Repository: A Typological Guide to America’s Ephemeral Nuclear Infrastructure
11.10.2011, 10:20 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Yucca Mountain, image DOE

Smudge has just received funding from the New York State Council for the Arts for our project entitled Repository: A Typological Guide to America’s Ephemeral Nuclear Infrastructure.  The grant will support the research, design, and production of the visual typological guide.  We proposed the project to the Architecture, Design and Planning category early in 2011. That was pre-Fukushima, pre-Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear future, pre-rethinking of the viability of nuclear power by many developed nations.

Indeed, much has changed in the last eight months. The topic of nuclear waste and its storage seems to have become more mainstream, more relevant and prescient.  Radical changes are likely to be the norm in this field for many years to come.  Yet, both long and short-term design and engineering challenges remain much the same.   ALL of our nation’s high-level nuclear waste (HLW) and spent nuclear fuel (SNF) from the nuclear power industry continues to have no where to go, even as they accumulate at alarming rates.

Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository was our nation’s best attempt to store and contain high-level waste. In 2010 the site was deemed unsuitable and the project’s funding was eliminated. No permanent storage options are expected to be available for the next 100-300 years. In 2004, the EPA determined that high-level radioactive wastes will remain dangerous to humans for 1 million years and any facility built will have to meet the extremely long-term safety goal of 1000 millennia.

After the Yucca Mountain project was stopped, the Obama Administration established a 15-member Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to assess next steps.  Their draft report (June, 2011) recommends development of on-site temporary, “interim” storage facilities.

High Level Waste storage lockers at West Valley New York

With no permanent repository in sight, temporary infrastructures have been built throughout the United States.  Over the past six+ decades, these facilities have multiplied to now number more than 20,000 buildings. Some of these structures are related to defense-related activities, nuclear research and development, and nuclear power generation. As of 2011, about 66,000 metric tons of spent fuel were being held at power reactor sites in 33 states.  Each year, this amount increases by another 2,000 metric tons.

Waste Storage Area, at the West Valley New York facility

One such site, the West Valley Reprocessing Facility, is located in Ashford, New York. The plant was active between 1966 and 1972 and was the first and only commercial spent-fuel rod reprocessing operation in the United States. It contained 750 spent fuel assemblies, 600,000 gallons of liquid high-level radioactive waste, and almost three million cubic feet of solid radioactive waste buried in two disposal areas. All waste is still housed on site today. Much of this waste has been “vitrified,” a process the solidifies the most dangerous waste into glass and encloses it in stainless steel canisters.

dry cask storage, image Nuclear Regulatory Commission (casks roughly cost $1 million USD each)

Most of America’s nuclear facilities cool their spent fuel and store it on-site in pools or dry casks.  Dry cask storage is considered one of the safest options presently available. As of 2011, there were more than 900 casks storing around 9,000 metric tons of spent fuel throughout the United States. David McIntyre, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman has said,  “Our agency is on record as being confident that fuel can be stored safely on-site at reactors in either pools or dry casks for at least 90 years.”  Other sources, however, claim that corrosion can occur in as few as thirty years.

Our Repository project will catalog a sampling of “temporary” infrastructures designed (or simply used) to contain nuclear waste until more enduring facilities can be sufficiently researched and constructed. It will invite audiences to expand their capacities to imagine the relatively short life spans—of both humans and existing infrastructures—in relation to the very long spans of time that nuclear materials require containment.

The finished work will include two graphic typologies: a poster and a set of cards. The poster will analyze 15-20 buildings and structures designed to temporarily contain nuclear waste, such as dry casks, cooling pools, storage tanks and vitrification facilities. Structures will be chosen for inclusion if they “exemplify” common infrastructural forms or traits that run across multiple facilities, or if they offer notably unique approaches to storage. The poster’s form and style will be modeled after Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour’s 1972 Learning from Las Vegas. 

image: Learning from Las Vegas

On September 28, 2011 the 10,000th shipment of transuranic waste arrived at New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (this facility handles only defense-related waste). Each of those shipments traveled alongside civilian traffic within the U.S. Interstate system. In spring, 2009, we encountered one of a mobile nuclear infrastructures in Idaho, presumably delivering waste to WIPP. In our moments of passing this truck, we realized how little we knew about the objects and infrastructures our country has developed to isolate, move, and temporarily hold its accumulating quantities of nuclear waste.

The second typology of the Repository project will consider mobile infrastructures designed to transport radioactive waste between sites. It will take the form of a card set. The card set will be designed to be “activated” by users as they travel along U.S. interstates and highways.

primary routes of travel for transuranic waste to the WIPP facility in Carlsbad, NM

best attempt (142, 192, 502), 2010 (watch on vimeo)

The RH-72B  is a lead-lined cask is used for shipping remote-handled transuranic waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant ,image WIPP

With cards in hand, users will be able to “spot” and identify mobile nuclear storage infrastructures as they flow throughout the country. Each card will include notable visual information unique to each structure (size, color, shape) as well as route information and type of waste transported. The cards will be modeled after WWII spotter cards.

WW II spotter cards

The project will remain open to including breaking news and events related to contemporary nuclear infrastructure design and transportation. For example, in the past weeks, a 1.611 million pound trailer has transported the first two of four, 400 foot steam generators from the San Onofre nuclear power plant in California to a low-level waste (LLW) storage facility in Clive, Utah. The remarkable truck was specially designed to transport each of the immense, mildly radioactive parts 800 miles over the course of six months.  It has 192 wheels and travels at an average speed of 15 mph during between 10 p.m and 5 a.m. It is the largest and heaviest vehicle to ever travel on California roads.

photo courtesy Southern California Edison

FOP will post updates about Repository as the project unfolds.  We are grateful for the support provided by NYSCA.

5 Comments so far
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Please continue the great work! I hope that in a few years, thanks to you, children may learn more about WWII planes by using spotter cards for mobile nuclear transport infrastructures.

Comment by Gabriel Josset (@BilliardTravel)

John D’Agata’s “About a Mountain” should be required reading on Yucca, if you haven’t already peeked at it.

Comment by matt

Thanks for the encouragement! D’Agata’s book looks like a must read.

Comment by FOP

This is, of course, a tremendous post and a blindspot in our broader dialogue of the land and human interventions on geologic timescales.

Can you recommend any further reading about the designs/monument proposals for these sites?

I’m familiar with Thomas A. Sebeok’s propositions regarding nuclear waste repositories, but I have to imagine there is more out there and that this is an evolving dialog.

Great stuff!

Comment by Bryan W.

Thanks for reading Bryan, and for the comment. You might want to check out Benford’s Deep Time, but really, we haven’t encountered much writing about this. We recommend visiting the Office of Legacy Management website for an updated list of sites requiring mediation and along their current state of marking. Keep in touch!

Comment by FOP

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