Bodies in time: measuring and categorising in environmental clean-up
Petra Tjitske Kalshoven, Dalton Research Fellow, School of Social Sciences, The University of Manchester
Decommissioning, time, and caring for wastes
Over the past few years, I have carried out ethnographic fieldwork in West Cumbria to explore the role that the nuclear industry plays as an intrinsic part of its local, environmental and societal, context. West Cumbria is home to the Sellafield site, which has been a key player in the UK’s nuclear exploits. It was here that plutonium was produced for nuclear weapons. Nuclear power was generated in a first generation Magnox reactor until 2003. As reprocessing of spent fuel from international and UK sources is planned to end later this year, the site will soon move into full decommissioning. With nuclear facilities ageing around the world, decommissioning has become big business for years to come: Sellafield Limited’s core business henceforth, nuclear waste management and so-called environmental remediation, will take an estimated 120 years.
One of the things that I find fascinating about nuclear decommissioning is precisely its relationship with time: geological time, history, the present, as well as near and deep futures (Irvine 2014). Because of the particular kinds of radioactive contamination and waste that are produced in nuclear endeavours, which must be kept away from living beings and the environment now and for thousands of years, the nuclear industry is concerned with levels and measures of radiation exposure in the present but must also take the future into account; in particular, its intergenerational ‘legacy’. Increasingly, caring for wastes and all that remains in the aftermath of nuclear operations (materially, socioeconomically, environmentally, and culturally) is taken seriously. Part of decommissioning is packaging waste and working to leave radioactively contaminated land in a safe ‘end state’—or a safe enough end state. Preparing for the future (or ‘foresight’) is thus an indelible part of any contemporary nuclear endeavour. That such preparedness was not the highest priority during the early, military days of nuclear activity has led to the daunting legacy of contaminated land and hazardous wastes currently stored at Sellafield and around the world.
In making their cases, so-called safety cases, to prepare for the future by cleaning up radioactive contamination and packaging nuclear wastes, nuclear engineers and scientists aim to capture and tame notions of risk through practices of measuring and categorising. Simulations and measurements of the impact of exposure on soils, materials, and bodies constitute inputs for determining what is considered safe. Nuclear waste is categorised according to levels of radioactivity (for the difference between the various waste categories, see here; cf. Kalshoven 2020a). The different levels determine how the waste is to be treated and packaged to keep it away from living beings and the environment. I am interested in how measuring and categorising shapes action and thus shapes the future. In this mini-lecture, I want to look in particular at how imagined human bodies become gauges for future planning through measuring and categorising—and at what is gained and lost through these practices.
On environmental remediation
Imagined human bodies are central to Shannon Cram’s article, but to put it in context I first want to pay attention to a key concept in her text, namely, environmental remediation. This is a concept that I came across at Sellafield as well—more about that below.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which describes itself as ‘the world’s foremost forum for scientific and technical cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear technology’, offers the following definition: ‘Environmental remediation refers to reducing radiation exposure, for example, from contaminated soil, groundwater or surface water. The purpose is more than just eliminating radiation sources; it is about protecting people and the environment against potential harmful effects from exposure to ionizing radiation’.
Note the IAEA’s careful phrasing: ‘reducing radiation exposure’. It sounds like a euphemism. They don’t say ‘cleaning up or getting rid of radioactive contamination’ because apparently, things are not quite that straightforward. To begin with, implied here is that in order to determine the terms of environmental remediation it is first necessary to determine the level of radiation exposure considered acceptable, both for human bodies and for the environment, and this bears a relation with a site’s intended use. From the IAEA’s further discussion of the topic it transpires that environmental remediation requires making choices: ‘Returning a contaminated site to its original state is often neither necessary nor possible. While environmental remediation aims to reduce radiation exposure to protect people, remediated sites can still be used for various purposes, for example, industrial operations and even housing’. … ‘As every country is different and every site has its own characteristics, choosing the best possible environmental remediation solution means balancing between risks, costs, benefits and available technologies as well as public acceptance’. Immediately, interesting questions arise: who is doing this balancing? Who is accountable for the result? How do costs creep into the balancing act?
On its website, the IAEA engages with the choices and uncertainties involved in deciding on ‘the best possible environmental remediation solution’ by asking: ‘How clean is clean?’ The Agency goes on to suggest that regulations are key in answering this question: ‘Regulations define in detail “how clean clean is”, i.e. the requirements that will need to be met in each given situation; the level of site characterization to be accepted before and after the remediation works; and the acceptable end state of the site’. This sounds quite straightforward, but there is again a lot to unpack here. For example, who or what is behind the regulations? How does one know what requirements are to be met? Who decides what is acceptable?
