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“If one leaves the material as it is, presenting it just as material, then it starts to tell us something and speaks with a mighty voice.” - Gutai Manifesto, 1956
Over the past several weeks, we’ve followed a flurry of dispatches in the news, blogosphere, and from friends that, for us, signal urgent design challenges. Speaking with the mighty voice heard by the writers of the Gutai Manifesto, the materials involved in nuclear power generation are posing an unanswered question: How might humans co-exist with the nuclear’s most potent and “vibrant” materiality capable of dramatically re-shaping our daily lives, landscapes, and livelihoods?
We at FOP have been attempting to invent ways to address nuclear material “as it is,” “just as material,” to see what it might tell us. What might the mighty voice of nuclear material say to artists and designers about the necessity of building life-friendly ways to live and work alongside its potency?
The recent litany of reports concerning “the nuclear” cuts across and links far flung geographic locations and disparate public policies, notions of citizenship, infrastructural designs, historical memories, and cultural sensibilities. Here in the United States, news includes last month’s resignation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) chairman, Gregory Jaczko, which resulted, in part, from his ill-received post-Fukushima push for stricter regulations for U.S. reactors. His likely replacement is Allison MacFarlane, a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future whom we first referenced in March, 2011. This past week also brought stories about Kristin Iverson’s new book on the widespread radioactive contamination at Rocky Flats in Colorado that resulted from a largely undocumented fire in 1957. She also reports that, for more than four decades, Rocky Flats has been unable to account for some three tons of plutonium. And, notable for us here at FOP, on the heels of completing our Repository project came news that a federal appeals court rejected the NRC’s conclusion that nuclear power plants across the country could store spent fuel on-site indefinitely.
Across the Pacific, challenges for designers of infrastructures for “the nuclear” are even more daunting. In early May, after several months of transitioning nuclear reactors in the country to offline status, all of Japan’s reactors were offline for the first time since 1970. Now, two reactors at the Ohi power station near Osaka have been approved to go back online by mid-July. This decision was arrived at through coordinated efforts of industry executives and selected public officials, primarily spearheaded on a national governmental level—in stark opposition to public opinion. The day before Japanese Prime Minister Noda gave the order to restart the reactors, he received a petition that called for the abolition of nuclear power. It was signed by more than 7.5 million people, and delivered by Kenzaburo Ōe, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994. Oe’s Hiroshima Notes features interviews with hibakusha (survivors of the bombing). It appears that Fukushima is becoming more and more closely linked in the Japanese psyche with Hirsoshima and Nagasaki. For many in Japan, the status quo of the nuclear industry is no longer acceptable. This week, Japanese friends shared videos with us of heated confrontations between officials and Japanese people who attempted to block the incineration of radioactive tsunami debris in country’s southern prefectures. The bass beat to these reports, in Japan and the United States, is the ongoing instability at the Fukushima Dai-ichi, where the status of spent fuel pools and reactor vessels is riddled with uncertainty, especially at #4 reactor.
low-level radioactive waste, Nevada Test Site, image wikicommons
Collectively, these tales underscore a seemingly irresolvable design question: how might humans contain materials whose potency outscales the human? For Timothy Morton, such materials constitute what he has termed “hyperobjects,” which he describes as:
“… real objects that are massively distributed in time and space. Hyperobjects are so vast, so long-lasting, that they defy human time and spatial scales … take Plutonium 239, for example. No self-interest theory yet devised can cope with building the right storage to house deadly radioactive materials for the 24,100 years they take to decay. Instead, we shall need to design without a view to look after Number 1, or Number 2, or even Number 1 million, because no one meaningfully related to me, not even by the craziest distance imaginable, will be alive 24,100 years from now. Yet everyone alive then will be affected by decisions we make regarding Plutonium 239.”
- “Zero Landscapes in the Time of Hyperobjects,” Graz Architecture Magazine 7 (2011)
What we design and live in relation to when we speak of “the nuclear,” is vibrant matter—in this case, a particularly active, potent, and long-lived version of material force that needs to be contained, for millennia to come, by built environments that are incredibly complex and expensive.
Cold War era designs for containing spent or discarded nuclear materials have failed. The growing amounts and intense potencies of nuclear waste from power plants and dismantled weapons now create design situations and specifications unimagined during the Cold War. Contemporary realities of “the nuclear” are radically different from those of the era that coined terms such as “nuclear waste” and policies such as “temporary on-site storage.” When we continue to use relatively innocuous language such as “waste” or “burial” to describe and design for the forceful materials and hyperobjects generated by “the nuclear,” we run the risk of working with antiquated terms and assumptions that predetermine how conversations or design “solutions” might develop from here.
