This is the fourth post in a series highlighting the work of the Nuclear Natures project, a 6-year research project funded by the Swedish Research Council, based at the Department of Thematic Studies at Linköping University in Sweden and led by Prof. Anna Storm. You can explore all essays in Nuclear Natures: A Concept Explored in Six Briefs on their project page.
The train from Workington to Seascale in West Cumbria, United Kingdom, travels where the meadows are met by the sea. Long sandy beaches, shallow open water and grazing livestock are sporadically interrupted by towns and villages along the coast. Visible from a long distance, the chimneys, construction cranes and old nuclear waste silos of the nuclear power complex Sellafield split the sky. If one were to continue south on the northern railway past Seascale, no nuclear activities would seemingly interrupt the view. In contrast to Sellafield, the Drigg Low Level Waste Repository keeps a low profile. Although the train passes only a few meters from the nuclear waste repository, the repository remains hidden behind a seemingly innocuous line of trees and fences.
The representational form of the nuclear landscape at West Cumbria is in transition.
The representational form of the nuclear landscape at West Cumbria is in transition. From the Sellafield complex dominating the skyline to a landscape form where nuclear activities are being hidden away by trees, fences, and dirt. As the power plant is slowly picked apart, waste materials are circulated to landfills and containment facilities. Places like Drigg, which house around 800.000 m³ of nuclear waste in its Legacy Trench and around 200 .000 m³ stored in vaults 8 and 9 (Figure 1; Environment Agency, 2015). In turn, this reflects a shift in the practices producing the landscape; from operating and transforming uranium into electricity, to transforming nature into suitable sites of fixating and storing waste.
Within the Low-Level Waste Repository at Drigg, waste forms are stored in mundane looking compounds, containers or buried beneath layers of dirt. Amongst the different storage facilities, the legacy trench is the largest. An expansive grass field which contains radioactively contaminated clothes, equipment, and tools which have accumulated since 1959 (Fieldnotes, 2022; Jacobs UK Ltd & AFRY Solutions UK Ltd, 2022). As waste materials were transported into Drigg by train, they were dumped directly into the trenches beside the railway. In 1995, the Legacy Trench was covered in a layer of dirt. Today the landfill is a carefully constructed green hill, barely distinguishable from the rest of the highlands barring the multiple chimney-like structures protruding from the earth at regular intervals and its slightly to uniform shape. Constructed out of bentonite enriched soil and a plastic sheet, the angle, dirt and plastic are designed to keep water from penetrating down below and as such protect the varied types of radioactive waste-materials from water flows (Environment Agency, 2015).
When the landscape form becomes too complex to differentiate and separate material forms, the management of the entangled waste forms is instead put onto nature.
The inventory over which objects make up the landfill is going back to 1988, before that what was buried is undocumented. Asbestos, picric acid, and radioisotopes. The different waste forms are not only from past nuclear activities, but the nuclear waste within the legacy trench is entangled with chemical waste from the explosives manufacturing that took place during the second world war. Consequently, the different historical forms of the landscape add to the complexity of managing the trench. When the landscape form becomes too complex to differentiate and separate material forms, the management of the entangled waste forms is instead put onto nature. The “interim cap,” as the dirt layer enclosing and fixating the material within the legacy trench is called, distance the entangled waste-forms from the realm of the living.
Low-level nuclear waste contained in the trench change form as time passes. Many of the materials that was once radioactive now have spent enough time in the trench to slowly decay, meaning that it is slowly transforming into “regular waste that can be moved into a non-toxic landfill” (Fieldnotes, 2022). Further circulation of waste material from the trench is inhibited until the waste has been contained long enough as to be manageable. I asked our guide where the nuclear waste will go once it is no longer nuclear. He answered that it can go anywhere, to any standardised landfill, as the waste is no longer nuclear waste (Fieldnotes, 2022). Through time a relationship between waste landscapes is established. A relationship which requires the transition of the waste into a less radioactive form, and which requires the organization of nature for containment within one landscape while another landscape imports the non-nuclear waste of nuclear industries. A spatiotemporal relationship which rests upon the sociotechnical status of the landscape being nuclear or not (Hecht, 2012).
It is a negotiation of form of nuclear and nature that continues even after productive nuclear activities have left the landscape through the waste forms reified within it.
The nuclear waste contained in the trench has partly seized to be nuclear, yet the landscape remains a product of nuclear manufacturing (Mitchell, 2003). It is a negotiation of form of nuclear and nature that continues even after productive nuclear activities have left the landscape through the waste forms reified within it. As a relation, nuclear nature transcends the metabolic rift, and imposes order onto nature when operationalising nature into a service. It is no longer a question of duality, of human made waste and polluted nature, but a synthesis between labour and nature which results in second nature characterised by conflicting temporalities of waste, ecologies, and labour (Banoub et al., 2021; Kirsch & Mitchell, 2004; Smith, 2010). And as the Sellafield complex is slowly being decommissioned and its skyline being buried underground, the labour practices change from working uranium into electricity, to working geologies and ecologies into nuclear waste storage infrastructure. The labour necessary to produce nature into a specific form, the labour of maintaining the form of nature required to fixate nuclear waste and the labour of predicting and thereby controlling ecologies of the future are all in the service of changing the form of nuclear waste into non-nuclear waste, and consequently, keeping the lived landscape separate from that of the waste of nuclear past. Nuclear nature contains here the negation of itself, as the realisation of a non-nuclear nature is only possible through the production of a nuclear (second)nature.
Feature Image: “Entrance to Drigg Low Level Waste Repository from Old Shore Road – geograph.org.uk – 5971337” by Roger Templeman is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Banoub, D., Bridge, G., Bustos, B., Ertör, I., González-Hidalgo, M., & de los Reyes, J. A. (2021). Industrial dynamics on the commodity frontier: Managing time, space and form in mining, tree plantations and intensive aquaculture. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 4(4), 1533–1559.
Environment Agency. (2015). Decision Document: Low Level Waste Repository.
Fieldnotes. (2022). Fieldnotes taken during guided tours at Sellafield Ltd. And Drigg LLWR between 16th–22nd of May 2022.
Hecht, G. (2012). Being nuclear: Africans and the global uranium trade. MIT press.
Jacobs UK Ltd, & AFRY Solutions UK Ltd. (2022). 2022 UK Radioactive material Inventory. Report prepared for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).
Kirsch, S., & Mitchell, D. (2004). The Nature of Things: Dead Labor, Nonhuman Actors, and the Persistence of Marxism. Antipode, 36(4), 687–705.
Mitchell, D. (2003). Dead Labor and the Political Economy of Landscape—California Living, California Dying. In K. Anderson, M. Domosh, S. Pile, & N. Thrift, Handbook of Cultural Geography (pp. 233–248). SAGE Publications Ltd.
Smith, N. (2010). Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space.