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containing uncertainity: design for infinite quarantine
02.24.2010, 2:59 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Deep geologic repositories are difficult spaces to imagine.  They exist below us, hundreds of feet into the earth.  Their spaces are not easily accessed by the public, if at all.  The most challenging thing to imagine about a deep geologic repository is invisible to human eyes: its relationship to geologic time.

Geologic repositories are mandated to secure their contents for monumental lengths of time.  Depending on the nation, this can be between 100,000 and 1 million years.  Humans evolved into modern homo sapiens (Latin: “wise man” or “knowing man”) within the last 200,000 years. This means humans are suddenly faced with having to design a space that, at it’s minimum, will last for a time equal to half our evolutionary history.

In an installation entitled Containing Uncertainty, we (Jamie Kruse and Elizabeth Ellsworth, the co-founders of FOP) take up one geologic repository and the “infinite” quarantine that it is designed to attempt.

Opening on March 9, 2010 at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, our piece is included in an exhibition entitled Landscapes of Quarantine. The exhibition is the culmination of an eight week studio facilitated and curated by Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley.  It features “new works by a multi-disciplinary group of eighteen artists, designers, and architects, each of whom was inspired by one or more of the physical, biological, ethical, architectural, social, political, temporal, and even astronomical dimensions of quarantine.” You can learn more about last autumn’s Landscapes of Quarantine studio here and here.


Artist schemata of the ONKALO deep geologic repository, from Containing Uncertainty, FOP 2010

Like quarantines, geologic repositories try to establish a stark boundary between inside and outside.  And, like quarantines, they contain or “include” troubling uncertainties within their spaces and designs.  Over the past six months, we worked with materials, spaces, durations and uncertainties of deep geologic repositories. Like the more familiar biological quarantine, geologic repositories have a duration inherent in their design (by definition, a quarantine isn’t forever). But, unlike biologic quarantines, the duration of a geologic repository’s quarantine is immense.  We couldn’t help but wonder if  humans will be present to greet the ending of any deep geologic repository’s quarantine.

One rather daunting technical definition of a deep geologic repository reads:  a “repository excavated below 300 m within a stable geologic environment… entail[ing] a combination of waste form, waste package, engineered seals and geology that is designed to provide a high level of long-term isolation and containment without [emphasis added] future maintenance.”

This translates into a very simple purpose:  to quarantine highly lethal materials created by us – from us – for seemingly infinite time. (And that means quarantining substances such as nuclear contagion from things that could spread it to us, such as animals, water, plants and unstable geology.) Interestingly, the definition also implies that the ideal design is one that can be created now and would then require no “future maintenance.”  The builders and the public are intended to be able to walk away, and stay safely far far away, once the doors are finally sealed shut.

Given the dynamic changes that will unfold both above and below the surface of the earth over the 100,000 to 1 million years, it’s hard not to see the deep geologic repository as a “wicked problem”:

A wicked problem is one for which each attempt to create a solution changes the understanding of the problem. Wicked problems cannot be solved in a traditional linear fashion, because the problem definition evolves as new possible solutions are considered and/or implemented.  – CogNexus Institute (The term was originally coined by Horst Rittel.)

Over a million years, engineers could retool deep geologic repositories in response to advances in technology, research, and design – as well as in response to unpredictable geologic forces.  But as sealed spaces, they are inaccessible.  This is what makes it so extremely difficult to approve, build, fund, and gain public consent for geologic repositories. 

Through our research, we discovered that the deep geologic repository is a bit of a fiction, at least in 2010.  Our recent image search for “deep geologic repository” in Google returned numerous plans for repositories around the world, including Germany, Sweden, Japan, United Kingdom, China and of course the United States.  Each image represents an attempt to catalyze massive economic investment, solve incredible feats of engineering, apply decades of research, and earn precarious public consent.

But in reality, not one proposed repository is complete and receiving high-level nuclear waste (waste generated by nuclear power) anywhere in the world.  This means that deep geologic repositories are hardly more than imaginary spaces of infinite quarantine.


WIPP and the cosmos, via WIPP site

There is one deep geologic repository currently open in the United States.  Since 1999, the WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) near Carlsbad, NM has been receiving and storing TRU waste (transuranic, beyond uranium on the periodic table) in an ancient Permian salt bed.  But TRU waste, left over from nuclear weapons and the Cold War,  is not classified as high-level nuclear waste.  Yucca Mountain was the proposed site for final storage of high-level waste in the United States.  But the project was dealt a regulatory change from the EPA (increasing the years of waste security from 10,000 to 1 million years).  It was halted in 2009.  There have also been structural failures of two geologic repositories in Germany (Morsleben and Schacht Asse II). This leaves the world at least a decade away from any repository being ready to receive and store high-level waste. In the meantime, waste generated from nuclear power continues to propagate at the rate of 10,000 tons per year worldwide without solution.