We need new ways of thinking and talking about contemporary situations of “the nuclear” now being signaled, almost daily, in the news. Our Repository project is an experiment in inventing ways to perceive and communicate the reality that nuclear materials are vibrant, and are in constant motion. Repository attempts to give aesthetic expression to the idea that design for nuclear “waste” is design for and with the fluid dynamics of the world we inhabit: ever-shifting forces of hydrology, wind, aquifer levels, erosion, human inhabitation, tectonic movement, and climate change. It is a call to design and discuss in response to what nuclear materials have been telling us about themselves since 1945, namely, that they are events. For the rest of the human species’ time on earth, nuclear materials will engage in potent acts of free-ranging, errantry, outscaling, and cooling. And for the rest of the human species’ time on earth, designers will be following their lead, generating interminable next iterations of shuffling, landfilling, protoscaping, and cycling,
inside the core of Idaho National Laboratory’s Advanced Test Reactor (ATR), image wikicommons
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We are excited to announce the launch of Repository: A Typological Guide to America’s Ephemeral Nuclear Infrastructure, June 28th, 2012, 8 p.m. at Proteus Gowanus as part of the gallery’s programming related to Future Migrations. In the same breath, we’d like to share the news that we are grateful recipients of a 2012 Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts grant, which will support the next phase of this project.
Virtually all of our nation’s nuclear waste has nowhere to go. And yet, it’s always going somewhere, either under its own power or in a vibrant assemblage with other things such as water, air, soil, bacteria or human commerce. Repository graphically depicts this material reality through a deck of 42 cards designed to help you spot and identify today’s temporary solutions for the storage of radioactive waste, as you pass by them on the highway, or as they pass by you.
In late 2012, the Graham Foundation grant will support our field-based research at several of the sites included in the deck. We will generate photo/video based documentation of the sites and processes we encounter, and invent aesthetic interpretations of this complex topic capable of communicating about them in new ways and to broader audiences.
At Proteus Gowanus, we will launch Repository with a presentation of the cards and stories from the project. The deck chronicles “temporary” infrastructures designed (or simply used) to contain nuclear waste until more enduring facilities can be researched and constructed. Some of the cards feature structures that take notably unique approaches to storage. Others exemplify common infrastructural forms or approaches that run through multiple facilities, or function as mobile infrastructures for transporting radioactive waste between sites. As with other FOP projects, we invite audiences to expand their capacities to imagine the monumental time spans required to contain and monitor nuclear materials, and to consider the extraordinary challenges that they present to designers, architects and engineers.
Repository views nuclear infrastructures, storage canisters, and cooling pools as ongoing events. This is because no permanent storage options for our nation’s high-level waste are expected to be available for the next 100-300 years. And, in 2004, the EPA determined that high-level radioactive wastes will remain dangerous to humans for 1 million years. They stipulated that any repository for high level waste will have to meet the unprecedentedly long-term safety goal of 1000 millennia. As of 2011, about 66,000 metric tons of spent fuel were being held, in structures intended to be temporary, at power reactor sites in 33 states. Each year, this amount increases by another 2,000 metric tons. So, we (and generations of people after us) are going to be designing and living in relation to these materials for unimaginably long spans of time to come.
With Repository, we are less interested in questions of what human activities generate nuclear materials, or why. Instead, we focus on the potent material realities of nuclear waste and the unprecedented design challenges that they pose today and into the far future.
We’d like to imagine that Repository offers audiences a few “footholds” within the “mobile and shifting nature” of the phenomenon of nuclear waste. In the sense described by Sanford Kwitner in Architectures of Time, we see the cards as a navigational aid for negotiating life within America’s nuclear infrastructure, as we go about:
“. . . engaging systems at certain specific and local points along their lines of deployment or unfolding. It is as if today one were forced into a new type of intellectual or cultural warfare, forced to accept the mobile and shifting nature of the phenomena that make up our social and political world, and by this same token forced to discover within this slippery glacis of largely indistinct swells and flows, all the lodges, footholds, friction points—in short, all the subtle asperities that would permit us to navigate, and negotiate life, within it.”
Stay tuned for more info about the field research this fall. And we hope to see you at Proteus Gowanus for the launch, where you will be able to pick up a pack of cards, and begin spotting some of the local points and lines of deployment that make up America’s ephemeral nuclear infrastructure.
Repository card sets can be pre-ordered via our website as of today (June 2, 2012), shipping on June 29th.