The human body as a standardised gauge: Hanford and ‘human types’
Let’s turn now to a perspective on environmental remediation in Shannon Cram’s piece, which discusses the Hanford nuclear site in Washington State, the United States’ ‘largest and most expensive nuclear cleanup effort’ (2015: 796). Hanford is in many ways comparable to Sellafield in terms of the remediation required, although Hanford is spread out over a much larger area. Cram’s definition of remediation is interestingly different from how the IAEA approaches the topic in the quotations above. Drawing on the U.S. Superfund Act, she states bluntly that ‘nuclear landscapes are considered remediated once acceptable carcinogenic risk levels have been met’ (ibid). So it’s a matter of determining and measuring these risk levels. You need to know what level of exposure is encountered by what type of human body that might live in the area in the future, and what risk this presents to their health; and that gives you data on which you can base the level of remediation that is required. Cram goes on to discuss how human bodies become statistically standardised in risk assessments by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) so that eight ‘human types’ can be used against which to measure levels of exposure—and she points out the frictions that occur in such standardising. DOE bases these various human types on lifestyles: what a specific type of body eats and drinks, how it breathes. Cram shows that assumptions made about lifestyles are less straightforward than they are made out to be by DOE, for example in terms of gender or in terms of ethnicity.
Particularly interesting is the case she mentions of Native American critiques of DOE templates. She discusses a failed attempt by Native American representatives to have their own template rather than the DOE’s accepted. A Umatilla leader whom she quotes explains that it is not enough to include a preference for certain food stuffs (such as harvesting of wildlife) in the ‘Native American Resident’ human type. In a remark that resonates with more generally expressed Native American claims of closeness to the land, the Umatilla leader elaborates: ‘ “Our ties to the environment are much more complex and intense than is generally understood … Because my tribal culture and religion are essentially synonymous with and inseparable from the land, the quality of the sociocultural and eco-cultural landscapes is as important as the quality of individual natural resources”’ (Cram 2015: 803). In insisting on ‘quality’ in the perception of landscapes, this Native American leader implies a weakness in the conception of DOE human types. Although these acknowledge varieties in lifestyles including qualitative aspects of resource usage, expressed through quantitative metrics, they do not account sufficiently for culturally specific perceptions and appreciations of where quality resides. Metrics inevitably abstract from lived experience.
The human body as a standardised gauge: an example from LLWR
Working with standardised bodies, for purposes of both present-day and future avoidance of harmful effects of radiation, also came up in conversations I had in West Cumbria, for example with representatives of The Low Level Waste Repository (LLWR) at Drigg. At LLWR, questions about the future of the site and the waste kept there are systematically addressed. Situated eight miles south of the Sellafield site, LLWR receives and stores low-level nuclear waste. This is a very different playing field from the highly active wastes that are, for now, kept at Sellafield. Basically, according to my LLWR discussion partners, the waste they deal with is ‘general trash’: from office furniture to pipework, a lot of which can be treated, recycled, or diverted. Waste at LLWR is stored in vaults and trenches that are to be capped, ultimately resulting in a green hill once the facility will have been closed in approximately 100 years.
When I spoke with LLWR managers in June 2020, they explained that their focus was very much on making the site safe for the future. One of the elements to reckon with would be erosion expected to occur along the coast. They did not foresee the need for dedicated environmental remediation because of the relatively low radioactivity present—there was no comparison, they emphasised, with the Sellafield site’s waste inventory and the contamination that had occurred there over the years.
My discussion partners cited an intergenerational normative prescription that the people who had benefited from nuclear energy and from the military nuclear deterrent (‘having been kept safe’, as they put it) should deal with nuclear waste now and not leave it to future generations. To underpin the safety case, LLWR staff would make assumptions about human activity that erred on the conservative side. I was told that they must assure ‘passive safety’, which implied assuming that in 100 years’ time, no-one would know the nuclear waste was there and no-one would know about nuclear risks, and that people would be living off the land. Living off the land would imply being more exposed to potential risks of radionuclides having been absorbed into soil, water, and air, and into food stuffs, thus calling for a stricter safety case.
Flesh on the bones of such assumptions about future dwellers comes from habit surveys carried out in the present by the Food Standard Agency (FSA) and by the nuclear industry itself, which form the basis for habit profiles quite comparable to the human types discussed in Cram’s article. Habit surveys are shared with the West Cumbria Site Stakeholders Group (WCSSG), the formal body tasked with scrutinising the nuclear industry, and its working groups. WCSSG meetings always include representatives of the relevant UK regulators, the Environment Agency and the Office for Nuclear Regulation. The public are welcome to attend as well. On such occasions, I learnt that house-boat dwellers and consumers of crustaceans and of game meat were amongst the groups of particular interest to the FSA. I wondered how this related to my own diet of local venison, offal, and game birds (Kalshoven 2020b). The FSA presenter was not so sure what particular deer had been inspected for his elaborate numbers—which made me feel a tad uneasy.
For the imagined individuals belonging to the drawn-up habit profiles, the FSA estimates how much radioactivity they would ingest and whether this stays within regulatory limits. Samples of food sources are taken to determine kinds and levels of radionuclides. The highest peaks (still considered within safe limits) pertained to (shell)fish consumers and sediment dwellers. Sellafield Limited make similar estimates around the site, supplemented with marine, beach, and groundwater monitoring, and use so-called habit profiles (again, profiles of particular life styles), adopting the ‘representative persons’ approach. The representative person, it was explained at one meeting, represents the highest possible dose a person with that particular consumption pattern could receive.
