Nuclear Natures: A Concept Explored in Six Briefs
Marko Mikael Marila, Hannah Klaubert, Sergiu Novac, Axel Sievers, Rebecca Öhnfeldt & Anna Storm
The relationship between nuclear power and nature is saturated with ambiguities and contradictions emerging from the different technological, scientific, and socio-cultural understandings of the two terms. Stemming from Nuclear Natures, an ongoing research project at Linköping University in Sweden, this article provides six takes—or briefs, as we call them—on nuclear natures in the form of analyses of environmentalist anti-nuclear campaigning, uses of natures surrounding operational nuclear power plants, nuclear waste management, and afterlives of denuclearised environments. The article supports the view that a type of situated environmental writing is called for in attempts to understand the disparate histories and futures of nuclear natures.
Nuclear power production has altered our living environments indefinitely. From buffer zones around operating nuclear facilities and contaminated nuclear disaster sites to the open landscape scars of uranium mines and deep geologic waste storage sites dug deep into the earth, these altered environments, or Nuclear Natures, demand our societal attention. A large body of literature exists on the environmental effects and historical, social, and political relevance of atomic weapons and nuclear disasters, as well as the geopolitics of nuclear power production, including waste management, but less attention has been paid to the relationship between nature and the less spectacular manifestations of the nuclear industry from an environmental humanities perspective.
Since 2022, a six-year research project titled Nuclear Natures has been carried out at Linköping University in Sweden. The project team, consisting of Professor Anna Storm, two doctoral students and three postdoctoral researchers, aims to articulate Nuclear Natures as a key category of environments, to explain in which ways nuclear power influences the liveability of numerous areas in the near and distant future, and thereby demonstrate how Nuclear Natures demand careful consideration not only from the natural, but also the human and social sciences. The project looks at various stages of the nuclear power production cycle including uranium mining, the enclosed buffer zones surrounding active nuclear facilities, the growing number of old reactors undergoing decommissioning and leaving a potentially denuclearised territory behind, and long-term waste storage sites under construction.
The purpose of this article is to present the variety of ongoing research within the project, but more importantly to set the stage for understanding the complexities of Nuclear Natures. We do so by presenting six briefs, each of which provides a perspective on the relationship between nuclear and nature. In doing so, we acknowledge that the two components of our concept are extremely rich and nuanced, and that it is impossible to give an exhaustive definition of either one. Both are as elusive as they are widely distributed in terms of space and scale, ranging from the subatomic to the cosmic. Furthermore, since the splitting of the atom, the two terms have become inseparable. It is now impossible to imagine the nuclear without nature and, concomitantly, we cannot conceive of a nature devoid of nuclear, if only because radionuclides remain one of the clearest stratigraphic markers of the Anthropocene.
One connecting theme in our six briefs is the ways in which the complexities of Nuclear Natures are negotiated through human social and political practices and how through those processes elements of Nuclear Natures are turned into material legacies. Sergiu Novac and Rebecca Öhnfeldt draw attention to the practices through which the relationship between nuclear power and nature is negotiated as a matter of human-animal relations in areas surrounding active nuclear power plants in Germany and Sweden. Through contributions dealing with nuclear waste management and decommissioning of nuclear power plants in the UK and Germany, Axel Sievers and Hannah Klaubert demonstrate how different processes concerning the management and containment of radiation and waste give rise to a variety of natures and temporalities. In presenting a biography of an anti-nuclear monument located in Helsinki, Finland, Marko Mikael Marila reflects on the enduring materialities of political decision-making processes regarding the planning of nuclear power production and waste management. Finally, in place of a conclusion, Anna Storm reflects more specifically on the relationship between radiation and nature.
As far as the six briefs operate in the conceptual spaces between nuclear and nature, the question arises how to write without turning the two components into caricatures? How to remain faithful to the intricacies of the phenomenon when representing Nuclear Natures in written form? In navigating Nuclear Natures, we are engaging in a style of ecological writing that Timothy Morton refers to as “ecomimesis.” Following Morton, we understand ecomimesis in three tightly interwoven ways. Firstly, ecomimesis is situatedness (Morton 2013, 5). This means that to write about nature is to write about it from within and from a point of view. What the eclecticism of our case study approach then reveals are types of thematic and temporal situatedness characterised by our individual histories and research interests.
