Always and forever: How do we pass on knowledge about repositories to future generations?

10.02.2020

©istockphoto.com/ karimhesham

The ancient Greeks built the acropolis 2,400 years ago, the Egyptians erected the pyramids about 4,500 years ago, and the oldest cave paintings are more than 35,000 years old. For a repository to obtain a licence in Germany, it has to be demonstrated that the high-level radioactive waste emplaced will be safely kept away from the environment for more than one million years. An almost unimaginably long period of time. A repository should be designed in such a way that the waste will remain isolated from the environment for this period of time - without permanent monitoring or human intervention.

However, this does not mean that knowledge about the existence and possible risks of a repository may be lost. Countries that are planning the geological disposal of radioactive waste therefore face various challenges. On the one hand, they must preserve the knowledge about the location of the repository. This is necessary to ensure that future generations will be safe from accidentally accessing the repository - for example when making exploratory drillings in search of raw materials. On the other hand, detailed information about the repository and the waste has to be preserved in the event of any intentional intervention (e.g. for salvaging the waste or for raw material use). But what could such cross-generational knowledge preservation over very long periods of time look like?

GRS involved in an international OECD project

The Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has recently presented the results of a research project that dealt with precisely this question. In the project "Preservation of Records, Knowledge and Memory (RK&M) Across Generations" - RK&M Initiative for short - experts from 14 countries had been working on possible strategies  since 2011. To this end, experts from a wide range of disciplines, including repository research and geology, but also archaeology, sociology and communication sciences, came together in the project. GRS provided technical support for the project and took over the leadership of the research group in the course of the project.

Results of the RK&M project

After eight years of work, the final report of the initiative and thus the most up-to-date and comprehensive summary on the RK&M topic so far is now available. The report provides a historical overview and takes a closer look at some of the popular concepts from the 1980s and 1990s. It presents international developments, discusses ethical aspects, and highlights the challenges that arise in this field.

The researchers come to the conclusion that the combination of different methods and measures at technical, administrative and societal level represents the most promising strategy for the long-term preservation of knowledge and information. Components of this strategy could include, for example, the storage of documents and files both in archives and time capsules. Simple information can also be "stored" on site in the form of markers or monuments. The knowledge about the repository can, for example, be passed on via schools or educational institutions of various kinds.

The so-called Key Information File (KIF) could play a special role in medium and long term RK&M preservation. This is a document to be created specifically for this purpose. It should contain the minimum information about the repository (e.g. size, location, waste emplaced, history) that is necessary to understand its nature and purpose. Apart from that, international treaties and guidelines, safeguards and  monitoring, the preservation of the industrial heritage, or the dedicated reuse  of the site, e.g. in the form of a museum, can also be tools of knowledge preservation.

The components of a RK&M preservation system complement and reinforce each other. What is important is to have multifaceted communication that must keep an eye on different time periods (the first 50 years, 1,000 years, and beyond). In their report, the experts use a hypothetical case study to illustrate how richly an RK&M strategy can be devised. However, what a strategy for a concrete repository looks like must and should remain a national decision that depends on the given context. The OECD Group recommends that the issue be addressed at an early stage.

The situation in Germany: The experts are only at the beginning

At present, neither Germany nor most other countries have a comprehensive strategy regarding the preservation or transfer of knowledge about a repository for high-level radioactive waste. First indications of a German approach can be found in the Safety Requirements  prepared by the Federal Environment Ministry in 2010, according to which all important data, including the exact location and size of the repository and the properties of the waste, have to be documented. The relevant documents are to be updated at regular intervals during the operational phase and stored as complete sets at two physically separate locations after the closure of the repository.

The new Site Selection Act speaks of "data and documents that are or may become important for the final and interim storage of radioactive waste" and stipulates that a yet-to-be-issued legal ordinance by the Federal Environment Ministry will specify details such as content, scope, storage, and use.
The results of the OECD project are intended to make a contribution to a responsible, ethically sound, sustainable management  of high-level radioactive waste in Germany and in other countries.

Find out more

>> Final Report of the RK&M Initiative
>> OECD project website of the RK&M Initiative
>> Safety Requirements Governing the Final Disposal of Heat-Generating Radioactive Waste