The art of easing nuclear fears

Sunday, May 29, 2011

VLISSINGEN // A tapestry adorns a concrete wall that separates a decade’s worth of radioactive waste from the population of the Netherlands.

It is a reproduction of a 17th-century weaving of a naval battle from the Dutch war of independence. A golden sun marks the spot on the panorama where, now, the by-products of nuclear power plants and medical research reactors are sequestered in concrete warehouses.

The organisation charged with managing the Netherlands’ nuclear waste has also waged a campaign – not against an imperial power, but with public opinion. Its primary weapon? Art.

The Central Organisation for Radioactive Waste, also known as Covra, has persuaded museums to store works of art just feet from barrels of nuclear waste, hired an artist to conceptualise a facility for spent fuel and once hosted a theatre performance in a secure zone – all part of its plan to make the public feel safe.

“The big problem with radiation is you can’t hear, see or feel it. That makes it mysterious to people and therefore dangerous,” says Dr Ewoud Verhoef, Covra’s deputy director. “Safety is not only technical – it’s something emotional.”

The experience of the Netherlands in addressing public fears about the nuclear industry holds lessons for Abu Dhabi as it builds the Gulf region’s first nuclear power plant. By the time all four reactors in the US$20 billion plant are running, Abu Dhabi is expected to draw as much as a quarter of its power from nuclear energy, part of its plan to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and cut carbon emissions.

Abu Dhabi wants to win its own public opinion campaign as it gets its first reactors running in the next seven years.

Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation, the Government’s nuclear power company, began the process last year with town hall-style meetings in the capital and near the proposed site in the Western Region. Residents posed questions to engineers and went home with plastic models of the uranium pellets that are to fuel the reactors.

Making the unseen tangible has long been part of the strategy in the Netherlands, where every year Covra throws open its doors to thousands of visitors including high school students and Greenpeace activists.

Covra is a two-hour drive south of Amsterdam in an industrial centre on the southern coast. Two kilometres past the nation’s only active nuclear plant, an orange building beckons.

Neon-green letters on its 1.7-metre-thick walls spell out E = mc2, the equation from the physicist Albert Einstein that is considered the foundation of nuclear technology. The Dutch artist behind the idea of co-locating art and nuclear waste has arranged for the walls to be repainted a lighter shade each year, with the colour being transformed to white over a century to represent the long process of radioactive decay.

“We not only built the safest place in the Netherlands but also the biggest piece of art,” says Dr Verhoef. “Waste management is an emotionally charged subject. That’s why we use art as a way to communicate, because with art you can reach that section of the population. “That’s something that is often forgotten in the nuclear industry. That’s something that Greenpeace is doing a better job of, because they add the emotion.”

Dutch authorities hope that by 2103 the country will amass the funds for a long-term geological repository, which they estimate will cost €2bn in today’s cash. The Netherlands, which draws just 4 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power, shares a dilemma with other countries that have small amounts of radioactive waste but lack funds for costly underground storage.

Covra’s high-level waste building, by contrast, cost about €125 million, most of that funded by the producers of the waste at universities and the state utility.

If the lifetime of the Dutch nuclear plant is extended and research reactors commit more funds, another €25m to €50m could be invested to increase storage. For now, Covra manages some 10,000 cubic metres of waste, some of it in the orange building for highly radioactive material and the rest next door in a building for low to medium-level waste.

Garage-like rooms there each hold a decade’s worth of waste in stacked concrete barrels. In one room, the naval battle tapestry hangs near cages holding artefacts from museums.

“Our own enthusiasm for technology and safety assessments isn’t enough to bridge the gap with the general population,” says Dr Verhoef.

“If you put museum collections and radioactive waste in the same room, that puts it on a human scale.”

Among the items in the cages are gold-framed paintings, a Remington Standard typewriter and Victorian dolls.

One museum has deposited a grandfather clock, its pendulum now motionless.

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