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“We know when we build a bridge it will not last.” – representative from the Icelandic Road Administration, May 5, 2012
We’ve just returned from Iceland, where we took part in the Landscape Journeys project sponsored by the Oslo School of Architecture’s Institute of Urbanism and Landscape and the Norwegian Research Council. The project’s mandate was to take up travel as methodological form and acknowledging the importance of developing research projects in response to landscapes—while actually moving through them. Fellow journeyers included Janike Larsen, Mason White, Luis Callejas, Peter Hemmersam, Alessandra Ponte, and Giambattista Zaccariotto. Our international contingent had an array of interests, including glaciers, geothermal energy, landscapes and the literary imagination, and “extreme” landscapes. FOP’s particular focus was on what we have come to call “streaming” landscapes of Iceland, and how the Icelandic landscape can be seen as a concatenation of events occurring along various speeds, intensities, and temporal trajectories.
image courtesy the Icelandic Road Administration
Before leaving Reykjavík, we had the opportunity to meet with a representative from the Icelandic Road Administration. He shared information with our group about the effects of glacial floods on the highway system in southern Iceland, with a focus on Iceland’s highway 1, also known as the ring road. This 832-mile stretch of two lane roads and one lane bridges opened in 1974. It is the life-line for inhabitants outside of the capital. He shared with us the map shown above, illustrating particular stretches of roadway in Iceland that are at risk of being washed away when volcanic eruptions occur and set the jökulhlaups, or glacial outburst floods, into motion. At one point in our conversation he stated that “there’s nothing you can do” in the face of some eruptions, and that “we wouldn’t design [the bridges] without considering all that can happen in nature.” For us, his words were a powerful demonstration of the design limits that must be accepted routinely and worked with in Iceland.
We learned that glacial outburst floods can arrive within hours, days, or even months after an eruption. After a series of strong earthquakes in 2000, bridge designs were upgraded to meet the force of 8.0 earthquakes. “Weak points” are designed into Icelandic roads that allow them to be washed away in small sections. This relieves the pressure on the remaining road and and bridges, often saving the bridges from being torn away by the massive floods. And, our representative told us, the Road Administration keeps a cache of 100-300 meters of “stock” bridge material on hand at all times, just in case.
After a day and a half in Reykjavík, we began our journey.
In many ways, it’s still the Pleistocene, or perhaps it’s more like the Cambrian, in Iceland. At 66° north, Iceland is in a northern latitude where the land should be covered with ice. But this island is in a state of constant thaw. One-third of Iceland’s 40,000 square miles is volcanically active. Massive glaciers, including one that is surpassed in size only by the polar icecaps, loom in the mountains, and daily life along the southern edge of the country is directly shaped by glacial materials washing, flooding, eroding, and falling from the sides of volcanos.
Icelandic outwash, FOP 2012
We were prepared to experience Icelandic roadways that are designed to be “responsive” to their surrounding forces. But we were surprised by the turbulence of the landscapes we encountered. Day after day we passed infrastructural and geological detritus from a jumble of previous glacial/volcanic events still playing out. At farm after farm, we saw workers driving large front-loaders, dredging outwash that sometimes stretched to the horizon. We quickly realized that volcanoes and glaciers directly inflect life here, even when no active, large-scale “event” is currently underway. From the viewpoint of road infrastructure, the last landscape event is still happening and the next is always approaching (on average, an eruption occurs in Iceland every 5 years).
About an hour outside of Reykjavík we stopped at Markarfljot. In July, 2010, a massive flood of glacier waters occurred here, melted by the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. As thousands of Europeans found themselves immobilized by air traffic disruptions, some people in Iceland were dealing with the extraordinary outpouring of thick ash and water discharged by the volcano. According to the Roads Administration representative, as the Eyjafjallajökull eruption began, the Administration estimated it would take 90 minutes for the flood to reach the ring road in the Markarfljot area. A brave, local roads worker had been willing, and able, to activate his machinery and break a hole through the highway. This channelled the water towards the sea and away from cultivated fields, and took pressure off the bridge.. The bridge was spared, and despite the raging waters, only a small section of roadway had to be replaced.
The last two days we were in Iceland, we were based out of Vík í Mýrdal. Vík is very special place, the southernmost village in Iceland with beautiful black basalt beaches. Vik is also notable for its proximity to Katla. Katla is the volcano that the president of Iceland has warned could “unleashed devastating consequences world-wide.” In Vík and the farm communities nearby, people practice periodic evacuation drills. By some forecasts, when Katla erupts again, Vík might no longer exist.
While we were in Vík, no eruptions appeared imminent, but it was hard to deny the visceral sense of instability that accompanied our stay there. Looming near, Katla’s material presence ensures that one doesn’t easily forget its proximity—nor the reality that it is capable of massively rearranging Vík’s landscape at a scale we can barely imagine.
