subterranean imagination and the aesthetics of nuclear voids
03.09.2010, 8:55 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Onkalo’s entrance to the underworld, image by Henna Aaltonen for the International Herald Tribune

Landscapes of Quarantine opened Tuesday, March 9th, at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York City.  Our piece, Containing Uncertainty, is included in the show and will be on view until April 17, 2010.

Containing Uncertainty is inspired by Onkalo, a deep geologic repository currently being constructed within an island in Finland.  Onkalo is on track to be the first “official” repository in the world to quarantine high-level nuclear waste for deep time.

But our work to create an aesthetic response to Onkalo has led us to recognize that, in fact, thousands of unofficial, “legacy” repositories exist worldwide–including hundreds that are clustered in the American West.  Most people don’t know these spaces even exist.

Like Onkalo will become when it is complete, these unofficial repositories are quarantined nuclear voids that have rendered portions of the earth impossible to inhabit.

With Containing Uncertainty, we assert that the infrastructural space and geologic materials of the Onkalo deep geologic repository are worthy of creative response.  But as artists, we were also drawn to work with the space of passage between the above ground world that we inhabit as humans and the deep subterranean, uninhabitable world of the repository.  It is in the medial space between above and below–the space that we outsiders must imagine–that we sense Onkalo transform from a feat of engineering to a work of aesthetics.  To do their work at Onkalo, humans descend nearly half a mile into the earth through the entrance (pictured above) and into darkness.  It is through this entrance that all of us who cannot or will not visit Onkalo must descend in our imaginations in order to “enter” the deep geologic repository.

In The Void, the Grid, & the Sign: Traversing the Great Basin, William L. Fox considers Michael Heizer’s City. In particular, he responds to the argument that City shouldn’t have been built at all because people can’t live in it–it’s not a viable place of “inhabitation.”  Bill suggests that while City‘s material presence may not offer a space of literal inhabitation, it does create something equally important:

“… doesn’t our imagination need places of inhabitation? Don’t we need to create opportunities to contemplate space in both positive and negative manifestations as part of our understanding of the universe, which is, after all, more void than not? And isn’t art, along with religion and science, a legitimate mode of consideration? Isn’t this, too, a legitimate ceremonial space?”

For us, Bill’s insights into the aesthetic power of the void underscore the aesthetic potential of deep geologic repositories such as Onkalo.  The repositories are not designed as aesthetic works.  But as spaces of uncertainty, they require us to activate our imaginations.  And as virtually unimagined spaces, they give imaginations new spaces to reside.

Containing Uncertainty is shaped by imaginative passage through Onkalo’s entrance and all that we can’t know about what lies beyond it.

Two entrances to Onkalo, detail Containing Uncertainty 2010

We modeled Onkalo’s entrance in clay and arranged two sculpted entrances side by side. One was produced in modeling clay, the other in bentonite clay.  Bentonite is the material used at Onkalo to make clay rings that wrap around the final disposal canisters after they are filled with high level nuclear waste.  The disposal areas are also filled with bentonite backfill, bricks and pellets.  The clay swells when wet and prevents water from reaching and corroding the canisters.

As it dried, FOP’s bentonite clay Onkalo model underwent dramatic shifts in texture, pliability, size, and shape.  As a result of natural forces of time, heat, pressure and gravity, the entrance rendered in bentonite became virtually unrecognizable. It shifted and contorted until fissures in the clay allowed light to pass through what was once solid.

When paired side by side, the two repositories pose unanswerable questions about how Onkalo will fare over time as an infrastructure made of and through geologic materials. It is an uncertain future, as materials will likely move and bend through time and in contact with the earth’s unpredictable forces.

Ten bentonite Onkalo entrances are currently on display at the Storefront. Though made of the same material and time, each morphed in unique ways, detail Containing Uncertainty 2010

Containing Uncertainty includes an object that workers excavated from the depths of Onkalo.  It passed through the repository’s entrance and traveled over 4,000 miles to be included in the installation.  We requested and received from the Posiva staff a piece of gneiss bedrock that is approximately two billion years old.  It is through this stone’s materiality, which we can literally see and touch, that the negative space of Onkalo becomes material also.  The mass of this rock signals the void that continues to be carved a world away.

