When Deep Time Becomes Shallow: Knowing Nuclear Waste Risk Ethnographically

In this article from 2014, Vincent F. Ialenti explored how nuclear waste experts worked to depict Finland’s far future worlds. Can their radical long-termism inform a current moment of Anthropocene crisis? Can their bold scientific ambitions be “good to think with” in today’s anti-technocrat, anti-expert, anti-elite “post-truth” political contexts?


When I arrived in Finland about two and a half years ago to conduct ethnographic fieldwork among the motley teams of experts managing the country’s high-level nuclear wastes, my sights were set on the distant future. I had read up on scholarly and media commentaries describing how the multi-millennial timescales of nuclear waste risk have challenged governments, companies, regulators, scientists, engineers, managers, and other experts across the world to extend the reach of risk governance into previously untapped futures. I had struggled through the elaborate million-year forecasts of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (now, seemingly, ill-fated) “License Application for a High-Level Waste Geologic Repository at Yucca Mountain” and I had perused longsighted reports like the IAEA’s 2009 “Considering Timescales in the Post-Closure Safety of Geological Disposal of Radioactive Waste.” I had read imaginative books like UC Irvine physicist and science fiction author Gregory Benford’s 2000 Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across the Millennia to better grasp some of the epistemological, logistical, and ethical problems that come packaged with nuclear wastes’ lengthy horizons of hazard. I had watched films like Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen’s 2010 documentary Into Eternity: A Film For the Future to better understand depictions of nuclear waste risk’s distant futures popular among the public. Aware of efforts to build in Olkiluoto, Western Finland what could well become the world’s first operational geological repository for spent nuclear fuel, my ambition was to pursue an anthropological take on nuclear waste risk’s “deep” timescales, its “long now” (Ialenti, 2013).

Aerial Shot of the Site of the Prospective Olkiluoto High-Level Nuclear Waste Repository (Photo Credit: Posiva Oy).

Aerial Shot of the Site of the Prospective Olkiluoto High-Level Nuclear Waste Repository (Photo Credit: Posiva Oy).

Since the day I relocated from Cornell University in the United States to Europe’s Far North, I have encountered nuclear waste risk’s deep timescales frequently. Indeed allusions to Finland’s distant pasts and distant futures have rolled off my and my informants’ tongues again and again as we have discussed the ins and outs of their work. Of particular interest has been the multi-millennial geological, ecological, and climatological forecasts developed in Finnish nuclear waste management company Posiva Oy’s Safety Case for the prospective Olkiluoto repository. This Safety Case portfolio was submitted to the Finnish Radiation & Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) in December 2012 as part of Posiva’s application for a construction permit for the facility. It detailed technical designs, reported engineering principles and strategies, and contained numerous interwoven quantitative models and scenarios forecasting the repository’s potential fate over the coming hundreds of thousands of years. In exploring this repository safety assessment project ethnographically, I entered a community of experts in which relations between living societies of the present and unborn societies imagined to inhabit the distant future were examined and reexamined, imagined and reimagined, shaped and reshaped. In so doing, I came to know a lively, thought provoking, and mostly good-humored bunch of experts who, like myself, engaged imageries of distant future societies, bodies, and environments routinely in their professional work.

But now, sipping coffee in a quiet Helsinki food hall in Spring 2014 with the bulk of my ethnographic journey behind me, I find myself scrawling a list of final themes, analytical problems, and conceptual foci around which my future doctoral thesis might come to revolve. Here I cannot help but notice that a puzzling shift has occurred. Why, I wonder, have so many of the ethnographic leads I have chased, the unfolding events I have followed, and the issues I have tracked over the past few years turned out to be, well, not chiefly about nuclear waste risk’s deep timescales at all? Over time, it would seem that I have come to see nuclear waste risk’s deep timescales as less and less enchanted with the auras of mystery, terror, or sublimity common in popular depictions. Instead, I have come to see them increasingly as sites of busy technical calculation, of banal documentation requirements, of frustrating uncertainties, of difficult-to-manage office predicaments, and of specialized labors of analysis and re-analysis. Hence, it seems my ethnographic work has taught me, first and foremost, how to engage with nuclear waste risk’s deep timescales in a manner more in sync with that of my field informants.

Indeed many of the questions, problems, and happenings that captured field informants’ imaginations most in our ethnographic chats were not primarily about the forbidding expanse of deep time. Rather, informants seemed to be caught up mostly in scientific, legal, and engineering details—that is, in the technicalities of their work. Therefore, they often appeared focused, like other professionals in other highly specialized sectors, on markedly short-term futures as they grappled with challenges, frustrations, and imperatives to which I as an academic researcher can surely relate. Will Marja and Timo finish this project on schedule? When will Eero retire? Will report X be finished by deadline Y? Will our project get funding for another year? At what time does my wife expect me to be home for dinner today? Has Tuuli fallen into the disfavor of the new managers here? Should I be spending more time with my family? How can they reasonably expect us to finish this report by the end of the summer? In investigating such topics ethnographically, it seems as though a shift in my own sense of nuclear waste risk’s timescales has taken hold. It seems my attention has been nudged away from distant future horizons and toward the short-term horizons of deadlines, schedules, funding politics, project phases, career stages, daily plans, five-year plans, contingency plans, human life courses, and so on. It seems that deep futures have faded from view, displaced by the ethnography’s here and now. For me, over time, nuclear waste risk’s deep timescales have become shallow.