In 2004, a group of researchers spent time in Vík and in the nearby farming community of Álftaver. Citizens of these two communities were interviewed to determine their perception of risk and their preparedness for future eruptions. The findings were published in the journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences in 2010. Residents’ responses and senses of safety varied greatly, but several farmers commented that more is at risk today than during the last major eruption (1918) because of their dependence upon critical modern infrastructures such as electricity, utilities, and transportation:
“Our life is based on our land and I sometimes wonder what I will do if an eruption takes place and everything is taken away from me! Will it all be over?” Another farmer said, “what if the roads are blocked, no electricity, no phone connections, petrol and so on.”
The sense of precariousness that we experienced in Vík echoed those we had felt previously in Tokyo, where, according to some scientists, there is a 70% risk of a major earthquake before 2016. Both locations, and many others around the world, are in the midst of realizing the contemporary consequences of the ancient fact that when geologic streams collide with infrastructures, sometimes the human and the built will be massively out-scaled. A passage from Yasunari Kawabata’s 1954 novel, Sound of the Mountain, suggests that the medium for such realizations can be the streaming landscape itself:
“It was a windless night. The moon was near full … Shingo wondered if he might have heard the sound of the sea. But no—it was the mountain. It was like the wind, far away, but with a depth like a rumbling of the earth … The sound stopped, and he was suddenly afraid. A chill passed over him, as if he had been notified that death was approaching. He wanted to question himself, calmly and deliberately, to ask whether it had been the sound of the wind, the sound of the sea, or a sound in his ears. But he had heard no such sound, he was sure. He had heard the mountain.”
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On May 3-4, we’ll be at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO) for a conference called Landscapes of Energy. We’re honored to be a part of this gathering. We’ll be sharing some evolving ideas and work in our presentation entitled “Streaming Landscapes.”
Contemporary life is a dynamic and teeming space of exchanges that involve the geologic—a constant negotiation of movement and materiality among humans, geologic forces and materials, and past and potential futures. Most recently, we’ve been making work that offers the following provocation: “What if anticipating geologic scales of force, change, and effect became a common design specification for energy production and distribution projects, policy-making, and infrastructure design?”
As our recent time in Japan has made clear to us—landscapes ARE energy–they are movement, they are composed not of inert things or objects, but of dynamic events. Doreen Massey’s work has inspired us to consider landscape to be a simultaneity of trajectories and unfinished stories. Not, as Massey points out, a simultaneity of a closed system, but a simultaneity of movement. A landscape is a product of connections being made and unmade. Its changes of state unfold continuously at wildly diverse speeds and scales, thanks to the flows of energy that compose it and that it becomes.
The planet is “streaming” as it always has. But it seems that humans are living this fact in new ways, as volcanic ash clouds thwart international travel, nuclear power plants disperse cesium around the globe, and debris slides erase portions of cities in minutes. How might we meet and engage the energy released by landscapes are in motion?
map of volcanic ash spreading across Europe from the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano in Iceland, from Skynews.com, 2010
As a condition of contemporary life, the planet’s continuous state of flux seems to be taking on new meaning and consequence for human beings. Humans have intensified their reliance upon their ability to harness landscape streams and derive ever-increasing scales of energy from them. At some moments, our infrastructural projects and capacities—our abilities to divert, capture, and reconfigure landscape streams—seem to rival geologic forces in scale. But they don’t, really. And as our efforts become more intense, dense, and complex, more and more is at risk.
For our presentation in Oslo, we’ll be sharing some of our previous landscape-based research trips and projects, such as the Limit Case Postcards and Below the Line. We’ll also apply these projects to future interests, including our ongoing engagement with the cascade of consequences resulting from the Fukushima-Daiichi meltdowns. This ongoing event is a powerful reminder of how essential it is to address infrastructure as the arrangement of forces and things in relation to each other. And also in relation to the reality that there are a multitude of earth forces capable of rising up and challenging our best design and engineering capacities, which can mean the difference between mere accident and international catastrophe.
How might we design and respond to the contemporary conditions of life differently by taking ‘streaming landscape” as our point of departure?
After the conference, we’ll join the Landscape Journeys research project–an initiative of AHO’s Institute of Urbanism and Landscape and supported by The Norwegian Research Council. The research expedition will include traveling the ring road of Iceland and visiting present and future sites for hydro-electrical and geothermal energy.
The landscape of Iceland streams at a speed much greater than the landscapes that most of us live within. What takes millenia to form or come apart in other places happens much faster there. In Iceland, the meetings up of geologic force and human activity—two vastly different scales of events—are intensified, literalized, and encompassing. This is perhaps most exquisitely illustrated by the Jökulhlaup, a glacial outburst flood.