The second sense in which we highlight ecomimesis is as a strategy of addressing contradiction and non-identity in nature (see, also, Bookchin 2022). Again, following Morton (2007, 18), “[t]he more we study it, the more we see that, beyond the fact that many different people have many different opinions about it, nature in itself flickers between things—it is both/and or neither/nor. This flickering affects how we write about it.” We find it extremely important that, in engaging in ecological writing, we are exposing some of the capacities in which certain “flickerings” of the nuclear power cycle and its relation to nature can become glossed over and simplified through forms of ideologization and aestheticization. This is why ecological writing—undeniably a form of aestheticization—operates according to a fictive as if logic: as if, for a fleeting moment, we were able to capture the essence of nature by turning those flickerings into a moving image. This image is mainly achieved using the situational “as I write” trope in the service of creating an ecological ambience rather than a literal description (Morton 2007).
Thirdly, what the situatedness and “as if” logic of ecological writing give rise to is the idea that ecomimesis is an attempt at evoking a sense of immediacy (Morton 2007, 151). With immediacy we refer to forms of empirical sensitivity and ontological responsibility, all aimed at the cultivation of an art of noticing. Important to fostering this sense of immediacy is the feeling of situatedness attained through the case study approach, not the capacity of the approach for facilitating generalisation. In shining light on the open-ended practices, agencies, and materialities that make up or could constitute these sites, practices, and phenomena, our hope is that each brief will provide an opportunity for attunement to the importance of being-there and affecting-there. Only by intensifying the immediacy of situatedness as attunement to non-identity and contradiction can one begin to understand the unfinishedness that we take to be one of the defining characters of Nuclear Natures.
Bookchin, Murray 2022. The Philosophy of Social Ecology: Essays on Dialectical Naturalism. Third Edition. Chico, CA: AK Press.
Morton, Timothy 2007. Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Morton, Timothy 2013. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
The Carp and the Reactor
by Sergiu Novac
I drive at dawn from Budapest along the Danube down to Paks, Hungary’s only nuclear power plant, providing half of the country’s electricity. I turn left, and there it is, the Behemoth, as I like to call nuclear power plants, lazily humming away at sunrise. But this is not a nuclear research trip, it is a fishing trip. To get to the fishing spots, I need to drive around the entire plant; the reactors, the interim spent fuel storage and underneath the high voltage power lines, until I finally reach the house of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant Fishing Association. This is not “wild” fishing, whatever wild means, but highly managed “recreational fishing.” The power plant’s fishing association maintains several artificial lakes which are fed with water from the cooling canals of the plant. And there are big fish. Really big fish. Restocked and carefully monitored, to satisfy the visiting nuclear anglers.
I enter the house of the association and buy the fishing license and baits. I get a visitor’s license, while employees of the plant have the right for another, discounted, one. Also, I need to decide if I want a “sport” license or a “fish” license. The latter allows for a maximum of two fish of up to five kilograms to be taken home. The “sport” license is for catch and release, and even though I often cook and eat the fish that I catch, here, next to the nuclear power plant, I always go for this one. Then a coffee, and back to the parking lot to stow all the gear into a carriage which I could pull by foot the last bit. Right before entering the premise, I also need to sign into the fishing log where every angler is required to write in their name, the number of the fishing license and the precise hour of starting and ending their fishing. Now, a last decision is to be made, which lake to choose. There are four large, perfectly rectangular, lakes, and one former dead tributary of the Danube, which looks the most “natural.” This is also where the large pike and catfish reside, but today I am after a different species: the ignoble carp. That is also why I need the carriage, because carp fishing requires a full car of gear, ranging from the tent, the chair, and the rods, to lots of other paraphernalia. Among the four big lakes, one is out of bounds, since it is the “competition” lake. I am already tired, so I choose another lake not too far away. The closest fishing spots are specially designated for people with disabilities. I pass these and reach the area where I am allowed to put up the tent. The tent must be green or brown so that it does not stand out on arial imagery and could affect the security of the power plant. Mine is blue, so I have to put an extra green cover over it. There are many more rules that one must respect. Otherwise, the guards checking all the anglers every two hours will not-so-kindly ask you to leave. Yes, this is the former East, but it is in some way still the welfare nuclear utopia of the 1970s. And this is what fascinates me most about this place, and why I come here so often.
