata on every continent, but also in more tangible, conspicuous 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 branded ‘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.
'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 our radiological heritage, the psychological ‘Trauma’ emanating from direct experiences with these radioactive waste 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 contamination impacts of nuclear accidents, but by no means does it fairly 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 and ‘downwinder’ 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 the indigenous populations who later reclaimed their cratered landscapes, or continue to anxiously await cleanups to return ‘home’.
The uncomfortable reality of anthropogenic radiological 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 likely ensure elements of this inheritance will be remembered by posterity nonetheless – either through unintentional exposure events within these environments, like in the nightmare case of Goiânia, or through our responsible attempts to mitigate these risks, and preserve knowledge of their underlying presence in the landscape across generations. For instance, the measured half-life of Plutonium-239 – a toxic isotope that does not exist in nature – is 24,110 years, highlighting the apparent deep-time reach of these risky material legacies. This fissile material is also a heavy metal poison, burns when exposed to oxygen at room temperature, and tends towards reaching critical mass when dissolved in concentrated solutions and storage volumes – critical excursion accidents which emit lethal amounts of neutrons and gamma rays. Human life, at the speed of this radioactive decay, may seem fleeting. Enriched quantities of this isotope 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, psychological and technical challenges for contemporary civilisations living out their lives under the perceived benefits and risks of these technologies. Certainly there are benefits; besides hazardous waste, nuclear power is a proven ‘clean’, carbon-free energy source. But, perhaps, the clearest implications for the use of these substances is the perennial risk they may 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. These are examples of ‘Good Ancestor’ efforts, as characterised by the philosopher Roman Krznaric. One particularly good example of this deep-time planning, is the Onkalo spent nuclear fuel repository; a deep geological repository on Olkiluoto Island, designed 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 early pigment workshops, found at Blombos Cave in South Africa.
Much of these discussions concern the development and materials testing of geological depositories, in addition to producing storage solutions, and signposting of these purposeful 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 – both purposeful depositing practices, but also the range of unintentional waste heritage too. Understanding the extent of this radiological heritage for ourselves, is perhaps crucial for us, before mapping these experiences onto semiotic signs to communicate this essential information to posterity – in addition to also simply keeping track of these depositories.
As part of the After the Horizon library, and our effort towards retaining the memory of essential information, the Beyond the Earth foundation is compiling the extended catalogue ‘Radiological Heritage: A quantitative survey of radioactive waste, deposition, contamination, remediation and apparent long-term legacies’. The catalogue, presently consisting of over 6,000 unique entries, intends to fundamentally redress 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 radiological 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 the scope of 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 vast purview.
Notes to the catalogue: The Radiological Heritage catalogue is compiled to map known geophysical regions with elevated radiation levels arising 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 contents are compiled through peer-reviewed academic studies, third-party literature, and international journalist investigations, in addition to occasional freedom of information requests. As such, it does not document active defensive networks, and systems considered as 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 exact 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.