Some of Iceland’s infrastructure supports our efforts to think in terms of “streaming landscapes.” We hope to learn more about how Icelandic people acknowledge the streaming-ness of their landscapes through the ways they design and live with their infrastructures. We’re especially drawn to Icelandic examples of flexible, responsive infrastructure design. From here, it appears that geologic realities of Iceland could offer vital instruction about how we might imagine and design infrastructures capable of streaming in response to the earth forces that confront and challenge them. Some Icelandic highways and bridges are designed to bend, break, and hold only so long before giving way to the mega floods that result when volcanic explosions melt huge areas of glaciers in an instant. They could assist us in learning new ways to build and live responsively within the planet’s streaming landscapes.
*Special thanks to Janike Kampevold-Larsen for her support and interest in our work.
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the Shirakawa (White River) in Kyoto, Japan, FOP 2012
There is a Chinese character rarely used today in modern Japanese: 隨. It has largely been replaced by a slightly simplified character composed of 12 strokes instead of 16. Both of these kanji are pronounced “zui.” Both can be found in words such as “zuihitsu,” which is described as a miscellaneous essay, literary jotting, or musing–a form this blog post is likely to take. While the modern, simplified version has acquired additional meanings over the years, it retains its old definition, which is the sole meaning of the out-of-date kanji: “at the mercy of (the waves).”
We’re about 20 days into our time in Japan, and despite having a very limited understanding the Japanese language, we sense that an appropriation of “zui’s” historical meaning offers us a way to begin to creatively respond, and make sense of our experiences here to-date.
Over the past three weeks we have sensed some of the literal and metaphorical waves that are shaping life in Japan, many of which were set in motion by events last March. These waves are affecting each other and in turn sending waves of change around the world. Human desire and technical capacity can direct and channel some of these waves, but not others.
Our Amulets for Infrastructure project is underway. But because of our time here, we are realizing more fully that infrastructure might best be understood as human attempts to concentrate, hold, channel and redirect powerful earth forces–as we try to negotiate the physical world. Some of our best attempts are more successful than others. The tsunami waves of last March breached critical infrastructure designs here in Japan, resulting in incalculable waves of feelings, waves of connection and disconnection among people, waves of political change—and the unleashing of invisible radioactive waves out from Fukushima Daiichi. Even if one can not see or feel these various waves, we sense that on the streets and in the homes of people living and working in Japan, a profound and quiet adaptation is taking place to how these waves are materially re-shaping daily life.
sign posted on the door to Cafe Kailash in Kyoto, graphic by nijino-tane
Last week we read March was Made of Yarn, a compilation of essays and poems that respond to the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. In the introduction, the editors encouraged readers to sense how experiences in Japan might lend insights to broad audiences:
“The idea for this project took gradual shape as we traveled among Tokyo, Tohoku, London and New York, watching from near and far as March 11 and its aftermath unfolded. A thought became a shared idea that was developed further as we shoveled debris into the back of trucks in Tohoku, as riots racked London, as storms struck the East Coast of the United States, as a heat wave hit Tokyo, as floods raged through Bangkok, even as the cleanup in northeastern Japan proceeded but radiation continued to leak. It has been that kind of year.”
Indeed, with The New York Times report this week that radioactive beef is quite possibly being sold and eaten by Americans (the result of cattle grazing on lands surrounding abandoned uranium mines in Arizona), the radioactive contamination currently affecting food supplies in Japan is hardly unique to this country. Fukushima is far from being the only source of radioactive contamination in food. We’ve all been at the mercy of such waves since some time around 1945.
Describing the rewritten, 2011 version of her 1993 essay (entitled God Bless You) that appears in March Was Made of Yarn, Hiromi Kawakamisays:
“But let me return to the story of the god of uranium. Uranium-235 had been resting there in the ground, quietly dwindling away for billions of years. Had no human touched it, it would have gone on peacefully emitting its piddling quantities of radiation without any problems … Human beings, however, had another idea. They gathered bits of U-235 from wherever they lay, concentrated them, and then whipped them into action. ‘Split your atoms,’ they cried. ‘Give us light, give us heat, give us power. Work! Work!’ For nuclear bombs, they demanded that the power be released in great explosions; for nuclear power, in dribs and drabs … If the god of uranium really exists, then what must he be thinking? Were this a fairy tale of old, what would happen when humans break the laws of nature and turn gods into minions?’ … my purpose was to express my amazement at how our daily lives can go on uneventfully day after day and then suddenly be so dramatically changed by external events…”
After the March 11 disaster, the Japanese government raised the limits for acceptable amounts of cesium in the food supply. Recently, we saw a story on the NHK evening news (the national broadcaster of Japan). It explained that as of April 1st, these limits have been lowered significantly.