Onkalo is being designed to last 100,000 years.  Time itself is what literally composes the materiality of deep geologic repositories and stretches imaginations the most.

An approximately 2 billion year old gneiss sample from the Onkalo deep geologic repository, detail Containing Uncertainty 2010

This past year, we’ve been making attempts to imagine deep geologic repositories and the immense spans of time that they imply. In response to our recent work with Onkalo, we’ve begun to see the project we completed last summer in a new light: Onkalo will likely open in 2020 and be known as the first official deep geologic repository in the world for the storage of high-level waste.  But for decades, hundreds of what might be called “legacy deep geologic repositories” were blasted into the earth and they will continue to hold the resulting nuclear waste into the deep future.

In May and June of last year we spent 32 days visiting several sites where the nuclear and the geologic intersect, including several “legacy repositories.”  Technically, these sites are not considered to be “geologic repositories.” Nevertheless, the earth beneath them now contains nuclear byproducts and contaminated materials.  Instead of being created by drilling machines as a solution for storing nuclear waste, the voids beneath these sites were created by nuclear blasts to test weapons or conduct other types of research. The cavities created by underground nuclear explosions were intended to  contain their own “waste” conveniently, without venting at the time of detonation or leaking into the environment afterward.

During the Cold War and when nuclear technologies were first developed, nuclear detonations were a part of numerous research projects into weapons development, construction methods, engineering designs, and energy resources.  Operation Plowshare was the primary organization in charge of the U.S. government’s nuclear detonations for “peaceful” research.  Many of its tests were conducted underground.  After a decade of less than successful research results and mounting concerns about its literal and political fallout, the program was discontinued in 1977.

Last summer we traveled to four of sites of underground detonation in Nevada and New Mexico (more sites exist in AlaskaColorado, and Mississippi). We also visited the only official deep geologic repository operating in the United States:   the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Here, the United States “permanently” stores transuranic waste (beyond uranium on the periodic table) in an ancient Permian salt bed.

The public is barred from the WIPP facility but invited to experience its visitor center in Carlsbad: “The WIPP Experience Exhibit.” Last June we drove to the gates of the facility and then viewed the exhibit, where we were given a sample of 250 million year old rock salt excavated from nearly half a mile below the earth’s surface. The materiality of this salt signals the growing void currently being rendered under southeastern New Mexico.

250 million year old Permian salt sample excavated from WIPP, image FOP 2009

Recently, a branch of the Department of Energy, the Office of Legacy Management (LM), was invented to steward many of the Cold War “legacy” sites of underground nuclear detonation into the future.

“The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) established the Office of Legacy Management (LM) on December 15, 2003, to provide a long-term, sustainable solution to the legacy of the Cold War. LM is responsible for managing activities at sites where DOE’s mission and active environmental cleanup has been completed.”

You can view maps of legacy sites on the LM’s website, read hydrology reports and learn about long term planning for their (our?) security.  In contrast to the 100,000 or million years of isolation planned for more official repositories such as Onkalo or the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), many of the LM sites are considered to be “closed projects” and do not have long-term quarantine plans or public warning signage as part of their designs.

At the site of Ruilson, near Grand Junction, Colorado, Operation Plowshare detonated a 43-kiloton nuclear device 8,426 feet below the earth’s surface. Page three of the LM’s fact sheet for the site reads, “Subsurface use restrictions within the Rulison Site boundary will remain in place in perpetuity.”  Other LM documents include similarly phrased language, such as:   “No feasible technology exists for removing test-related radioactivity from the subsurface.”

It seems that these “closed” sites are imagined to require no additional stewardship.  The assumption seems to be that they will remain undisturbed by human and geologic forces for deep time to come.

In June, FOP also toured the Nevada Test Site.  Over 1000 nuclear bombs were detonated at the NTS, creating nine hundred and twenty one underground repositories now filled with nuclear waste.  The NTS qualifies as the most bombed location on the planet.  Elaborate tunnels and infrastructures spread below the desert floor for hundreds of miles creating a subterranean world designed to support the testing of nuclear weapons.  Although the surface effects of historic tests are often visible from ground level in the form of subsidence craters, what lies beneath is left to the public’s imagination.

