Nuclear waste: keep out for 100,000 years

Nuclear agencies are searching for the signs, language and solutions that will warn our descendants to stay away
A new deep geological waste repository is being planned half a kilometre underground near the town of Bure in eastern France © Nicolas Guiraud

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

This is an experimental feature. Give us your feedback. Thank you for your feedback.

What do you think?

We are in a red metal cage bumping slowly down a mineshaft to our destination, half a kilometre under the ground near the small town of Bure in eastern France. Above us are yellow fields of oilseed rape. Below is the maze of reinforced concrete tunnels that, if it wins final approval from the French government, will from 2025 be the last resting place for the most destructive and indestructible waste in history. This is the €25bn deep geological storage facility for France’s high and medium-level radioactive waste, the residue of more than half a century of nuclear power. When the work here is finally finished, no one must ever take this journey again or, at least, not for 100,000 years.

France is the world’s largest exporter of electricity and the world’s most committed nuclear nation, with 58 reactors producing 75 per cent of the country’s power. As a result, it also produces enough toxic radioactive waste every year to fill 120 double-decker buses (about 13,000 cubic metres worth, or 2kg a year for every French person). The challenge at Bure is not only to build a massive dump for radioactive trash but also to guard it from human intervention for an impossible amount of time — more than 4,000 human generations.

Our cage stutters and almost comes to a halt. The French workers dangling with me continue chatting about their shifts, but I quickly check the emergency oxygen tank on my belt. When we finally reach the cavern floor, we are at the start of a 1.6km network of winding laboratory tunnels. The air is thick and dusty; dozens of men in blue and grey overalls drill into the walls with car-sized machines. Others walk around checking the scientific equipment embedded in the rock. Above us, the curved grey ceilings are covered by a dense thicket of wires and tubes sending data back to technicians on the surface.

The waste, which will be placed in a quarter of a million sealed containers slotted into horizontal tunnels more than 100m long, is the byproduct of burning uranium in the nuclear reactors and includes some of the most deadly and long-lasting radionuclides in the world. Chlorine-36 has a half-life of 300,000 years and neptunium-237 a half-life of 2 million years. People do not often come into direct contact with such materials, aside from in a nuclear accident, but those that do meet a horrific end. In 1987, thieves in Brazil stole a source of high-level radiation from an old abandoned hospital. It was sold, its lead case broken open. After three days, four people who were handling it began to suffer internal bleeding in their limbs, eyes and digestive tracts, according to doctors. Then their hair fell out. Within weeks, they were dead.

Andra’s research and development facility © Nicolas Guiraud

Since France’s first nuclear power plant opened in 1956, the country has housed its high-level toxic waste in four short-term national surface facilities at La Hague in Normandy, Marcoule and Cadarache in the south and Valduc, north of Dijon. This was always seen as a stop-gap solution. The buildings have high security but were not designed to last more than a few decades, let alone keep the waste inaccessible for the 100,000 years and more that it will remain dangerous. In the 1970s and 1980s, nuclear agencies in France and around the world toyed with the idea of firing the waste into space in a rocket or putting it deep in the ocean. Both were eventually rejected as too dangerous, with fears that a rocket could explode in the atmosphere and the radiation could leak into the ocean.

Eventually, in the 1990s, governments and scientists seemed to have converged on the idea of burying the radioactive waste in storage facilities designed to last for ever. The waste would be sealed hundreds of metres below ground in geological formations of clay, rock salt and granite that have not moved for millions of years. Deep underground disposal would, it was said, protect the waste from human interference, earthquakes or climate change. Greenpeace and other environmental groups, however, disagreed. They argued — and continue to believe — it is impossible to predict whether such storage will offer enough protection from radioactivity escaping in the long term.

An elevator transports workers down to the maze of tunnels being planned under the fields near Bure © Nicolas Guiraud

Nevertheless, deep underground storage remains policymakers’ favoured solution. The only site in the US is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in south-east New Mexico, a deep repository for the disposal of weapons-related radioactive waste, which opened in 1999. A site in Finland has already been approved by regulators and in Sweden, Japan, Germany and France geological sites have been identified, although not confirmed. Nuclear waste authorities in Canada and Britain are looking at possible sites. The WIPP facility is temporarily closed, following an accident in 2014, and is scheduled to reopen later this year. The eventual location of a US site for civilian nuclear waste is still under discussion.