It takes me at least one more hour to have the rods and the baits set up. Then, finally, I can throw them into the water. Afterwards I set up the tent, put up the chairs, take out a book and wait. And wait, and wait, and wait. This is what carp fishing is all about. Days of waiting, hoping for a bite from one of these massive beasts, the pigs of the water. The comparison is not far-fetched, since among freshwater fish, humans have the longest relationship of domestication with carp. It is not particularly tasty, yet highly resilient, and it has been bred for centuries as the fish of the common people. There are strong religious and popular mythologies surrounding it, especially in Christian Orthodox countries. And this aspect is still very visible in places where fishing basically means carp fishing, like Hungary. There is a distinct class divide between people that recreationally fish carp for food, and people that fish carp for “sport,” going for the very large trophy specimens. Carp can be fished with a simple floater rod and just one piece of corn on the hook. “Sport” anglers, however, usually have a car full of gear that is worth many thousands of Euros. While waiting for my nuclear carp, and I have a lot of time to wait, I am wondering which category I fall into. I do eat carp sometimes, and I do have a lot of gear, but cheap. I conclude I must be somewhere in between, which is a satisfying thought. The evening sets in, then the night. I see the power plant at all times of the day, lurking in the background. But the foreground is beautiful, it is “nature.” I doze off.
At one point in the middle of the night, the bite alarm goes off. I jump out of the tent, turn the headlamp on, and run to the rods. It is three o’clock in the morning and one of the rods is close to breaking from the tension. Fish on! So, the action begins, which is why carp anglers put themselves through the tedious waiting game. Close to four o’clock I have the fish close to the shore. It is a beautiful grass carp, very large. This is not a species native to Europe, but it is intensively stocked in recreational fishing lakes, and by now is very common in wild waters as well. In Hungarian it is called “The Amur Carp,” referring to its “natural” habitat. I need to be most careful when the fish is next to the shore. If it is not tired enough, it could jump when I attempt to net it and unhook itself. With one hand I am holding the rod, with the other the net. In the very last moment, the fish jumps right in front of me with a massive splash, and it’s gone.
At five the sun rises, and it will be close to 40 degrees later today. I decide there is no point to torture myself in the scorching heat, but rather go back to Budapest. I pack everything in the carriage, walk to the exit and check out in the logbook. I mark that I did not catch any fish. Others did, from what I see, but it does not matter, it was worth it. I put my stuff in the car and go to the little house next to the fishing association’s house. I clean myself at the facilities, in a similar “decontamination” ritual as after visiting a nuclear power plant. I take a last look at the Behemoth, calmly humming away in the background, then I jump into the car and leave. The further I get, the more I feel I am leaving utopia behind, with its perfectly ordered and intensely policed “nuclear nature.” Or was it dystopia? I brush off the thought, since I am getting close to Budapest, back to the present.
The Forsmark “Nuclear” Seals and Their Many Caretakers
by Rebecca Öhnfeldt
“First you go to the old mill village “Forsmarks bruk.” Once there, you find a road towards the lake with the sign “Power plant.” There by the lake you see two gigantic sugar cubes with pipes on their roofs—those are reactors one and two, now up and running. Next to them you see this huge construction site with large cranes—that is reactor three being built. Together they form one of the largest nuclear power plants in the world. Follow the road next to the cooling water canal and travel further on the stone pier out to the artificial lake. There, in a small enclosure, you find four seals.” (Bäckman 1981)
This freely translated description is from “Fuss over four seals in a pond,” an article published in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter in June 1981, when the nuclear power plant in Forsmark, Sweden, had been operational for a year. The text goes on describing a seal breeding project run at the Forsmark nuclear power plant by researcher Mats Olsson from the Swedish Museum of Natural History. What Olsson—or anyone else for that matter—did not know at the time was that the project would continue for as long as twenty-six years. And that the so-called fuss would turn into widespread engagement and care.
But how come seals were being bred next to a nuclear power plant in the first place? When the article was written, the seal population in the Baltic Sea had been decreasing for years. The seals were sterile and suffering from physical malformations caused by the industrial and agricultural release of the chemical compounds DDT and PCB. These symptoms of the so-called “Baltic Seal Disease Complex” were common during the 1970s and the 1980s, and there was a general concern that the Baltic Sea seals would die out (Persson et al. 2021).