Mining experiments for a subcritical test at the NTS (at the U1a3 tunnel), image courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office


Contour map of “Turf” detonated in Area 10 of the Nevada Test Site, from Vol. III Craters and Cavities formed by underground nuclear explosions: unclassified contour maps, Sandia Laboratories April 1968, photocopied by FOP at the DRI Sulo & Aileen Maki Research Library, Las Vegas, June 2009

While conducting research in Las Vegas, we found that official documents helped us to visualize the forces that shaped and continue to shape legacy repository spaces at the NTS.  Many of the documents were surprisingly aesthetic.

Photocopied by FOP at the DRI Sulo & Aileen Maki Research Library, Las Vegas, June 2009

Map of salt dome in Mississippi used for the Salmon and Sterling tests in the mid 1960s by the Atomic Energy Commission, photocopied by FOP at the CLUI archives in Culver City, June 2009

On our 32 day journey, FOP visited four sites outside of the NTS:  Gasbuggy, Shoal, Faultless and Gnome.  We found it hard to believe that these sites exist on public lands and can be reached easily. Each site includes a monument or marker that locates the research detonation.  And each underground repository of resulting nuclear waste is “sealed off,” often with a concrete plug or pad.  Except for the earth itself, these stone objects were all that that existed between the repositories below and where we stood on the ground above.

The monuments at the sites include information about depth of detonation and yield of device.  Nothing beyond these few words assist visitors in imagining the sizes and shapes of the repositories hundreds of feet below.

Faultless from ground level, image FOP 2009 (another photograph that we took of Faultless appeared in the New York Times’ Why We Travel in September, 2009)

One of the sites, Faultless (also known as the Central Nevada Test Area), is located near Warm Springs, Nevada.  There, an approximately one megaton bomb created a cavity 820 ft. in diameter, 2,460 ft. in height, 3200 ft. below the surface.  Before the detonation, the top of the rusting “cap” was ground level.

We generated a field guide (Worlds to Come) in response to each of the sites we visited.   It identifies the geologic strata that exist at the depth of each detonation and includes directions to each site.

FOP also created a series of postcards in response to each site and mailed them to nuclear physicist Freeman Dyson.  Each card features a drawing of an imagined space of deep repository, based on the statistics and descriptive information that we had available to us.

Gnome postcard for Freeman Dyson, from the i felt it myself series, 2009 (additional images of the Gnome cavity are available on Wikipedia)

These sites are remote–perhaps more so culturally than geographically:  they exist at the peripheries of cognition.  Not just because of our inability (for safety reasons) to physically inhabit them.  But also because as a species we have not taken the time to imagine that they actually exist on earth and that their legacies will continue to shape living things here for deep time.

For us, it is an aesthetic act to imagine the void of a deep geologic repository–official or “legacy”–and bring its associated (and monumental) span of time into material reality.

Perhaps then, much like Heizer’s City, both official and unofficial, legacy repositories should be considered aesthetic spaces.  At the very least, they should be considered worthy of creative response.  As places rendered forever uninhabitable by our bodies, they offer places of inhabitation for our imaginations.  They are voids that artists can activate as signals of the material reality of deep geologic time and space.

* Thanks for sticking with us these past couple of weeks as we detoured from the Pleistocene into deep geologic time.  Next week we’ll resurface with more specifically Pleistocene-related material.

4 Comments so far
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Thanks for this post. Artists often bring issues like this to our attention. I certainly didn’t realize the extent of these sites or the size of the cavity or the depth. It’s astounding. Very interesting to see how the bentonite clay deforms as it hardens. Very thought provoking.

Comment by Meg Bernstein

[…] subterranean imagination and the aesthetics of nuclear voids […]

Pingback by THIS WEEK: INTO ETERNITY « Friends of the Pleistocene

[…] FOP has a particular interest in Into Eternity, as Onkalo was the subject of work that we did this past year in efforts to create ways to live in relation to deep time. You can read more about our writings and projects in response to Onkalo here, here and here. […]

Pingback by Conversation with Michael Madsen: Director of Into Eternity « Friends of the Pleistocene

[…] pieces about Containing Uncertainty (Containing Uncertainity: Design for Infinite Quarantine and Subterranean Imagination and the Aesthetics of Nuclear Voids) can be found on the FOP news | […]

Pingback by “Subterranean Imagination and the Aesthetics of Nuclear Voids” | Power In the Land – Pŵer yn y tir

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