Inside the salt repository of Morsleben, closed in 1998 image: kernenergie

One country is getting closer, every day, to opening the world’s first deep geologic repository for the final storage of  high-level nuclear waste. This specific project and location is the focus of FOP’s installation:  Containing Uncertainty. It is one country’s attempt to quarantine its own nuclear waste for the next 100,000 years. Finland’s deep geologic repository, ONKALO, is being constructed right now under Olkiluoto Island (about 160 miles from Helsinki).


map showing location of ONKALO & Finland during the last Ice Age

ONKALO is managed by Posiva Oy: “Established in 1995, Posiva Oy is an expert organisation responsible for the final disposal of spent nuclear fuel of the owners, research into final disposal and for other expert nuclear waste management tasks.”

Construction of ONKALO’s underground infrastructure was started in 2005. The repository is scheduled to begin receiving waste in 2020. Planners estimate that it will reach capacity one hundred years later, in 2120.  Then, it will be sealed and deemed secure for the next 100,000 years.

ONKALO is the subject of a documentary called Into EternitySeveral online articles offer insight into how Finland continues to develop and refine ONKALO’s design and deal with the project’s ongoing challenges.

What’s been especially interesting for FOP are the speculations about how ONKALO will fare in the next Ice Age which is scheduled to arrive between 6,000 and 20,000 years from now.  The glaciers of the last ice age (during the Pleistocene) fully covered Finland with 2-3km of ice.  Just as interesting is the looming question facing all cultures considering deep geologic repositories:  how might we mark, if at all, a site of quarantine for millennia to come?

nuclear timeline, from IEEE

We’ve also been intrigued by the questions that emerge when the time of infinite quarantine and the space of deep geologic repository are read across one another: By rendering vast swaths of landscape useless, that is, lethal to life, for millions of years to come, are we successfully quarantining what is toxic from us?  Or are we actually quarantining ourselves from our present and future worlds? Do deep geologic repositories quarantine the earth itself? Do they quarantine time itself? When we create these “infinite” quarantines, do we simultaneously protect landscapes (render them as “wilderness”) and destroy them (by turning them into zones of infinite exclusion)?

Questions like these, and the need to imagine, design and build deep geologic repositories, are forcing humans to embark on what could prove to be a new evolutionary path. They take us to the limits of our knowledge, powers, and desires as humans. The challenge of the deep geologic repository requires us to evolve into a species capable of living in relation to deep geologic time, for geologic time.

Might we take this inescapable evolutionary pathway as an opportunity to become wildly imaginative and inventive in the ways in which we design for deep time? How can our design processes and practices bend towards the reality of being the first species to find it necessary (and possible?) to quarantine our own natural habitat from ourselves – and all other living things – for infinite time to come?


ONKALO schemata, from Posiva

As we worked on our Containing Uncertainty project, we were struck by ONKALO’s form. It seemed both mysterious and simple–almost modernist in its aesthetic.  Its infrastructure reaches simultaneously into the deep past of the bedrock of its foundation and into the deep future unknowable from here.

Bedrock, copper and bentonite clay are the primary materials employed to enforce ONKALO’s quarantine. In other words, here, geology -the earth itself – is trusted to contain what we can’t contain through man-made materials or structures. How might we imbue ONKALO’s design with meaning sufficient to meet the depth of the meaning of the materials it contains for us? Our connection to the ancient geologic materials – which are nothing less than materializations of monumental earth forces and cosmic time – are employed for ONKALO’s mission into the future. Within the repository, geologic time and materiality meets the time and materiality of the waste we commend to infinite quarantine.


rings of bentonite clay surround copper canisters in this model, which images final disposal at ONKALO. image: Posiva

Bentonite clay is used to protect ONKALO’s copper-encased canisters from corrosion in two ways. When bentonite comes into contact with water, it swells rapidly and acts as a barrier. It also prevents bacteria from establishing themselves on the copper canisters. Bentonite has been used medicinally for hundreds of years by indigenous cultures. Increasingly, practitioners of alternative medicine employ it as an intestinal detoxifying agent.


two billion year old bedrock deep inside ONKALO. image: Posiva

Gneiss: Old Norse, to give off sparks. Gneiss represents the last stage in the metamorphism of rocks before melting. The gneiss bedrock at ONKALO is approximately two billion years old.


The copper and iron canisters used in final disposal at ONKALO. image: Posiva

At ONKALO nuclear waste is quarantined within cylindrical copper containers. One final repository container at ONKALO has 10 metric tons of pure copper on its outer shell. Copper has been used for centuries as a healing agent to improve circulation of blood, detoxify, and reduce inflammation.


The entrance to ONKALO. image: screenshot from IEEE’s video.

