“Can we contain some of the deadliest, most long-lasting substances ever produced?” is the interrogatory premise of Peter Galison and Robb Moss’s 2015 film on the present and deep future challenges of nuclear waste management. The film is anchored in the problem of communicating the hazards of nuclear waste to future generations, millennia away. This theme was treated by Danish director Michael Madsen in his 2010 film Into Eternity on the Finnish deep geologic repository and its technocratic risk assessments for the next 100,000 years. Galison and Moss, however, mobilize their scholarly interests to interweave imaginary futures with the present-day material legacies and realities of nuclear waste management. Galison, a physicist and historian of science, is perhaps best known for his study of the material cultures of elementary particle physics and the history of objectivity coauthored with Lorraine Daston. His scholarly work extends to government secrecy and US nuclear weapons, and he previously collaborated with Moss on a documentary on government secrecy and democracy. Moss is a filmmaker and chair of the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies (and Galison’s colleague) at Harvard who works on the effects of time. The filmmakers are well equipped to engage the questions of time, futures, democracy, knowledge, and governance posed by the problem of nuclear waste management. A key inspiration for the filmmakers were the congressionally mandated intrusion scenarios and marker systems commissioned by the Department of Energy and devised by interdisciplinary experts in the late 1980s for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) outside of Carlsbad, New Mexico. These reports, by oddly combining the formal qualities of a bureaucratic government study with outlandish stories about future societies imagined by science fiction writers, “futurists,” archaeologists, linguists, and anthropologists, and a handful of more science-oriented experts (geologists, engineers, astronomers, etc.) are a favorite example for critical nuclear scholars of how bizarre the US government’s nuclear project has become. How to warn future inhabitants of the planet of this toxic mess is an intriguing question, and the filmmakers sought to visualize deep futures by literally animating these weird and funny stories. Whether these animations are successful is likely a matter of taste. The film combines graphic novel and three-dimensional computer animation with interviews, disaster footage, and scenes at and around three “critical contemporary radioactive sites where containment has become the central issue,” according to the press kit. These sites are the WIPP, the transuranic nuclear waste repository in New Mexico, the Savannah River Site that manages waste from the US nuclear weapons complex, and the Fukushima prefecture in Japan. The directors were in the middle of producing this film when the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, resulting in the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster, which led them to include Fukushima as a site in the film. While there are common themes that connect the US and Japanese sites, the selection nevertheless feels unsystematic and is not explained. The planetary dimensions of the nuclear waste problem, posed by nine nuclear-armed states and 449 nuclear power plants, lurk in the shadows. The focus on containment also reveals a misunderstanding about nuclear waste management’s central objective. Nuclear waste managers do not pretend to achieve perfect containment but rather aim for an “acceptable level” of potential harm from radioactive waste for humans and the environment. The intractable sociotechnical dimensions of this problem are well known to nuclear waste managers. Containment is an imperfect metaphor for a problem that always exceeds its limits, and the film does best when it instead ponders the intergenerational limits of governance, democracy, and justice. The film opens with scenes from deserted Fukushima streets overgrown with weeds and then moves to introduce WIPP with shots from the Chihuahuan desert: a Los Alamos employee in cowboy boots walks around dusty shrubbery explaining the geologic characteristics of the site; beeping hydraulic transporters load large casks with “radioactive” signs on them; WIPP workers scan the casks for leaks with handheld radiation detection devices; workers in hard hats stack drums of waste in the site’s cavernous tunnels excavated from the salt bed. Carlsbad’s former mayor and WIPP’s biggest cheerleader says the community welcomed the repository with open arms. The problem of consent for nuclear waste sites is effectively communicated through juxtaposition. A Carlsbad WIPP project update meeting with speakers boasting about successful cooperation between local agencies and the Department of Energy is contrasted against WIPP hearings in Albuquerque, where community activists condemn the project in progressively harsher terms. Former Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Alison MacFarlane (the only woman featured as a talking head expert; the two other women in the film remain nameless) points out the democratic deficit of the US nuclear complex that has left the population with the legacies of a project to which they did not consent. The present images and future imaginaries of WIPP are extended by visits to the Savannah River Site in Georgia, formerly a site where nuclear material was refined for weapons use and now itself is primarily dedicated to nuclear remediation. At this location, viewers meet an unnamed worker for the site’s Ecology Lab fishing a radioactive turtle out of a murky pond. He explains the importance of the lab’s attempt to catch, contain, and study contaminated fauna: “In this part of the country, people do eat turtles, and so you don’t want radioactive turtles wandering around off the site that people could pick up and eat. That would not be good.” During a boat tour of the bucolic (but contaminated) Savannah River, a local pastor and an unnamed woman explain the local misrecognition of “No fishing” signs at the borders of the Savannah River Site as related to private property and not to health risks. The effort to contain appears futile, and nature passively and quietly harbors radioactive secrets. From the United States, the directors move to Japan and to disaster footage of the earthquake as filmed from inside Tokyo high-rises, and of the tsunami viewed from above, inundating structures and dragging cars like leaves across the landscape. These scenes are followed by crooked handheld footage of reactor workers in full protective gear scrambling around inside (presumably) the Fukushima power plant. In contrast to the disaster footage, viewers follow unnamed displaced Fukushima residents as they wander deserted streets and visit their ancestral homes, left to rot without regular inhabitants. These characters discuss the social and psychological consequences of living with contamination, and demonstrate defiance against government orders; a farmer refuses to euthanize his contaminated cows, an old man was allowed to evacuate even though he had been measured and found to be contaminated (“What were they going to do? Leave me there alone?”). Toward the end of the film, the former Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, addresses the hard limits of governance, narrowly averted: if the plant’s spent fuel had caught fire, “the effects would have been beyond imagination.” Fifty million refugees and decades of upheaval would have meant “the end of the State of Japan.” The film moves across the sites, interspersed with talking heads and animations of intrusion scenarios and marker systems, explaining, commenting on, and pondering the nuclear waste problem from the perspectives of government employees, consultants, think tankers, and activists. While the film deals with the historical legacies of nuclear waste in the United States, it depicts the present and muses about the future more than it depicts the past. The film is organized around time and about the conundrum of being in the present needing to make decisions about unknown futures while simultaneously aware of how past decisions constrain the present ability to act. Containment is a provocative, if disjointedly multidirectional, meditation on the limits of technocratic control and the fascinating hubris of future thinking. Its strongest moment emerges in a discussion by Fumihiko Imamura, a civil engineer and director of the International Research Institute of Disaster Science at Tohoku University, about tsunami warning markers that dot the landscape in certain parts of Japan warning future generations not to build below a certain point. Imamura notes that our presentist bias renders these warning markers futile: “We dismiss them as archaic and don’t realize that the message is for us.” Containment allows us to ponder not only the presentism of the nuclear weapons and power complex, but also the presentism of this and every generation’s failure to address the intractable problem that long-lasting toxic substances in our environment present for the future of the planet. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 1, 2018
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