It was against this background that Olsson’s idea took shape. The plan was to feed seals with non-toxic fish to get healthy pups. The pups would then be released into the south Baltic Sea where the population was on the verge of dying out, to help rebuild the seal colony, and at the same time show that the seals were in acute need of non-toxic food. However, it proved difficult to find a breeding place since the project required the enclosure of an entire seaside area. Olsson had been searching for a suitable location for quite a while when a friend of his got in touch. The friend was employed at the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency and worked at the Biotest basin at the Forsmark NPP. He proposed to Olsson that the seals could be bred there (M. Olsson, pers. comm., March 17, 2023).
Just to clarify, the Forsmark Biotest basin is an artificial lake/water reservoir around 90 hectares in size. The lake was built from leftover stone alongside the construction of the nuclear plant, and it was finished in 1977. In 1980, when operations at Forsmark’s reactor 1 started, large amounts of cooling water started being released into the Biotest basin. The lake has since then been subject to a biological recipient control program, which investigates the effects on the marine environment of the release of cooling water. In the beginning, it was run by The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, now the surveys are carried out by the Department of Aquatic Resources at the Swedish University of agricultural sciences (SLU 2020).
The suggested seal breeding area next to the Biotest basin was not affected by the cooling water and turned out to be the perfect spot. An enclosure was built with the help from Forsmarks kraftgrupp, the company running the nuclear power plant, starting a rather peculiar collaboration between the NPP, the Swedish Museum of Natural History, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, and WWF. In September 1980, four seals—two males and two females—were transported from Skansen, an open-air museum with wild and domesticated animals in Stockholm, to their new home in Forsmark (Figure 2). This setup was described to me by biologist Anna Roos who worked with the project from 1989–2006 (A. Roos, interview, March 16, 2023).
The researchers had the primary responsibility for the seals, but they were not always present, and the day-to-day care had to be managed by people who were locally engaged. Here the NPP was of assistance since the project was taking place on their grounds. One person who became involved in the seal breeding was a technician who worked with maintenance at Forsmark. He was responsible for feeding the seals daily during the last ten years of the project (1996–2006) and with that he became the official seal keeper. He told me that local school kids would sometimes come and feed the seals and at one point in 2001 the Swedish Crown Princess fed the seals together with him. If you visited the power plant via a guided bus tour, the bus would drive out to the Biotest basin and the guide would talk about the seal project (interview with said technician, April 22, 2023). Other findings also indicate how the seals became a mascot for the employees at the nuclear power plant. At the time there was a Forsmark NPP staff magazine called Curiren, which had a little seal head as a logo on the cover page (Figure 3). According to archive finds the logo appears for the first time sometime during 1987. At one point seal sweaters were also printed and sold in the staff clothes shop at Forsmark NPP according to a small notice in Curiren (ÖMA).
Mats Olsson and WWF made it clear from the beginning that they did not want this to be a public project or a “PR-thing” for the nuclear power plant. They did, however, want to spread awareness about the environmental disaster that was going on in the Baltic Sea. That wish was granted. The seals became more and more famous through extensive media coverage. When it was time for the yearly cub-release, journalists and curious onlookers would line up at the beach in the south of Sweden where they were released. Newspaper articles written about the seals throughout the years never fail to mention the threat posed by environmental toxins, so in that sense the project was successful.
In the eyes of the involved researchers, the Forsmark seals had nothing to do with nuclear power, they just happened to be bred next to a nuclear plant since that was the best and safest place to be found. But inadvertently or not, as time passed, the seals at Forsmark became part of the power plant’s “eco-nuclear” internal framing as well as publicity (Tilson 1993; 1994; 1996). The seals became intertwined with the NPP in multiple ways and just as the people working at the plant the seals became part of an atomic history—they became “nuclear animals” in the same sense as the wild elk and laboratory dogs at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington, USA (Bolingbroke 2020).
The seal breeding program in close vicinity to the plant also created a contrast between the chemicals threatening the seals in the Baltic Sea and the “clean and contained nuclear plant” helping to protect them (Storm 2018, 62). This contrast was not articulated in plain words, yet it was conveyed through the stories told via the widespread reporting around the seals. From the beginning it concerned a handful of people, but soon more and more people got engaged in “saving” these charismatic animals. This type of care adheres to a kind of logic that can be discerned in connection to certain archaeological sites or materials. At the onset, the seals were saved because they were valued, but soon a shift took place and they became valued because they were being saved (DeSilvey 2017, 178).
