CANCELED STS Talk: “Geology as Unconforming Infrastructure: Engineering the Containment of Nuclear Waste” by Penelope Harvey


Event Date

SS&H 1246

Penelope Harvey: "Geology as Unconforming Infrastructure: engineering the containment of nuclear waste"

Abstract: In the UK a search has begun for a site for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste. Current government policy frames the siting process in terms of two key criteria, namely 'suitable geology' and the willingness of a community to host a geological disposal facility. This process of volunteerism rests on the notion that ‘a community’ might make an active choice to help solve what is posed as a societal problem of inter-generational and environmental care that stretches into the deep future. It also assumes a conforming 'geo-sociality' to support this process. In this paper I focus on the conceptual challenges of thinking through the unconformities of geological and human agency. Finding a way into the underground involves the navigation of complex relational terrain. Engineering solutions focus on achieving a radical separation of radioactive matter from wider eco-systems through the alignment of multiple barriers, some engineered, some natural. However, this process of creating a waste infrastructure that embraces both systemic flow and fixed boundaries can only be approached via the unstable pathways of moral reasoning, the navigation of uncertainty, and the shifting scales of time and of agency. As anthropologists are challenged to re-imagine the scope of relational worlds in the anthropocene, and to follow calls to address geological relations in non-extractive mode, the engineered burial of nuclear waste poses some specific questions about how to foster and limit human entanglements with non-organic matter.