It’s cherry blossom season in Japan and there is a strong cultural tradition to celebrate both the appearance and disappearance of these tiny flowers. This sensibility, of acknowledging and contemplating perishability, runs deep in Japanese culture. We’ve been watching blossoms arrive slowly along a small river in Kyoto, the Shirakawa. The continuous streaming of water beneath the ephemeral blooms gives sensations, both celebratory and slightly melancholic, of the relentless change that permeates daily life here.
As expected, our Amulets for Infrastructure project is changing purpose and meaning as we adapt it in ways we think might make better use of it in Japan. Our neighbors here in Kyoto have helped us to gain an expanded understanding of “infrastructure.” Some of the most important forms of civic and urban “infrastructure” are human-to-human networks of communication and daily gestures of social connection. Just down the street from where we are living, a community group is working to save one of Kyoto’s traditional forms of architecture, a machiya townhouse, from demolition. They have staged a pop-up tea house and cherry blossom viewing station in a vacant lot next to the machiya—an ephemeral aperture for cherry blossom viewing and tea drinking that also informs about the group’s efforts. Such human connections are among the most vital, urgent, and reliable of “infrastructures.” The fact that this group is forging human networks on behalf of an infrastructural remnant–the machiya– makes it especially relevant to the amulets for infrastructure project.
Yesterday we passed off our first amulet for infrastructure at Cafe Kailash. It’s one of the few cafes we have encountered that openly reports that it has tested its food for radiation. We offered an amulet to the owners of the cafe to acknowledge their effort, and the importance of human and technical infrastructures that support the world’s food supplies. They then told us that mothers from northern regions of Japan have brought their children to eat at this restaurant because they could trust that the food here was safer than in their home cities.
This week, we also shared the Amulets for Infrastructure project with a group of students in fashion design at the Kyoto University of Art and Design. The students will be making their own amulets for infrastructure and we look forward to documenting and sharing the results of this collaboration in the coming weeks.
We encountered this stanza from J.D. McClatchy’s poem, entitled One Year Later, while reading March was Made of Yarn. It gave us one more reason to embrace the antiquated Chinese character 隨, (zui: at the mercy of the waves) and take it as inspiration:
Ministers, tell me
Why did you think that power
Would stay where it was?
Aging cores collapse
Under waves of a future
No one can live in.
The reactors stand there still.
What is left to warm or kill?
first round of Amulets for Infrastructure, image FOP 2012
Next week we head to Kyoto, Japan to kick off Amulets for Infrastructure. Over the last couple of weeks we fashioned our first series of paper amulets for the project (described further here).
For us, the Amulets for Infrastructure project is less about the idea of “luck” sometimes associated with the concept of amulets or talismans, and more a reminder of ancient knowledges that tell of the power of nonhuman forces to shape and sometimes unseat human plans, including human-built structures and infrastructures. With Amulets for infrastructure, we hope to help extend awareness that future infrastructures and built environments need to be designed and used with geologic earth forces in mind. This awareness is something that a number of people have said was “forgotten” in the design and building of infrastructures directly affected by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last year. Nuclear power plants located at the edge of the ocean and enormous sea walls designed to deflect tsunamis gave false senses of security, and ultimately failed.
This project addresses the reality that complex and networked infrastructures of daily life put humans in relation to forces much larger than ourselves in fundamentally new ways. Through Amulets for Infrastructure we ask, “Together, how will we meet this new reality?”
Soon we’ll be distributing our paper amulets and inviting people in Japan (and elsewhere) to adapt and augment them. During the next month, we plan to document our invitations to collaborators in Japan to make their own Amulets for Infrastructure /インフラのお守り(infura no omamori).
The omamori we’ve created are about 4″ x 2″ and are the perfect size to hold a standard business card sized wish, photo, momento, or story inside. The amulets that we will distribute in Japan will have this card folded inside:
The project’s page on our website has a 5.5″ x 6.5″ omamori template that you can download and fold, origami style, into your own omamori envelope. You can watch this great DIY video to learn how to fold the origami “bar envelope” that we’ve used for ours. We are also inviting people to send us documentation of the omamori that they make, and stories about their relationship to the infrastructure they are addressing with their omamori.
While in Kyoto, we will engage with these realities with people who live in places relatively far from the Tōhoku region. Today, the behavior of an infrastructural grid or node in one place often has ramifications for entire regions, and sometimes the entire globe. Our intentions are that this project will also function practically. We hope it might contribute to efforts now being made to ensure that assumptions about infrastructures such as tsunami walls and power plants—assumptions that added to the suffering in Tōhoku and elsewhere—are questioned and redirected so that such suffering might be avoided or lessened in the future.