“From the tunnel’s entrance, a low, guttural hum reverberates in the dark. Somewhere in the blackness, a machine is drilling and blasting its way steadily downward.”–Sandra Upson


Each day, Finnish people descend into the earth, through dark tunnels and elevators, to make this place real. image: Posiva

For us, the fact that ONKALO is being built right now is an incredible, if not mystical, gesture in response to an unknowable future.  It’s a gesture not so different from the structures humans have designed for thousands years in their attempts to “reach through time” and respond to what exceeded comprehension.

from William Rees Morrish, Civilizing Terrains

“Used as a symbol marking the point of origin for cities and settlements, the world navel has evolved to become cornerstones for buildings, positioning individuals in proper relationship to the cosmic order of past and future”. –William Morrish

“World navels” are structures built by humans to symbolize the connections they feel between the cosmic unknown and their every day worlds.  Navels connect us to our origins, the acts of creation and birth. And to our fates, the acts of passing and return. As our project progressed, we began to see ONKALO as such a space, a connector between deep past and deep future. Through ONKALO’s infrastructure, humans have attempted to put themselves into relation with what exceeds them.  


from Containing Uncertainty, FOP 2010

Containing Uncertainty takes ONKALO to be a line drawn, literally, to demarcate the human realm from the “beyond” human realm.  This is the demarcation that deep geologic repositories establish within the earth.  ONKALO puts us in contact with spans of time and materials that have and will exceed the very existence of humans as a species, many times over.  It is a site made of, and through, deep time. For us, this puts an element of sacredness into play. Historically, humans may have attempted to design structures and infrastructures capable of lasting millennia and mediating between earth and “beyond.”  But before now, there has never been the need for a site, nor an attempt to create a design, capable of continuous quarantin.  If ONKALO itself is forgotten or disturbed, the consequences to unsuspecting future humans or other life forms could be immense.  At the same time, there is the chance that the design might actually “work.”  The quarantine might successfully hold its contents into the deep future.  Regardless of the possible outcomes, the need for geologic repositories now requires that humans learn how to pull unprecedented, arguably unimaginable, future spans of time into relation to ours.

World Navels Updated, after William Morrish (to include the deep geologic repository) from Containing Uncertainty, FOP 2010

From left to right:

Omphalos: Greek:  navel.  A common, ancient religious stone.  The Omphalos at Delphi, in the Temple of Apollo, marked the exact centre of the Greek universe.

Township mound: Established by Congress in 1796, American township surveys begin with the making of a small mound.  The township grid “rendered the open chaos of the American wilderness into a foundational framework, a democratic [equalized] terrain, for the expansion of a nation” (William Morrish).

Garden Mount: the urban mountain uses the mountain form to provide stature, community order and individual expression within complex and dense terrains.

Milestone: At the centre of Rome, a milestone was erected to mark the presumed centre of the empire.  All roads were considered to begin from this milestone and all distances in the empire were measured relative to it.

World Mountain: Viewed from above, the vertical point of a mountain makes it the center of the world. Seen from below, mountains stand against the horizon like World Axes.  Mountains are both the center and the axis of the world.

Cornerstone: the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation.  All other stones will be set in reference to this stone, thus determining the position of the entire structure. Some cornerstones include time capsules.


ONKALO world navel, FOP 2010

Deep Geologic Repository: The entrance to the repository’s omphalos is at the center of the island.  Its spiral tunnel connects the present day world with deep geological space and time–past and future.  It uses a labyrinthine form to position present day humans in relation to the cosmic order of past and future.

The five biggest threats to ONKALO’s infinite quarantine are intertwined with unpredictable geologic forces: rising waters from the rebound occurring from the Pleistocene ice sheet that covered Finland not so long ago, sinking waste, permafrost, earthquakes and copper eating microbes.

As Timo Aikas, Posivas vice-president in charge of engineering at ONKALO makes clear, the first attempt by humans to design for deep time is full of uncertainties:

“It boils down basically to trust, when you make a decision concerning this kind of thing, which takes us to 2100 when the final sealing takes place, there will always be uncertainty. So you have to have trust.” -Timo Aikas


16 Comments so far
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Actually Russia has been disposing of high level waste from power reactors by direct injection of liquid HLW into deep geologic layers from two of its reprocessing sites for many years. Also, the direct disposal of used fuel with all of its unused uranium and plutonium represents an extremely valuable resource for humanity’s future. This unused fuel will be much less radioactive in 300 years due to decay and will very likely be mined and burned to meet future electric power needs.

Comment by Steve Agnwe

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[...] say.  And as noted in Into Eternity (see fellow Protocol Architecture critic Jamie Kruse’s article) time is even slower below ground than above it.  And yet, different undergrounds have different [...]

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300 years due to decay and will very likely be mined and burned to meet future electric power needs.

Comment by türkh yazılım teknolojileri

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[...] relation to deep time. More can be read about our writings and projects in response to Onkalo here, here and [...]

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thanks very good site

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