To Contain and Confine: Best Attempts for Design Futures
05.29.2011, 10:33 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Japan News Today

Over the last few weeks, as we’ve continued to follow events at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, we’ve been wondering about the blue stuff that workers are spraying around the accident area. What is this material being used to mitigate the threat of drifting radioactivity?

A recent Discover Magazine article explains:  the substance is DeconGel.  According to the official DeconGel website,

 “If you can only take one product with you – this is it.  It [DeconGel] is exceptionally effective against radioactive isotopes but has the strength to pull off any job – from radioactive isotopes for nuclear plant decommissioning and nuclear medicine spills, to toxic industrial chemicals and materials such as mercury, PCB, acids, lead, asbestos, and methamphetamines.”

Satisfied (and likely repeat) customers of DeconGel include: Department of Energy National Labs: Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, National Energy Technology Laboratory, National Security Technologies, Oakridge, Sandia, Savannah River.

In recent FOP posts, we wrote about designs that we deem to illustrate “best attempts” by humans to create materials, practices and infrastructures capable of meeting monumental forces of geologic time and materiality —some for time spans of 1,000 to 1,000,000 years.  We continue to be interested in designs and aesthetic responses that are created in the face of such long-term uncertainty.

Our list of such projects is growing, as we watch highly designed materials such as DeconGel literally “pull off” (or stick to?) the radioactive materials contaminating the earth around the Fukushima plants.  Where the contaminated gel will go once it’s been used, no one knows.  But at the moment it appears to be one of the world’s best attempts for consolidating the spread of airborne nuclear materiality.

The lastest news is that there were actually three meltdowns in the first 18 hours after the March 11th earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Obviously, TEPCO workers and contractors face a task worthy of Sisyphus.  They must attempt to manage, as in, contain, this extremely dangerous site full of invisible, moving, volatile materiality — while simultaneously attempting to shield themselves, the ocean, land, and surrounding population from its spreading contamination.  And they must do this, apparently, “into eternity.”  The materials, engineering and design skills available to their work will be major actants in this continuing struggle.

A recent press release from TEPCO suggests that a cover or containment structure would be an extremely useful next step.  The press release, entitled, “Commencement of a preparation work for the installation of a cover for the reactor building of Unit 1, Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station,” briefly explains that a containment cover will be built around Reactor 1 in early June 2011. The cover will be a best attempt to reduce the long-term consequences of the ongoing disaster.

a schemata of the structure designed to help contain Reactor 1 at the Fukushima plant in June 2011

While none exist at the present moment, the preferred environment for containing nuclear materials is a deep geologic repository — far from people, animals, and the instabilities of the surface of the earth.  Situated in the open air, at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, and exposed to active meteorological forces such as the typhoon that is approaching at the time of this writing, the Fukushima site couldn’t occupy a more opposite environmental scenario.

As Fukushima continues to test, if not defy, the best knowledge of the experts —especially those who insisted in the days after the quake that the situation in Japan would never reach the severity of  Chernobyl, we can’t help but think in terms of best attempts.  Just how long is this new containment cover designed to last?  Back in 1986, an Object Shelter, more colloquially known as the sarcophagus, was desperately and hurriedly erected over the Chernobyl site.  In place ever since, it has proven wholly insufficient.

Is the cover at Unit 1 intended to be a temporary fix? If so, will it, like Chernobyl’s Shelter, mark only the beginning of what will become decades-long discussions, repeated desperate rallies for economic support, and incredible acts of human risk?  In other words, how much human labor and life force will need to be redirected to meet situations such as Fukushima —situations that never reach their end?

Tellingly, Chernobyl’s Object Shelter is now cracked and crumbling.  Twenty five years after the accident there, the area still poses an imminent risk of the release of massive amounts of radiation. The building of a replacement container called the New Safe Confinement, finally began in September 2010. It is expected to take five years to complete. You can watch a fascinating nine minute video on the installation process here.  It also appears that the events in Fukushima have become a motivating catalyst for securing the stalled funding to complete the New Safe Confinement project by 2015.

Radiation around the Chernobyl site is still too high for workers to be present for long periods of time. So the new structure will be constructed in two pieces some distance from the site, and then slid into place on rails. For its scale alone, the Confinement sets new precedents for best attempts in design.  It will be visible from space, tall enough to contain the Statue of Liberty, and weighing in around 32,000 tons, it will be one of the heaviest objects to ever be moved.

Yet, as Steve Rose has written, Chernobyl’s New Safe Confinement’s, “purpose is not to shield radioactive emissions but to prevent the release of radioactive dust and other materials, and to keep out rainwater, which could carry contaminants into the water table.”  This means that the “best attempt” of today remains merely the first step of many yet to be determined.  Only in 100 years will authorities finally be able to start dismantling the reactor inside.  There is no certainty of where contaminated parts will go at that time, including 200 tons of uranium and 1 ton of plutonium.  For this design challenge, another best attempt will have to be invented.

schemata of the New Safe Confinement for Chernobyl

The New Safe Confinement will likely do the job it is intended to do, which is confine nuclear material, within a nuclear waste/wilderness for the next 100 years. When we came across the words of Iain Macdonald, an architect with YRM commenting on the Confinement’s design, we agreed that something is lacking from the entire public discourse surrounding these monumentally important projects. Macdonald was quoted as saying,

“what’s missing is the human scale, innovative shaping and symbolism that an architect’s involvement would contribute.”

What form might our next best attempt take if the public, alongside, designers and engineers were encouraged to consider (and had time to consider) the monumentality of what is being built, represented, and communicated, in the present and into the far future through these most challenging designs for deep time?

2 Comments so far
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It seems irresponsible not to include a sign on any nuclear waste containment structure that somehow conveys the message: “Do not go in here- your personal safety will be compromised” or something along these lines. But as others have expressed, what language do we write these words in if potential intruders will be visiting 5,000 or 50,000 years from now? We opened up the Egyptian pyramids without hesitation. Tombs, are after all profoundly mysterious, and humans, as a species, are coded in curiosity. The future, it seems, will favor cockroaches and the like. Or perhaps Decon gel will be further developed into something akin to sunscreen and nuclear tomb designers can include free bottles of it at the front doors of all nuclear waste sites so as the words “put this on!” becomes the most important hieroglyphic discovery of the future.

Comment by John Drew

[…] To Contain and Confine: Best Attempts for Design Futures […]

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