Words from the chairman of the Kyoto University of Art and Design from 1999 still ring true on the eve of our departure:
“I believe that the courage to embark on the grand experiment and adventure of resurrecting the human spirit-grounded in the ideas and wisdom of the East-together with the ongoing study and exploration of art and culture can lead humanity toward a future filled with hope. I hope that the drumbeat for a revival of the arts emanating from here in Kyoto will stir the spirit of Japan quietly but deeply, and I pledge to make this a new beginning.”
Chairman, Uryuyama Gakuen
October 27, 1999
Between April 9-13th, we’ll be relaying work in progress from the Amulets for Infrastructure project to Sudbury, Canada. There, the Canadian collaborative Dodolab will be facilitating a sister project entitled Amulets for Sudbury project. Together, we hope the two projects will create a transcultural, transglobal exchange between people in Kyoto and people in Sudbury. Stay tuned to the FOP blog and our twitter feed (@geoturn) for project reports.
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“… in effect, these facilities are simply well-guarded parking lots for storage casks.”
Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future report, January 2012, page 39
dry casks at Surry Nuclear Power Plant, VA (the first dry cask installation in the United States opens here in 1986), image NRC
It’s quite likely that down a road not far from where you live or work, or where you grew up, there’s a clearing in the trees, a thinning of vegetation, and there, upon a thick slab of concrete, neat rows of tall column-like containers sit, and wait. It’s actually impossible to know how long these columns will be waiting, but even if they already have been waiting for decades, their stay has only just begun. All of these cask are marking time until the opening of America’s first geologic repository for the storage of high-level nuclear waste. Estimates as to when that might be range from sometime in the next century to—never.
As of November 2010, more than 1400 dry casks containing high-level nuclear waste were scattered throughout the United States— and this number increases with each passing year.
We’re in the midst of our research for Repository: A Typological Guide to America’s Ephemeral Nuclear Infrastructure. Over the last couple of weeks, we have been stitching together partial histories, breaking news, and repeatedly redrawn policies and regulations. What emerges is a confounding, fragmented picture of America’s nuclear landscape and infrastructure. And it leads us to suspect that, with the canceling of the partially completed deep geological repository project at Yucca Mountain, America’s nuclear waste future has arrived—and it takes the form of the dry cask.
Dry cask storage “parking lots” were introduced into the American landscape in the late 1970s when cooling pools at commercial reactors began to fill to up. Now, several decades later, ever increasing amounts of spent fuel have filled pools again. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) estimates that all existing spent fuel pools will be full by 2015.
Current law requires that spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors (in most States, this means your local energy supplier) be allowed to cool in pools for five years before they are moved into dry casks. Casks contain stainless-steel canisters that house spent fuel rods surrounded by inert gas. The canisters are welded or bolted closed and encased in two-foot thick reinforced concrete. Some of the casks are designed for both storage and transportation. Each dry cask costs about $1-1.5 million.
Dry casks are licensed or certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for 20 years, with possible renewals of up to 40 years. The steel canisters inside the casks are more resilient than their concrete exteriors. But overall, cask design falls vastly short of the 1 million year safety margin mandated by the EPA to house spent fuel inside a geologic repository. The lifespan of the dry cask is desperately out of sync with the lifespan of what it attempts to contain. Long-lived fission products that exist in spent fuel include: Technetium-99 (half-life of 220,000 years), Iodine-129 (half-life of 17 million years), Neptunium-237 (half-life of two million years) and Plutonium-239 (half-life of 24,000 years). “Temporary” storage takes on a new meaning in this context.
Nevertheless, dry casks are our best attempts at addressing high-level waste storage at this moment. Casks are more stable and sturdy than cooling pools. They don’t require electricity and only rely on open air convection to further the cooling process. Their pads are said to be able to withstand earthquakes and hurricanes. Yet, no one has ever suggested that dry casks would, could, or even should endure the vast spans of time required for the quarantine of the waste they hold. The recently released final report (PDF) by the Blue Ribbon Commission on American’s Nuclear Future (BRC) documents the many ways that our nation’s nuclear waste storage procedures have been largely ad hoc to date. Many of the casks now residing at energy producing reactor sites are there “not by reasoned choice or intent, but by default” because there is nowhere else for it to go. Southern Nuclear, for example, is the operating company for two new reactors (Unit 3 and 4) recently approved for the expansion of Plant Vogtle in Georgia (the first new reactors to be approved since 1979). The company expects to fill 110 dry storage casks with the waste generated by Units 1 and 2 by 2035. Presumably, many more casks will follow to accomodate the waste that will be generated by the two new reactors.