This particular case shows how animal care programs can be used to emotionally engage a nuclear community. A “net of care” was cast around the seals in their enclosure. Slowly, this figurative net reeled in more and more people; the researchers, the employees at Forsmark, the NPP visitors, the school kids, the people watching the seals being released and following them through the media—they were all part of an emotional web that was created through and around the Forsmark seals.
Bolingbroke, David Cleve 2020. Nuclear animals and an atomic restoration: an environmental history of the Hanford nuclear site. Dissertation, Washington State University.
Bäckman, Anna-Lisa 1981. Fjäsk för fyra sälar i damm. Siste jägaren minns myllret. Dagens Nyheter, June 21, 1981.
DeSilvey, Caitlin 2017. Curated Decay: Heritage beyond Saving. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Persson, Sara, Britt-Marie Bäcklin, Markus Ahola & Anja Carlsson 2021. Delprogramsbeskrivning Sälhälsa. Naturvårdsverket: Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. [https://www.naturvardsverket.se/4957fa/globalassets/vagledning/miljoovervakning/delprogramsbeskrivning-2021-nrm.pdf]
Storm, Anna 2018. Atomic fish: Sublime and non-sublime nuclear nature imaginaries. Azimuth VI(12), 59–75.
Sveriges Lantbruksuniversitet (SLU), October 25, 2020. The Biotest basin. https://www.slu.se/en/departments/aquatic-resources1/contact/research-infrastructure/biotest-basin/
Tilson, Donn James 1993. The shaping of ’eco-nuclear’ publicity: The use of visitors’ centers in public relations. Media, Culture and Society 15, 419–435.
Tilson, Donn James 1994. Eco-nuclear publicity: a comparative study in Florida and Scotland. Dissertation, University of Stirling.
Tilson, Donn James 1996. Promoting a ‘greener’ image of nuclear power in the U.S. and Britain. Public Relations Review 22(1), 63–79.
Östhammar municipal archive (ÖMA), Local security council (Lokala säkerhetsnämnden), Kallelser och bilagor 1987, 1988.
Making the Nature of Drigg’s Legacy Trench
by Axel Sievers
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. 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).
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).
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.
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.
Dreams of Green Fields
by Hannah Klaubert
As I approach the former reactor site in Karlstein from the river and fight my way through a thorny strip of brambles, the first thing that comes into sight is a rusty fence topped with barbed wire. To the left and right of the large, fenced field, construction equipment and machinery are strewn about, and I can see, surprisingly, a lonely brown goat grazing in the distance. To get a better view, I make my way first to the old turbine and weather-worn information boards memorialising the two decommissioned reactors, and then to the closed gate where the paved remains of a parking lot are visible. A display case next to the metal gate tells me that a herd of goats, a special breed from South Africa, lives on the site, and I can indeed see them from a distance, looking curiously in my direction (Figure 5).
The goats don’t know that I am engaging in an activity called hot-spotting. Geographer Shiloh Krupar (2013) has proposed this method for the critical examination of (post)nuclear sites. In hot-spotting, the material status of the site (contaminated, not contaminated) is not the deciding factor. To hot-spot is to look for “sites of concern” (ibid., 281) marked by “dense relations” (ibid.) where nuclear politics intersect with natural environments and socio-political tensions. Even though truly unspectacular, the green field of Karlstein looks like a proper hot spot to me.
The site where two nuclear reactors once sat next to the river Main here in Northern Bavaria, Germany, was officially declared postnuclear in 2010. Since then, the area no longer falls under the jurisdiction of the German “Atomgesetz” (‘nuclear law,’ Bredberg et al. 2019, 28f) and a lot of additional paperwork and security measures can be avoided for the final steps of decommissioning, like removing remaining building structures. The release from the nuclear jurisdiction also means that the site has reached what is commonly called the “greenfield” (‘grüne Wiese’) status, the endpoint of the nuclear power production cycle at this site (ibid.).
Though not a term used in nuclear jurisdiction, the notion of the “grüne Wiese” has become prevalent in German nuclear decommissioning discourses. Once a reactor has reached the end of its life, its evocation across media and official documents suggests, not only will all radioactive materials be fully removed. Every component of the plant will be taken away until only a green field, from which the building process had started, remains (Figure 6).