All these nuclear agencies have two problems, however, as they try to devise schemes that will win regulatory approval for deep geological repositories. The first is to design a site that can last for ever, even as tectonic plates shift and a new ice age — which scientists expect to occur within 100,000 years — radically erodes the soil above. The nightmare scenario is that the radioactive elements will seep out into the groundwater, gradually, silently poisoning wildlife and humans. In Germany the Asse former salt mine, where 126,000 drums of nuclear waste were buried in the 1970s, is already collapsing, forcing the authorities to dig up the dangerous material to place it elsewhere.

The second issue is that all nuclear agencies have a duty to try to prevent radioactive sites from being disturbed by future civilisations, who may decide to excavate an area in ignorance or even in the misguided hope of finding some kind of treasure buried underground. To this end, they are trying to find a way to communicate with the distant future, in order to warn its inhabitants about what will happen if they become too curious, and also to encourage them to look out for any technical problems at the site. This is not just a moral obligation. In the US, for example, there is a legal obligation to try to keep the “memory” of the site alive so that it can be managed “in perpetuity”.

This is a mind-bending task. About 100,000 years ago Europe was populated by a different species of human, Homo neanderthalensis. We know they had heavy, ape-like facial features, and used basic hunting tools, but we have no knowledge of the language they used. We have no idea what will happen in the next hundred thousand years, and what kinds of societies will populate the planet, let alone how we might communicate with them. Will they even understand our language? A large part of the written Mayan language, used until the 17th century in Central America, is indecipherable to us today.

The trefoil, the international warning symbol for radiation — three black blades on a yellow background — was created in 1946 and is still poorly understood. In 2007, after a five-year study across 11 countries, the International Atomic Energy Agency found that the symbol “has no intuitive meaning and little recognition beyond those educated in its significance”; only 6 per cent of those questioned in Kenya, India and Brazil knew what it meant. A more complex sign, in red, showing waves radiating from the trefoil, a skull and crossbones and a figure running away, designed to be more intuitive, was introduced in 2007. But will this be understood as a symbol for danger for 100,000 years? More worryingly, will future civilisations heed the warning even if they do understand it?


Patrick Charton is one of the world’s leading experts on this quasi-philosophical problem. He is head of a special “memory” division within the French nuclear agency, Andra, responsible for looking at ways in which we can keep alive the memory of nuclear storage facilities. It is his job, effectively, to communicate with the future.

“We have a duty of care to try and keep the site from being forgotten, to warn future generations about what is there,” he says, on a rainy afternoon in his office on the outskirts of Paris. “Clearly, it is not easy though . . . How do you write a message that lasts thousands of years? What language do you use? What do you even say?”

The first attempts to answer this tricky question date back to the late 1980s and early 1990s in the US. Acknowledging the limits of pure scientists to solve the problem, the Department of Energy commissioned a group of sociologists, science-fiction writers, futurists and artists to help create a design for a long-term warning to place on top of the WIPP depository in New Mexico. They came up with a series of recommendations. First, build a “message wall” in granite on top of the site and chisel a message — in seven languages from Chinese to Navajo — into the slabs. The proposed message, a lengthy explication, was designed to instil fear into those who could understand it. Part of it reads:

“This place is not a place of honor . . . no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here . . . nothing valued is here.

What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.

The danger is in a particular location . . . it increases toward a center . . . the center of danger is here . . . of a particular size and shape, and below us.

The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.

The danger is to the body, and it can kill.

The form of the danger is an emanation of energy.

The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.”

It was also suggested that a larger series of “markers” should be erected on the site — an imposing signal, beyond the written word, that would be “non-natural, ominous and repulsive” — in case our languages do not survive. A series of terrifying designs was proposed, one of which was to cover the entire ground surface with giant concrete spikes. The spikes and their shadows, it was thought, would always communicate danger. The contorted face of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” was proposed for the warning signs that were to be scattered across the site.

