Lubach and Pazu-goo: Thoughts on Storing Nuclear Waste Underground

By Ruby de Vos

An impassioned case for nuclear energy on Dutch television and an art project in the form of a ritual burial of a Sumero-Asyrrian demon may seem a long way apart, but when brought together they allow us to think about some of the fundamental issues of our time: climate change, nuclear energy, and radioactive waste.

On Sunday 4 November 2018, the weekly Dutch satirical TV show Zondag met Lubach (“Sunday with Lubach”) featured a segment of twenty minutes in which presenter Arjen Lubach made a case for nuclear energy. He argues that, in the light of the 2018 IPCC report, which described the devastating effects of global warming if nothing changes, nuclear energy seems to be the solution we need. After all, Lubach argues, there are no carbon emissions produced in the process of atomic fission. Moreover, the dangers associated with nuclear power plants are often exaggerated, as the number of casualties caused by radiation after Chernobyl and Fukushima, the major nuclear accidents, are relatively low. Finally, with regard to the problem of nuclear waste, which remains radioactive for thousands of years, Lubach argues that we should make a pragmatic choice: there is relatively little waste, which can effectively be buried in the earth or under thick layers of concrete.

As someone who is skeptical about nuclear energy, I still have to admit there is something to be said for Lubach’s case: there is a discrepancy between the risks of producing nuclear energy and the feelings of fear associated with it. He is also right in pointing out that other modes of so-called green energy are not always sustainable or safe either. Yet I find that things are not quite as straightforward as Lubach makes them out to be. He omits to mention, for example, the pollution, public health, and colonial issues that come with the uranium mining industry that facilitates nuclear energy. He also takes for granted that the waste repositories built today will be able to protect and contain the waste over the thousands of years (remember that many of the Pyramids were looted within centuries after they were built).

I was perhaps most struck, however, by the surprising ease with which Lubach speaks about storing nuclear waste underground. It is true that deep geological waste repositories are today often seen as the safest way to permanently store radioactive material without maintenance and, in the absence of successful alternatives, it is easy to take the premise behind this strategy for granted. Yet when we think about it a little longer, from an ethical perspective geological waste repositories are not necessarily logical. What does it mean to bury tons of radioactive waste in the earth, in good conscience?

Climate change and the Anthropocene are not simply about carbon emissions and running out of fossil fuels. Instead, as geo-historical events they also stand for structural exploitative modes of acting upon the earth. Solving the problem of climate change, then, is not only about finding the fastest technological solutions to the mess we have made on earth so that we can keep on doing what we’ve been doing for decades now: climate change calls for a radical change in the way we relate to and with the non-human world.

This argument also reverberates in the context of nuclear energy, as it implies that the moral responsibility to take care of nuclear waste for the sake of future human generations should be extended to the rest of the earth. While I realize that such ethical statements are easier to make than to adhere to, I fully felt their implications in May 2018, when I participated in the burial of the figure of Pazu-goo, during a workshop about the temporalities of radiotoxicity. In the words of artist Andy Weir, who developed this project, Pazu-goo is “a gooey, collectively modifiable uranium glow-stick waving Pazuzu, the Sumero-Asyrrian demon of contagion, epidemic and dust” and facilitates a project that comments on deep geological nuclear waste repositories. In workshops, or simply by contacting Weir, interested participants design the small figure, which can be printed using a 3D printer. The figure is then encased in clay and can be “flushed into local water supplies” or buried into the earth. The materiality of Pazu-goo likely will outlive those who buried it, leaking into its environment, transitioning through it, and functioning ultimately as a counter-comment on waste repositories’ “guiding idea that waste could just be hidden away in a passive ‘Earth,’ separated from an unaffected ‘humanity.’”

It is a strange thing, to consciously bury something in the earth, knowing that it does not belong there. When some plastic wrapper or other piece of trash falls out of my coat pocket, I pick it up; burying Pazu-goo feels very counter-intuitive in that sense. Weir’s piece is by no means a perfect analogy for geological waste repositories nor does it mean to reject them. The work defamiliarizes the idea of underground nuclear waste disposal at the same time that it situates those involved in the burial as active participants. Becoming consciously complicit in the act of the Pazu-goo’s burial might make us increasingly uncomfortable with that automatic impulse behind the thought of burying nuclear waste. Weir’s project demands that we stay a little longer with the greater implications of these repositories: that the earth may not be just a passive recipient of that which we throw into it; that we do not really know where the waste will end up.

Ruby de Vos is a PhD candidate at the department of European Languages and Cultures at Groningen University, where she is writing her dissertation on radio- and chemical toxicity in contemporary art and literature.