I find it hard to tell how exactly the “grüne Wiese” became commonplace in the nuclear realm in Germany. In fact, it consists of a curious reversal of a much more common use of the “grüne Wiese” term in urban planning—to build on the “greenfield” is, originally in the anglophone world, to plan industries and housing developments outside of the old towns, on undeveloped land. For the reverse operation, the decommissioning of (non-nuclear) industrial sites, the talk is usually of brownfields (sites with potential presence of hazardous substances after industrial use) or greyfields (sites where existing infrastructure is un- or underused).
Whether or not a conscious decision, in hindsight, putting the “grüne Wiese” term on its head—by letting it signify a return to a newly pristine, postnuclear landscape rather than a suburban development—seems like a smart branding move. Lush fields and meadows are an important component of German landscapes and identities, and the rural areas where most reactors are sited often take pride in their natural beauty as well as agricultural traditions in which green fields play an important role (i.e., in cattle grazing for dairy production). In this context, decommissioning to the “grüne Wiese” sounds like a hopeful promise. It also stands in a tempting opposition to the hyper-modernism and grey functionalism of nuclear facilities and creates a beautiful, imagined endpoint of the clean and abundant energy production that nuclear power promised at its outset.
Krupar suggests that nature often plays a central role in the “rhetorical cleanup operation” performed by the term “postnuclear” (2013, xii). The discursive construction of postnuclear natural spaces can obscure the persistent material and non-material relations forged by nuclear activity, also beyond contamination. In the case of the Karlstein site, for instance, nuclear waste has been removed and brought to various sites across Europe (Schönberger et al. 2013, 67f), among them the Asse II repository, a former salt mine which has since been declared unfit to keep the nuclear waste safely contained. Operations to recover the waste are ongoing at a high cost. Germany still does not have any concrete plans for a final repository, so a solution for highly radioactive waste from all nuclear sites, including Karlstein, remains to be found. Additionally, Framatome and Siemens continue to operate nuclear installations, a fuel assembly manufacturing centre and an interim storage site, in the community, betraying any sense of Germany as a postnuclear nation since the shut-down of its last operational commercial reactors in April 2023.
Standing in front of the gates in Karlstein, I thus cannot help but think that the term “grüne Wiese” was and is doubly deceptive. The greenfield here continues to look more like a depressing post-industrial site than the lush meadow that the term evokes. After more than a decade of “grüne Wiese” status, construction site fences section off some parts where the earth is still being dug up, and massive cable reels and piles of dirt lie around here and there. The goats, the information board tells me, belong to a private animal sanctuary. They were given an interim home at the site until it is decided what will happen with the property. Most likely, the current owner, multinational energy company RWE, will sell it for further industrial use, I learn after some googling and emailing. As I continue to lurk near the fence, it begins to rain. Having gotten used to my presence, the goats look a bit wary and bored standing in the drizzle.
More abstractly, the persistence of the “grüne Wiese” term also obscures the fact that the social and material relations formed by nuclear activity are sticky and persistent. The hopes for purity and containment that the term carries can only be realised as the waste moves elsewhere, out of sight, where it currently fails to be fully contained. And even the non-radiated components pose environmental concerns. Decommissioning all German nuclear sites to the greenfield would cause substantial CO₂ emissions and produce large amounts of industrial waste. Instead, a repurposing of the non-radiating metal and concrete structures—and thus a visual and material confrontation with our nuclear past and present—may be the sensible way to go (Rettich & Rentrop 2023). This would also entail a reconsideration of human/waste relationships in the nuclear realm and a more open confrontation with the “difficult heritage” of the nuclear age (Storm 2016) than the dream of the “grüne Wiese” allows for. Where the greenfield obscures what once was, there must be other ways to think about these sites; to mark them, in Kurpar’s words, as hotspots—and as “sites of concern” with “dense relations” to the nuclear past and present and a (never-quite) postnuclear future.
Bredberg, Ines, Johann Hutter, Andreas Koch, Kerstin Kühn, Katarzyna Niedzwiedz, Klaus Hebig-Schubert & Rolf Wähning 2019. Statusbericht zur Kernenergienutzung in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Bundesamt für die Sicherheit der nuklearen Entsorgung.