One dry cask category has captured our imaginations. It is the special category that the Blue Ribbon Commission calls “stranded fuel.” At nine sites where dry casks are being stored in the United States, the reactors that initially produced the waste have been decommissioned and removed. With no electricity being produced at those sites, the only activities are “providing safety and security for dry storage casks”—and waiting. According to the Commission, “the continued presence of stranded fuel prevents those sites from being reclaimed for other uses that would benefit the surrounding communities, and makes those communities the unasked and unwilling hosts of long-term spent fuel storage facilities without any of the rights of participation or benefits that would be provided under the NWPA [Nuclear Waste Policy Act] to the host of a federal storage facility … in effect, these facilities are simply well-guarded parking lots for storage casks” (p.39-40).
We here at FOP have come to see dry casks and their surrounding exclusion zones as precursors of landscapes to come. They are protoscapes, first responders, first-iteration infrastructures stepping off into the future that stands before us and that has arrived before our design capabilities could catch up with our design needs. We will watch and see how they fare in the absence of long-term plans.
Given the political, economic, social, and scientific complexities involved in achieving consensus for the approval of a geologic repository, when we look at the dry cask, we’re looking at the foreseeable future of nuclear waste. And we see our country’s landscape bending to support the ever-growing dry cask population.
According to the Blue Ribbon Commission:
“The number of shutdown reactor sites with stranded fuel will grow sharply when increasing numbers of reactors reach the end of their operating lives, starting around 2030. The potential for rapid growth in the number of shutdown sites starts around 2030. While there are only nine sites in the shutdown category today, that number could reach 30 by 2035 and 70 by 2050. While subsequent life extensions beyond 60 years would push this curve farther into the future, it is also possible that not all currently operating reactors will in fact have their lives extended to 60 years, in which case the number of shutdowns would increase more rapidly.”
Of the current nine stranded fuel sites in the United States, seven have waste in dry storage, and two continue to store waste in cooling pools. Stranded fuel sites include: Big Rock Point, MI (7 casks); Connecticut Yankee, CT (40 casks); Humboldt Bay, CA (5 casks), La Crosse, WI (5 casks to come); Maine Yankee, ME (60 casks); Racho Seco, CA (21 casks); Trojan, OR (34 casks); Yankee Rowe, MA (15 casks); Zion, IL (61 casks to come).
The Blue Ribbon Commission has recommended that a central, “interim” facility (or perhaps even two) should be built to consolidate the casks of waste that are accumulating at 63 sites around the country. Given the history of waste facilities up to now, it’s possible that the casks will need to be maintained, scattered and in situ, for 300 years. This extended wait introduces new problems. As the Commission noted in its interim report: “spent fuel is generally not an attractive target for theft, due to its bulky form, substantial radiation levels, and difficulty for terrorists to process it to recover material that could be used in nuclear explosives. Old spent fuel, where radiation levels have dropped substantially, may generate increased risks for theft in the future” (p.44).
In the decades to come, dry casks may very well develop new meanings and material realities, presenting unanticipated challenges and requiring regulations we can’t begin to fathom from 2012.
Thinking about dry casks for the past several weeks has actually begun to re-shape how we relate to time. We’re starting to see dry casks as time capsules whose materials draw our imaginations back 70 years to our nuclear origins. They also draw our imaginations into the far far future, where they seem to move through time more slowly. Or maybe it’s we and our cognitive capacities that are slow and outpaced by what we’re setting into motion today. When we see them for what they are in the present, we recognize that these casks stand apart from all that surrounds them, including we humans, not only because of what they hold, but also because of how differently they must endure. No human alive on the planet today will live to see a deep geologic repository open in the United States. But we all will live to see more and more casks. They are our enduring messengers, marching slowing into the deep future, though none of us will see what becomes of them.
A map called Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installations in the United States shows the locations of casks today. As of November 2010, there were 63 “independent spent fuel storage installations” (or ISFSIs) licensed to operate at 57 sites in 33 states (hosting the 1400 dry casks). An independent spent fuel storage installation, or ISFSI, is a facility that is designed and constructed for the interim storage of spent nuclear fuel. These facilities are licensed separately from a nuclear power plant and are considered independent even though they may be located on the site of another NRC-licensed facility.
Of all of the stranded fuel sites we learned about, we are particularly fascinated by Zion, IL, 40 miles from Chicago. Here, 2.2 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel and 80,000 pounds of highly radioactive material have been waiting in cooling pools since 1998 when the facility was retired. It’s likely these materials won’t be transferred to dry casks until sometime around 2022. But, when the material is finally transferred, 61 empty dry casks (more than at any other stranded fuel site, at present) will begin their long wait into the far future.
As ABC news in Chicago put it, ”It will take 10 years before the now-shuttered Zion nuclear power plant is completely decommissioned. By the time all is said and done, all that will remain of the 38-year-old plant is a 10-acre lot where the reactor’s spent fuel rods will be stored“—indefinitely.
dry cask storage at Palo Verde Nuclear Power Station, AZ (plenty of room for expansion).