‘Spike field’: An early idea from the US Department of Energy in the 1990s. The spikes and their shadows would communicate danger, as would warning signs bearing Edward Munch’s 'The Scream' scattered across the site © Michael Brill/Sadia national Laboratories

The final designs for the warning markers do not need to be submitted to the US government until about 2035, as the facility will not be closed until about 2050. Today, the official proposal is to have 48 granite monuments around the site, each standing eight metres tall and weighing 20 tons. But the idea of giant granite blocks — trying to scare the future into submission — is already going out of style. Charton calls it a “classic American solution” – “very big” but also ugly, and “there is always a risk ugly things will be destroyed” by locals.

Another criticism is more fundamental. The history of archaeology and tomb raiding suggests that warnings have a tendency to be ignored or, worse, to incite curiosity. The pharaohs’ tombs in Egypt, hidden deep below the desert, were raided in spite of dire curses warning against it. Indiana Jones is a hero for breaking rules, not keeping them. “Humans are naturally curious,” says Charton. “Warnings are an invitation.”

Abraham Van Luik, a philosophically minded geoscientist who works at the WIPP facility, agrees that the idea of scaring future generations is flawed and that the final design submissions for the site will be very different. “Parents attempt to control children with emotions like guilt or fear, with mixed and unpredictable results,” he says. “If you tell people not to touch the red button, but don’t say why, what will they do? Our thinking today is we want to treat future generations like adults and just give them facts to prevent them from doing anything in ignorance.” He adds that giant granite slabs would be “monstrously” expensive.

While the Americans have been experimenting with designs that instil fear on a grand scale, the Scandinavian countries have taken a quieter approach. The deep geological repository at Onkalo, on the west coast of Finland, which will begin operations in 2023, is at the moment designed to leave no trace on the landscape. In the frozen tundra — so the thinking goes — far from any oil or precious minerals, what are the chances that anyone would choose to dig 400m underground? “The idea is that the facility will be safe forever, even if the memory is lost,” says Kai Hämäläinen from the Finnish nuclear safety authority. “There is no requirement in the legislation for any kind of marker.”

This approach, like the American one, has suffered a backlash. The argument has a fatal flaw, say its critics. How can you make sure that people will forget the location? How do you guarantee that, generation after generation, knowledge of the site will not remain in the collective memory? Maybe after 1,000 years, people will remember that there is something down there — something not to be disturbed, something dangerous and forbidden, perhaps even valuable? This was the question raised in Into Eternity, a 2010 film by Danish documentary director Michael Madsen, which looked at the future of repositories such as Onkalo. “How do you remember to forget?” he asked.

Today, a fragile new consensus is evolving around the world. Under the umbrella of the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) in Paris, 17 organisations from 13 countries came together in 2011 to form the RK&M initiative, or Preservation of Records, Knowledge and Memory across Generations. At a landmark conference in 2014 in Verdun, France, it was agreed there should be some form of marker for a nuclear waste site to warn future generations. On the marker should be basic information about what is buried, not just emotive messages to keep out, and this information should also be archived around the world to maximise the chance that it will not be forgotten.

But there is still no consensus at all on what should be written and what the markers should be. In fact, the fear is growing that there is no foolproof way to speak to the future. The problem, according to Simon Wisbey of the UK’s Radioactive Waste Management Directorate (RWMD), is the realisation that there are no markers that will definitely last for even 10,000 years; none that are guaranteed not to be taken down by future civilisations, and no messages that we can confidently assume another civilisation will understand, however simple they might be.

A diagram of a man walking up to a barrel of radioactive waste and then falling sick, for example, could, if read backwards, be interpreted as a sick man going up to a barrel of waste and getting better, says Wisbey. “Even today many cultures read right to left. We cannot know how people might interpret such warnings in the distant future.” One NEA study looked into the efficacy of Japanese tsunami stones, markers written more than 1,000 years ago warning future generations not to build houses close to the sea. The conclusion: although the function of the stones could be understood, their message was often ignored.