Krupar, Shiloh R. 2013. Hot Spotter’s Report: Military Fables of Toxic Waste. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Rettich, Stefan & Janke Rentrop (ed.) 2023. Nach der Kernkraft—Konversionen des Atomzeitalters. Schriften des Fachbereichs Architektur, Stadtplanung, Landschaftsplanung der Universität Kassel, Band 7. Berlin: Jovis.
Schönberger, Ursula, Claudia Baitinger, Jutta Beckmann, Peter Dickel, Dieter Kaufmann, Lothar Krause, Peter Meyer, et al. (ed.) 2013. Atommüll: eine Bestandsaufnahme für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland: Sorgenbericht der Atommüllkonferenz. Salzgitter: Atommüllkonferenz c/o Arbeitsgemeinschaft Schacht Konrad e.V.
Storm, Anna 2016. Post-Industrial Landscape Scars. Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology. Basingstoke New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Memorial to Selfishness
by Marko Mikael Marila
I lived next to the Tölö park in central Helsinki for fourteen years, cutting through it on my way to work, returning in the evening for a walk around the bay in the middle of the park. This is where you get closest to “nature” in the centre of the city, but the area is also packed with sites of much cultural significance. South of the bay stands Alvar Aalto’s monumental Finlandia Hall, the National Museum, the Helsinki Music Centre, the Helsinki Central Library Oodi, contemporary art museum Kiasma, and the Parliament House. On the western side, between the busy Mannerheim Street and the bay, the remains of an old sugar factory are vaguely discernible in the landscape. The true landmark here is the Opera House. The Helsinki City Winter Garden and the Olympic Stadium are located north of the bay, and on the eastern side run the main railways leading to the Helsinki Central Station. Tucked between the railyard and the bay one finds Fågelsång, a green hilly area with several late-19th-century wooden villas.
Amidst the villas, on the highest spot and surrounded by trees and flowers, I stand in front of a nearly three-metre-tall grey granite slab. On the monolith is carved the radiation warning symbol, a title “Itsekkyyden Muistomerkki” (Memorial to Selfishness), and the names of those 129 members of the Finnish parliament who voted for nuclear power on 1 July 2010. On that day, the parliament convened to decide on three favourable governmental Decisions-in-Principle (DiP) on future investments in nuclear energy: 1) the building of a fourth reactor in the Olkiluoto nuclear power plant by its owner TVO, 2) the enlargement of the Onkalo repository for spent nuclear fuel in Olkiluoto by Posiva, and 3) the building of a completely new plant in northern Finland by Fennovoima. During the two days leading to the voting, the parliament spent a total of twenty-one and half hours debating the DiPs and, ultimately, all three were ratified. Subsequently, the names of those representatives who voted yes on both or either one of DiPs one or three were carved onto the monolith. Voting yes only on DiP two would not get you on the list.
The memorial was originally conceived as part of Greenpeace Nordic’s anti-nuclear campaigning and was first presented to the public in front of the Parliament House on 29 June 2010. There it remained until the voting day (Figure 7), after which the slab was inscribed with the names. During summer and autumn 2010, the memorial spent some time in front of the Central Station in the middle of the city, before it was moved to its current location on 21 October. Juha Aromaa, Greenpeace Nordic’s communications manager at the time, recounts how Aulis Junes, a political activist who lived in one of the aforementioned old villas and rented the property from the city of Helsinki, gave permission to erect the memorial on the lot (J. Aromaa, pers. comm., 24 May 2023). Although this came as a surprise to the municipality, to this date, they have not come up with any claims to have the memorial removed.
The original idea for the memorial came from Harri Lammi, programme director at Greenpeace Nordic at the time. However, Lammi tells me that the initial concept was quite different from what we see now (H. Lammi, pers. comm., 22 May 2023).
“I was inspired by Michael Madsen’s (2010) documentary film Into Eternity, which drew attention to the vast timescales of managing radioactive decay and the seemingly hopeless task of communicating the risks involved to future generations. My initial intention was not to create a protest piece, but a conceptual art project that would address the temporal scale of the social and environmental effects that political decisions regarding nuclear power can have—effects that are undoubtedly unmatched by any other political decision-making process. As a work of conceptual art, the monument was only intended to exist on the internet, but the Greenpeace communications division saw it as a great opportunity to create something more lasting.”