In these presentations to local stakeholders, Sellafield Limited representatives are intent on showing that emissions and potential doses stay well within permitted boundaries (expressed in microsieverts/year). They often make advantageous comparisons with areas where radioactivity occurs naturally. Such presentations are generally very well received by the WCSSG. Challenges to some of the reassuring claims have been made, however, by activist groups, in particular by Radiation Free Lakeland.
My LLWR discussion partners explained that they would similarly speak of ‘potentially exposed groups’ (formerly called ‘critical groups’), such as fishermen who are in closer contact with potentially contaminated surfaces or eat shell fish that are known to absorb radionuclides. Other variables might include how much milk an average group would drink (cf. Wynne 1992). To plan for the future, I was told, LLWR would project these estimates forwards, but then more conservatively so, even drawing on practices considered to belong to a past era: assuming that residents would live on small holdings producing their own food rather than go to Tesco’s, all meant to reduce risks even more in a bid to protect future life.
About qualitative and quantitative perspectives
In projections as those made by DOE or at LLWR, acceptable risks of exposure function as guidelines for future planning in the shape of waste management and environmental remediation. Conversely, however, environmental remediation becomes a guide for acceptable risks because the extent to which the environment needs to be free from radionuclides in the future is a function of the use humans are expected to make of the site once it has been remediated, or left alone. And this is a matter of hopes and desires for future life worlds, and imaginings of what such future life worlds could look like—where more often than not qualitative rather than quantitative considerations come to the fore. Imaginings of the future in West Cumbria are closely related to potential end states for the Sellafield site: they frame and shape each other. Imaginings of those end states were key to a Beam project that we carried out in 2019-2020, called Sellafield Site Futures. It culminated in an exhibition of sculptures by artist Wallace Heim at Florence Arts Centre in Egremont. You can see photographs of the sculptures here and here.
Accounting for change and diversity
In the preceding discussions, critical perspectives came to the fore on tensions between quantitative, easily measurable, standardised data as input for safety cases leading up to projects of waste management and environmental remediation; individual traits or habits evading standardisation; and more qualitative aspects of human, and non-human, experience with and attachment to land. Bodies were measured, imagined, and made to matter in different ways. Abstracted from lived experience, they were turned into stylised units made up out of quantifiable elements, standardised, in order to achieve compatibility with other quantitative units and projected into the future. Resistance was put up through attempts to put diverse and individual bodies with specific histories, hopes, and desires somehow back into the framework.
And yet, preparing for environmental remediation requires making a general case. Apart from the limitations of quantified standardisation listed above, a risk of such generalising practice is that assumptions tend to become fixed, taken for granted, not accounting for change in people’s habits, outlooks, perceptions. At our Sellafield Site Futures workshops, we realised how difficult it is to imagine society’s workings a century from now. At a WCSSG meeting that I attended in November 2019, the Food Standards Agency noted a 2018 increase in aquatic consumption of crustaceans and wildfowl, and a new habit consisting in the collection of wild fungi on salt marsh. It was heartening to hear that the FSA was interested in taking new kinds of lifestyles on board, including a tendency to eat more off the land and to harvest wild foods—ironically, a return of sorts to ‘old-fashioned’ habits to be fed into preparations for a future.
Questions to ponder
- The nuclear industry places a lot of emphasis on management of stakeholder relations. Who decides who these stakeholders are? How involved and how critical are stakeholders invited to be? How involved or how critical can they be bothered to be? Local stakeholders are likely to consider local interests. Who represents global interests—or non-human animal interests—or ecosystem interests? Who is responsible for drawing attention to such issues?
- How useful is it to project knowledge of the present into the future? What are the drawbacks of dwelling on past experience when imagining a future? What role may uncertainties and unknowns be made to play in preparing and planning for the future? A discipline that tries to make sense of such issues is Foresight Studies.
- Costs were mentioned several times in our discussion. Expressing matters in monetary terms is directly related to issues of measurement: it makes for easy comparison. The problem is of course whether worth or value can always be expressed in financial terms, or whether some things have worth that cannot easily be expressed in frameworks of measurement. Who decides on the relevance or importance of financial considerations involved in the question ‘How clean is clean?’ To what extent can, or should, environmental matters be expressed in financial terms, in particular where intergenerational responsibilities are at stake?
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Cram, Shannon. 2015. ‘Becoming Jane: The making and unmaking of Hanford’s nuclear body’. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 33: 796–812.
Irvine, Richard D.G. 2014. ‘Deep time: an anthropological problem’. Social Anthropology / Anthropologie Sociale 22: 157–172.
Kalshoven, Petra Tjitske. 2020a. ‘Surface-making in Nuclear Decommissioning: A narrative of sludge, plutonium and their whereabouts’ in Apparition: The (Im)materiality of Modern Surface, ed. YeSeung Lee, London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC. Pp. 37–50.
Kalshoven, Petra Tjitske. 2020b. ‘Hunting and a green recovery’. Deer: The Journal of the British Deer Society, Winter 2020-21: 20–22.
Wynne, Brian. 1992 ‘Misunderstood misunderstanding: social identities and public uptake of science’. Public Understandings of Science 1: 281–304.