And so too has my sense of nuclear waste risk’s aesthetics been transformed. Looking back, in Madsen’s Into Eternity documentary, the Olkiluoto repository project exuded aesthetics of desolation and bleakness, of forbidding machinery and industrial processes. It was depicted as a place where dark souls tended to the world’s most lethal waste in a lifeless cave beneath a frigid island at the edge of the habitable world. It was depicted as a place of gloom and gravity, stillness and darkness. With that scene set, Madsen told a compelling story of nuclear waste experts speaking straightforwardly of their plans to engineer an underground facility resilient to the contingencies to befall the Olkiluoto region over the coming millennia. The moods, ambiances, and cadence of the film were stirring and the story it told was engrossing. As such, the film piqued viewers’ imaginations across the world.

A Safety Case Expert’s Office Desk.

A Safety Case Expert’s Office Desk. Photo by author.

Even so, as I came to adopt a very different position in the Safety Case project, I began to discover that the professional worlds I was encountering were nothing of the same. Rather, most of the experts I encountered spent their days working in modest-but-comfortable office buildings adorned with fluorescent lights, coffee machines, clean cafeterias, saunas, tasteful prints of artwork on the walls, and unostentatious brick exteriors. Most sat in office chairs for much or most of their workdays running models on computers, scrutinizing regulatory requirements, splitting hairs over datasets, and when necessary, sometimes staying up late into the night to finish technical reports before an impending deadline. The experts spent much of their time working quietly, chatting lightly and joking amongst themselves, attending meetings, drinking coffee, poring over reports. Such were the aesthetics of nuclear waste risk’s deep timescales as manifest in everyday professional practice.

Encountering nuclear waste risk’s deep timescales in these ways also served to put a human face on the disposal regimes tending to them. I noted how some field informants were grandparents, others divorcees, others aloof loners, others rambunctious partygoers, still others had just recently become parents. A senior informant trained for an Iron Man endurance competition as another informant of roughly the same age showed up to an interview mildly hung-over with two candy bars, a pack of cigarettes, and at least a few cups worth of coffee in hand. Some spent summers crunching numbers in their office while others enjoyed time in the Finnish countryside at their family’s kesämökki (“summer cottage”). One’s daughter had a pet hedgehog; another decorated the wall near his desk with images of his Finnish Lapphund he printed off from his computer. One field informant recently read Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and another read works by Bruno Latour, Mary Douglas, Ulrich Beck, Alice Munro, and Marcel Proust. Still another, in his spare time, read famous works in Sociology, History, and Psychology. A security guard at a building housing a research nuclear reactor was a fan of the late-1980s early-1990s action-adventure television series MacGyver. In their childhood, two experts – both geologists today – dreamed of someday becoming archaeologists. A high-status expert on the regulatory side grew up fascinated by what she saw as the ostensibly more ecologically attuned lifeways of Native Americans. A hydrogeologist told me of how she sees horseback riding as an enjoyable counterpoint to her professional work that helps her clear her mind outdoors in the forest. One informant went boxing on Tuesdays to keep her arms, back, and shoulders moving after hunching over her computer all day.

Allowing such shifts to take hold– shifts in my ethnographic sense of nuclear waste risk’s temporalities, aesthetics, and human faces – helped me examine the expert livelihoods behind this repository Safety Case project with greater acuity. But what was perhaps more crucial was how it, concurrently, brought forth an alternate understanding of nuclear waste risk management’s promises and problems. For one, it demonstrated how the short-term futures of project funding politics and the inner-workings of multidisciplinary scientific collaborations like the Safety Case are worthy of much greater social scientific scrutiny. Further, it unveiled the nuances of challenges posed as Olkiluoto repository project insiders worked to maintain stable successions of recruitments and retirements, intergenerational information transfer and training, financial solvency, and coherent organization continuously for no less than 140 years. Finally, it underscored the great societal organization necessary for supplying nuclear energy projects and their requisite nuclear waste management projects with highly specialized and recruitable younger experts decade in and decade out. Such challenges are, I should note, arguably amplified in Finland (population ~5.5 million), given the relatively small size of the country’s community of nuclear waste disposal experts.


A Nuclear Waste Disposal Expert Sifts Through Clays Being Considered for Backfilling the Repository Tunnels After its Closure Sometime Around 2120. Photo by author.

When reflecting on these intertwined day-to-day, multi-decade, centurial, and multi-millennial horizons of nuclear waste risk all at the same time, a different set of sensibilities emerges. Namely, it becomes evident how relatively short-term events like unanticipated deaths, retirements of key experts, obsolescence of information storage technologies, and surprise career-changes can potentially shake nuclear waste management projects’ stabilities. Responding to this, projects to form mentoring relationships between soon-to-retire experts and fresh recruits are being established. Efforts to write down or backup in databases the knowledge and insights of aging scientists before they die are increasingly entering the fore. And social events bringing together nuclear energy sector youngsters and elders to foster closer intergenerational ties are being assembled. Such projects broach questions of intergenerational change and continuity, of contingency and expectation, and of nuclear risk and energy futures. These are, of course, topics about which social scientists and humanists have much to say and to which they today have much to contribute. However, for me to really see the nuances dwelling within these problems in the first place during fieldwork, I as an ethnographer first had to open myself to shifts in my sense of nuclear waste risk’s timescales, aesthetics, and humanity. Realizing this has strengthened my faith in the transformative potential of ethnographic research in raising fresh questions, challenging assumptions, and seeing new subtleties. So, as I sit here writing at this juncture – looking back on the field and forward toward writing a doctoral dissertation on nuclear waste risk – I glean another, simpler insight from my engagement with radioactive hazards so long lived. Long live ethnography.


Vincent F. Ialenti is a PhD Candidate in Cornell University’s Department of Anthropology.


Ialenti, Vincent F. 2013. Nuclear Energy’s Long Now: Intransigent Wastes & Radioactive Greens. Suomen Antropologi: The Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 38(3).