As a media strategy, Memorial to Selfishness was undeniably successful. In 2011, it was awarded with a gold price by Grafia, the Finnish association of visual communication designers in the Innovative media or environment category of their annual creative design competition. The jury elaborated on their decision that, as a piece of “outdoor advertisement, the monument will last at least half of the time of the effects of the political decision which the piece criticises” (Uotila et al. 2010, 57).
As a semiotic strategy, Memorial to Selfishness builds on the durability of the chosen material, not much unlike Maya stelae or Viking rune stones, but like any attempts to memorialise contemporary events, ideas or feelings, its successfulness remains debatable (Storm 2020; Knowles 2022; Keating & Storm 2023). “It is amazing how quickly people forgot the meaning of the message,” laments Lammi, who around 2015–2017 started noticing how the public was using the memorial as a medium for expressing their radically altered opinions on nuclear power (Figure 8). For years now, the memorial has been tagged, cleaned, and retagged several times, and the graffiti—whether meant as sarcastic remarks or sincere statements—reflect a shift in the popular perception of nuclear power. “Whereas the original message was that nuclear power produces waste, and that more nuclear power plants mean more nuclear waste, today the discussions over nuclear energy revolve around questions of climate change and nuclear power as a source of clean energy” (H. Lammi, pers. comm., 22 May 2023). For instance, nuclear power is portrayed as part of the plan to meet the Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN, and even Greenpeace now sees the memorial as outdated and clashing with their vision of nuclear power in the context of nature preservation- or climate change-related issues (Järvinen 2022). Opportunistically, some Finnish politicians have used this as a chance for reclamation and are now openly proud to have their name on the memorial (ibid.).
As a mnemonic device, then, the memorial not only aims to communicate with the future, but it also records changes in the shifting attitudes toward nuclear power through active forms of forgetting. “It has become a modern manifestation of damnatio memoriae, the ancient practice of defacing or shaming statues or images of former rulers,” Lammi confirms. Against this background, it is perhaps ironic that the building of a fourth reactor at Olkiluoto never began because Olkiluoto 3 was seriously delayed. Similarly, as a joint venture with Russia’s Rosatom, the construction of Fennovoima’s Hanhikivi plant in northern Finland has been halted. “We knew that both projects would be economically unfeasible, but no one foresaw the war in Ukraine. Perhaps a more fitting name would have been Memorial to Short-sightedness,” contends Aromaa. Be that as it may, one thing is clear: the memorial continues to record and represent the contradictions and uncertainties that characterise the technologies and social practices related to the nuclear industry and, ultimately, the conflicting visions of nuclear energy as natural or unnatural; as either part of or a solution to environmental problems. Perhaps it is precisely these ambiguities rather than the certainty that nuclear power is unequivocally good or bad that ought to be communicated with future generations.
Järvinen, Katariina 2022. ‘Itsekkyyden muistomerkki’ vanhentui Helsingin Linnunlaulussa harvinaisen nopeasti—‘En tekisi tänä päivänä’, myönnetään Greenpeacesta. Helsingin Sanomat, 18 July 2022.
Keating, Thomas & Anna Storm 2023. Nuclear memory: Archival, aesthetic, speculative. Progress in Environmental Geography 2(1–2), 97–117.
Knowles, Scott 2022. Slow disaster and the challenge of nuclear memory. In Living in a Nuclear World: From Fukushima to Hiroshima, edited by Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, Soraya Boudia & Kyoko Sato, pp. 299–318. London: Routledge.
Storm, Anna 2020. When we have left the nuclear territories: Nonhuman entanglements with radioactive remains. In Deterritorialising the Future: Heritage in, of and after the Anthropocene, edited by Colin Sterling & Rodney Harrison, pp. 318–343. London: Open Humanities Press.
Uotila, Hannamari, Saara Ertamo & Katja Ojala (ed.) 2010. Vuoden huiput: parasta suomalaista graafista suunnittelua ja mainontaa. Helsinki: Grafia, the association of visual communication designers in Finland.
Lingering in the Bedrock
by Anna Storm
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? 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.
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.
Nuclear Natures is a 6-year research project based at the Department of Thematic Studies at Linköping University in Sweden and led by Prof. Anna Storm. The project is funded by the Swedish Research Council (VR), grant no. 2020-00623.
In the fall of 2024, the project will organise an international PhD School and conference on the topic of Nuclear Natures in Sweden. Find out more about the project, upcoming activities, and events at www.nuclearnatures.eu.