Nuclear agencies are searching for the signs, language and solutions that will warn our descendants to stay away
We are in a red metal cage bumping slowly down a mineshaft to our destination, half a kilometre under the ground near the small town of Bure in eastern France. Above us are yellow fields of oilseed rape. Below is the maze of reinforced concrete tunnels that, if it wins final approval from the French government, will from 2025 be the last resting place for the most destructive and indestructible waste in history. This is the €25bn deep geological storage facility for France’s high and medium-level radioactive waste, the residue of more than half a century of nuclear power. When the work here is finally finished, no one must ever take this journey again or, at least, not for 100,000 years.
France is the world’s largest exporter of electricity and the world’s most committed nuclear nation, with 58 reactors producing 75 per cent of the country’s power. As a result, it also produces enough toxic radioactive waste every year to fill 120 double-decker buses (about 13,000 cubic metres worth, or 2kg a year for every French person). The challenge at Bure is not only to build a massive dump for radioactive trash but also to guard it from human intervention for an impossible amount of time — more than 4,000 human generations.
The waste, which will be placed in a quarter of a million sealed containers slotted into horizontal tunnels more than 100m long, is the byproduct of burning uranium in the nuclear reactors and includes some of the most deadly and long-lasting radionuclides in the world. Chlorine-36 has a half-life of 300,000 years and neptunium-237 a half-life of 2 million years. People do not often come into direct contact with such materials, aside from in a nuclear accident, but those that do meet a horrific end. In 1987, thieves in Brazil stole a source of high-level radiation from an old abandoned hospital. It was sold, its lead case broken open. After three days, four people who were handling it began to suffer internal bleeding in their limbs, eyes and digestive tracts, according to doctors. Then their hair fell out. Within weeks, they were dead.
Nevertheless, deep underground storage remains policymakers’ favoured solution. The only site in the US is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in south-east New Mexico, a deep repository for the disposal of weapons-related radioactive waste, which opened in 1999. A site in Finland has already been approved by regulators and in Sweden, Japan, Germany and France geological sites have been identified, although not confirmed. Nuclear waste authorities in Canada and Britain are looking at possible sites. The WIPP facility is temporarily closed, following an accident in 2014, and is scheduled to reopen later this year. The eventual location of a US site for civilian nuclear waste is still under discussion.
All these nuclear agencies have two problems, however, as they try to devise schemes that will win regulatory approval for deep geological repositories. The first is to design a site that can last for ever, even as tectonic plates shift and a new ice age — which scientists expect to occur within 100,000 years — radically erodes the soil above. The nightmare scenario is that the radioactive elements will seep out into the groundwater, gradually, silently poisoning wildlife and humans. In Germany the Asse former salt mine, where 126,000 drums of nuclear waste were buried in the 1970s, is already collapsing, forcing the authorities to dig up the dangerous material to place it elsewhere.
The second issue is that all nuclear agencies have a duty to try to prevent radioactive sites from being disturbed by future civilisations, who may decide to excavate an area in ignorance or even in the misguided hope of finding some kind of treasure buried underground. To this end, they are trying to find a way to communicate with the distant future, in order to warn its inhabitants about what will happen if they become too curious, and also to encourage them to look out for any technical problems at the site. This is not just a moral obligation. In the US, for example, there is a legal obligation to try to keep the “memory” of the site alive so that it can be managed “in perpetuity”.
I suggest to Michelle and Michel that they are a part of the solution to keeping the memory of the site alive. Despite being the target of the campaigners’ anger, several officials within Andra told me about the Maison de la Résistance, almost as if they were pleased to have another marker — another imprint on the culture — that gives a greater chance that the site will not be forgotten. Charton says: “We need everything — long-term markers on the site, sapphire disks, pamphlets distributed around the world. But most of all, we need the community to remember. They are part of the plan.”
But Michelle is not convinced that authorities should be relying on them, or that the local communal memory will survive 100,000 years of global warming, war and disease. “What a load of bollocks,” she says, taking a swig of wine. “They are relying on us! The site will be forgotten about, and it will be dug up again and the whole area will be poisoned . . . It’s the lovely gift our culture is leaving for the future, isn’t it?”
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