Making futures and making connections across sectors
The Heritage Futures project is about bringing together practitioners from different sectors of society and making them reflect about their future-making practices from innovative perspectives and in unconventional ways. One such match-making involves the cultural heritage and nuclear waste sectors.
Arguably, nuclear waste is a very particular kind of cultural waste. It has tangible and intangible dimensions. It has significant values and meanings in society that can mobilize communities. Nuclear waste needs to be conserved and responsibly taken care of for the benefit of future generations. Its stewards aspire to disseminate relevant information to various audiences across time and space. And last but not least, radioactive waste is a potentially very significant body of historical material closely associated with the story of modern energy production, the Cold War, major 20th century political misjudgments, and the emergence of the environmental movement.
The interpretation of nuclear waste as cultural heritage can inspire both sectors involved in innovative ways. The nuclear waste sector has much to gain from realizing the implications of cultural heritage processes inevitably being socially and politically contested and subject to change over time. Rather than trying to neutralize such processes in attempts to transmit information unmodified from the present a hundred thousand years (or even more) into the future, it might be more successful to facilitate a continuous living tradition, over time allowing for a range of different values and meanings to be attached to the storage site.
The cultural heritage sector, in turn, might take inspiration from the pragmatic professionalism with which the nuclear waste sector takes on the challenges of making concrete preparations for a future as far away as one hundred thousand years. Heritage is very often said to be conserved “for the benefit of future generations” but few heritage specialists have given much concern to the question when that future may come and what the exact benefits of heritage in that future may consist of.
One of the most interesting examples in the world for how nuclear waste and cultural heritage may be brought together can be found in an industrial estate in the south-west of the Netherlands. Here, the Centrale Organisatie Voor Radioactief Afval (COVRA) runs the Netherland’s intermediate storage facility for all its nuclear waste. While final storage strategies in a geological repository are still being worked out, COVRA’s task for now is to take care of the nuclear waste for at least one hundred years.
COVRA’s approach is unique in several ways. Whereas the simple and functional design and the greatest possible accessibility for visitors to all parts of the facilities may simply be good professionalism, other aspects are outright visionary. Back in the late 1990s, Hans Codée, the director at the time, figured that good social relations and trust among the local communities requires a cultural approach to communication. He chose the language of the visual arts and commissioned Dutch artist William Verstraeten to help him transform some of the main buildings into works of art.
The facility for high-level nuclear waste known as HABOG has been painted in bright orange by Verstraeten. Every twenty years it will be repainted using a slightly lighter shade of orange in order to draw attention to the process of decay and the approaching 100 years intended lifetime of the facility.
Inside the building, several versions of a landscape photograph by Verstraeten communicate a similar message of change and decay over time.
By the same token, the brand new facility for storing depleted uranium was transformed by Verstraeten into Europe’s largest sundial. Once a year, on 21 June, the shadow of the sun matches exactly the architectural design of the building, and the archaeologist’s associations lead to the astronomical features of megalithic structures like Stonehenge and Newgrange. In both cases, the idea is to mark time.
What is even more interesting is the partnership that Codée established between COVRA and cultural institutions in the area. Whereas the feasibility of exhibiting a radioactive piece of radium that once belonged to Marie Curie and which she carried in her purse for certain measurements at Leiden University, may not astonish anybody too much in a nuclear facility, the presence of a wide range of other cultural objects is more surprising.
A decade ago, Codée had listened to a local museum director lamenting the fact that his collection was running out of storage space. Deriving from a spontaneous willingness to help a very innovative strategic alliance was formed. Now, the gap spaces in the large concrete halls that house thousands of concrete tons of nuclear waste are filled with dedicated storage areas that are used by half a dozen museums in the area. The service is offered free of charge and for one hundred years, longer than any other storage facility Dutch museums have ever contracted.
At COVRA the clear distinction between nuclear waste and cultural heritage has effectively begun to be eroded by storing them in close proximity under the same conditions and for the same time span. What Hans Codée and his team had not realized is that the risks of both categories of objects may ultimately be comparable as well. At all times, since the notion of heritage was first invented about two hundred years ago, it has fueled human conflicts by evoking a range of divisive meanings coupled to social, cultural and ethnic parameters. Cultural heritage and the values it has come to stand for has directly or indirectly led to more human casualties than nuclear waste.
It seems more than appropriate to manage heritage responsibly for the future and consider carefully how heritage values will provide benefits and prevent harm for future societies, whether we think a hundred thousand years ahead or a good deal less.
 see Codée and Verhoef’s conference presentations “Radioactive Waste: Show Time?”, Liverpool 2009, available via http://proceedings.asmedigitalcollection.asme.org/proceeding.aspx?articleid=1646190, and “What’s the story? Using art, stories and cultural heritage to preserve knowledge and memory”, Verdun 2014, available via https://www.oecd-nea.org/rwm/rkm/constructingmemory/
A big Thank you to Hans Codée and Ewoud Verhoef of COVRA for taking the time to guide Sarah May and me around the site on 1 November 2017.