Even preserving a record of the markers is a problem. The lifespan of CDs and hard drives is at best a few decades. In Paris, Charton has been leading the way on creating a “sapphire disk” — information engraved on two thin plates of industrial sapphire — a medium that could potentially last for a million years. But even this is far from foolproof, he says. “It lasts a million years but if no one can read it because nobody reads French or English any more, what use is it? And if one person hits it with a hammer, or just chucks it in the bin, it’s finished. Nothing lasts forever.”

The fear that there is no definitive way to create a timeless message has forced nuclear agencies to develop a second pillar to their research. The second conclusion of the Verdun conference in 2014 was that any plan to “dictate” information to a distant future with markers and messages was very likely to fail. Erik Van Hove, professor at the University of Antwerp, summed up the conference saying that humanity needed to focus instead on creating an enduring culture around the nuclear waste depositories site to encourage future generations to look after it.

As a result of this intellectual shift, most nuclear agencies in the western world, including those in France and the US, are looking beyond markers and messages to ways of creating a local culture around a site to keep the memory of its contents alive. They are turning to painters, poets and songwriters for inspiration where engineers, scientist and geologists are struggling.

Last year, in France, Andra launched a competition for artists — with a €6,000 cash prize — to come up with proposals that could keep this memory alive. The NEA is looking at cross-disciplines, helping to develop a community of philosophers and creative minds to generate ideas the agency could one day implement. The number of artists involved in the work has grown sharply in recent years, with ideas ranging from the pedestrian to the fantastic.

'Laboratory' by Cécile Massart: For 20 years, the French artist has been working on ways to keep the memory of nuclear waste sites alive through art. In her proposal, artworks would be updated by each new generation, so the site constantly evolves

Cécile Massart, a former professor of engravings at the Ixelles Academy in Brussels, is one of the pioneers in this field. Since 1994, she has been exploring ways to ensure the memory of a nuclear waste facility endures. Her main idea is to construct a creative “laboratory” above the site, in which each generation can find ways of explaining nuclear dangers to itself. Speaking on the telephone from her studio in Brussels, she says she wants artists to work in the laboratory, but for their works to be temporary — updated with every generation. “When the space is full, the artists will tear down the old work and build new pieces, so the site will be constantly evolving.”

William Verstraeten: The Dutch artist’s design for a short-term waste site at Vlissingen, Holland includes a museum and exterior paint that fades as the waste cools

William Verstraeten, a Dutch artist, has similar ideas of engaging local culture. In 2001 he was chosen by COVRA, the Dutch radioactive waste processing company, to redesign its short-term nuclear waste facility in Vlissingen, an above-ground chamber where the waste will cool down for 100 years before being buried. He coated the building in layers of bright orange paint, stamped a huge version of Albert Einstein’s equation, E=mc2, on its external walls, and placed an art museum inside. As the contents cool, so the colour fades; in 100 years’ time, it will be white.

“The site was shunned, and now we get tens of thousands of visitors a year because there is something positive there,” Verstraeten says. “[Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands] opened it. The Americans are wrong. [The site] can be a place of honour. Nuclear waste is dangerous, yes, but is also a monument to what we have been able to achieve.”

Among the entrants to Andra’s competition, Rossella Cecili, a Belgian-Italian artist living in Paris, and the Italian composer Valentina Gaia, have together come up with a children’s song telling the story of where the French waste is buried. It also urges adults to trust children, and to trust their songs, because they contain life-saving information. “There are songs that we have been singing for hundreds of years, and tunes that are even older,” Cecili says over coffee in Paris. “Ours is about where the site is and what is buried beneath. I think that anything concrete that is there will erode and die, but culture like this song could maybe live on.”

Hans Codée, a chemist and the former director of COVRA, agrees that songs and stories could be key to this question. “Storytelling is an ancient and powerful craft to pass on information to the future,” he writes in a recent research paper. “Today, we still enjoy The Iliad and The Odyssey, telling us about the events that took place around 1200BC: that is some 3,000 years ago.” Art can last even longer: the oldest drawings in the world, he says, can be found in southern France; drawings of animals are between 30,000 to 32,000 years old. “When paintings and sculptures telling a story are also meant to be a thing of beauty, there is a reason to keep them forever.”

