This is the seventh 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.
It takes a bit of waiting. First at the road checkpoint and then at the facility itself. Several guards are to scrutinise our appointment papers and identity cards before we are asked to put our personal items in a locker and get a visitor badge around our necks. Then, in a minibus, we proceed along a wide road descending towards the gate into the underground (Figure 9). It appears to me like entering a modern mine, with automatic doors and extensive road systems for large vehicles. But here, no one is extracting valuable minerals. On the contrary, this place is all about storing hazardous residue, permanently and presumably separated from the life worlds above ground. We are approaching the final repository for short-lived radioactive waste, SFR, in Forsmark, Sweden.
The SFR repository was built in the 1980s and is a system of tunnels, shafts, and caverns, sixty meters below the Baltic Sea seabed. Stored here are things such as contaminated filters, tools, and protective equipment, stemming from nuclear energy production and other radioactive practices in the country. Recently, the Swedish government decided to approve the construction of a larger and deeper underground repository, just next to SFR, which is to host the highly radioactive and long-lived spent reactor fuel. Furthermore, SFR needs to be expanded to meet the increasing amounts of other kinds of nuclear residue.
The existing and planned repositories are expressions of a Western world confidence in our ability to safely contain radioactivity (Jasanoff & Kim 2009), through technological apparatuses and well-functioning societal institutions. In parallel, radioactive particles are spreading across the globe as a consequence of thousands of military and peaceful atomic detonations, accidents and deliberate releases. Historian Kate Brown has labelled this continuous spreading of radioactivity through air, ground, water, and bodies as “the Great Chernobyl Acceleration” (Brown 2019), forming one decisive, yet hitherto rather unnoticed, feature of the overall acceleration of the Anthropocene.
How are we to understand the confidence in containment and the parallel ongoing spreading, or in other words, how much should we worry about radioactivity?
How are we to understand the confidence in containment and the parallel ongoing spreading, or in other words, how much should we worry about radioactivity? It is obviously all around us. We are exposed to radiation from the ground, when we go to the dentist, and when we fly. In healthcare, radioactivity is a life saver. Are the risks exaggerated? Should we in fact consider radioactivity as something natural? Even if it might not be self-evident what “nature” and “natural” denote in this context, as human impact has now reached the most remote corners of the planet. There is no longer any wilderness, any untouched landscapes, or ecosystems. Hence, if we think of nature as something pristine, as in separated from humans, we can easily predict the “end of nature,” that there is no longer anything to be understood as “natural.”
Philosopher Kate Soper puts forward another conceptualisation of nature, pinpointing structures and processes whose workings are independent of human activity, while at the same time constraining and conditioning human existence. The implication of this perspective is that nature cannot “end” because, as Soper (2009, 226) writes, “it will persist in its workings even in the midst of nuclear holocaust or destruction by asteroid or solar combustion.” Nature is thus part of climate change, of a transforming of flora and fauna, as well as of an ongoing spreading of radioactivity. Nature changes because of humans, but it changes also independently of us, and, in that sense, it can still be understood as natural.
A cynical example of radioactivity being viewed as something natural and, paradoxically, at the same time as something that can be contained, can be found in the Russian nuclear industry. There, for a long time, liquid radioactive waste was pumped deep down and directly into the bedrock, imaginatively separated and far from human life worlds. The approach is described as an attempt to imitate nature, by returning to the underground what was once extracted through uranium mining (Kasperski & Storm 2020).
Back in Sweden, we step out of the minibus in the visitor area of SFR. Through a small, thick glass window, we look at the radioactive waste packed in large boxes, covered by concrete, and almost filling up a vaulted rock cavern. It appears remarkably anonymous. If not for the very little window signalling a need for protective measures, it may have been just any stored-away boxes. Right behind us are several information panels, outlining the technological design of the planned deep repository for spent nuclear fuel. Based on multiple barriers of cast iron, copper, clay, and the bedrock itself, it is deemed a safe container for the highly radioactive matter, one hundred thousand years into the future.
In the visitor area, there is also a drinking water fountain, made of stone and concrete and with a simple plastic pipe from which flows a tiny stream of water (Figure 10). With a little laugh, our guide tells that here we are welcome to taste 7000-year-old water, as the fountain collects from pockets of water originating from the Littorina Sea, which preceded today’s Baltic Sea. However, she adds, it might not be particularly appetising, because it is quite salty.
In the choice to drink the water or not, our trust in the containment is put to test. Will the water carry only a taste of salt and stone, and possibly great depths of time, or could it be something else in there too? After all, it has flowed through the bedrock where radioactive waste is stored, and radioactivity cannot be perceived with human senses: it cannot be seen, heard, tasted, smelled, or felt. Without technological aid, we cannot judge whether radioactivity is contained or if we are about to drink it. We find ourselves between the hope of being able to control the hazardous waste and the insight that radioactivity has become, so to speak, natural. We must live with radioactivity, with faith in societal and technological arrangements, but also with humility regarding their limitations.
We find ourselves between the hope of being able to control the hazardous waste and the insight that radioactivity has become, so to speak, natural. We must live with radioactivity, with faith in societal and technological arrangements, but also with humility regarding their limitations.
Having access to a proper device, it is relatively easy to measure the level of potential radioactivity pouring from the drinking water fountain in SFR. More uncertain is whether the future will provide conditions for potable water. Our living environment is forever affected by increasing levels of human-caused radioactivity. The question is therefore not primarily whether radioactivity should be considered something natural, but whether the workings of nature will continue to provide a liveable planet. In other words, if the meaning of “natural” in the future will involve a habitat for humans as a species.
* A Swedish version of this brief was broadcasted as a radio essay, Sveriges Radio P1 OBS Essä, ‘Radioaktivitet rakt ner i berggrunden – är det kanske helt naturligt?’, on 25 May 2023. A version of the story about the drinking water fountain was previously published in Kasperski & Storm (2020).
Brown, Kate 2019. Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide for the Future. London: Allen Lane.
Jasanoff, Sheila & Sang-Hyun Kim 2009. Containing the atom: Sociotechnical imaginaries and nuclear power in the United States and South Korea. Minerva 47(2), 119–146.
Kasperski, Tatiana & Anna Storm 2020. Eternal care: Nuclear waste as toxic legacy and future fantasy. Geschichte und Gesellschaft 46(4), 682–705.
Soper, Kate 2009. Unnatural times? The social imaginary and the future of nature. The Sociological Review 57(2), 222–235.