Stéfane Perraud's ‘Zone bleue’: The French artist suggests covering the Bure site with genetically modified blue plants to signal that there is nuclear material beneath

Stéfane Perraud, another French artist who entered the Andra competition, has come up with a biological solution. His plan is to cover the Bure site with plants that have been genetically modified to turn blue. He believes the colour will appear so strange in the landscape, it will be seen as a mystical place by future humans, who will study the area and work out for themselves that there is nuclear material below — rather than being told.

In the UK, Bryan McGovern Wilson, a US artist, and Robert Williams, professor of fine art at the University of Cumbria in the north of England, have been exploring the relationship between the nuclear industries of Cumbria and north Lancashire, and the local landscape. Their work focuses on creating what they call “atomic folk objects”, which include costumes, stories, objects and rituals intended to create an oral tradition around nuclear sites so they will never be forgotten.

Some of the ideas for creating a culture of memory at nuclear waste sites have been more light-hearted. In one of the earliest projects, dating to the 1980s, the philosophers Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri came up with the idea of the “Ray cat”, a genetically engineered cat that glows in proximity to radiation. In a culture where cats are worshipped, cats changing colour would signify danger. “We wanted to find a medium that would remain important to humans forever,” says Fabbri, a professor of semiotics at Urbino University in Italy. “Symbols, language, everything will change, but cats have always been important to us. We can make a reasonable guess that they will matter to future humans,” he says, adding that it was a “thought experiment” and clearly not likely to happen in practice.

For nuclear officials, the simplest and most cost-effective ways to create community involvement are often the most compelling. Museums are one of the most popular ideas. Van Luik of the WIPP says that they want an architect to create a museum at the US site in the desert, making it a tourist attraction that will keep the memory of the site alive for generations. But the key point, he says, is that officials like him are coming round to the idea that local community involvement is essential, and that future humans will have to be encouraged to take their own responsibility for the waste. “In the end, if someone wants to dig for oil around there, and all civilisation has collapsed, it is the local community that will probably still be there to warn them. But they need to be involved in the space, there needs to be a living memory of what is there. If something can be made locally important, it can carry on for a long time.”

The 82 residents of the quiet town of Bure appear unaware that they might hold the answer to this thorny issue, or that they might be able to create an oral history more durable than ultra-long-lasting concrete slabs. Mireille, who has been living in the area for 20 years and works in a café near the Andra site, seems slightly worried by the notion. “I never really thought about it,” she says, “but I suppose I will tell my children about it. I am not sure they can rely on us though. We might move away, you know, or something like that.”

La Maison de la Résistance in Bure is home to campaigners against the waste site under construction there

In the centre of Bure is the Maison de la Résistance, a ramshackle house covered in anti-nuclear signs. Inside I am met with suspicion, though eventually offered coffee and a swig of local wine. The residents are in Bure campaigning — seemingly as a way of life — against the nuclear waste site. A man who gives his name as Michel launches into an explanation about the rock geology and how the radiation will seep out — which is one of the key criticisms of anti-nuclear environmental groups. One of the women, Michelle, pours thick black coffee and says that future generations will dig the nuclear waste up again by mistake: “When has man ever left anything alone?”

I suggest to Michelle and Michel that they are a part of the solution to keeping the memory of the site alive. Despite being the target of the campaigners’ anger, several officials within Andra told me about the Maison de la Résistance, almost as if they were pleased to have another marker — another imprint on the culture — that gives a greater chance that the site will not be forgotten. Charton says: “We need everything — long-term markers on the site, sapphire disks, pamphlets distributed around the world. But most of all, we need the community to remember. They are part of the plan.”

But Michelle is not convinced that authorities should be relying on them, or that the local communal memory will survive 100,000 years of global warming, war and disease. “What a load of bollocks,” she says, taking a swig of wine. “They are relying on us! The site will be forgotten about, and it will be dug up again and the whole area will be poisoned . . . It’s the lovely gift our culture is leaving for the future, isn’t it?”

Michael Stothard is the FT’s Paris correspondent

Photographs: Nicolas Guiraud

This article has been amended since original publication to clarify that the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is temporarily closed

Letter in response to this article:

Science may well develop technology to neutralise nuclear spent fuel / From Branko Terzic

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.