Illustration by Casey Cripe

Deep Time Underground

Finland’s nuclear waste experts have, for decades, quietly envisioned distant future ecosystems. Exploring their thinking anthropologically can expand our awareness of time.

HELSINKI, Finland, 02013. I sipped black coffee under the fluorescent office lights of the VTT Technical Research Centre, Finland’s largest state-owned research and technology non-profit company. Chatting with me was Risto, a soft-spoken systems analyst in his forties. Risto’s job was to develop computer models of how, whether, and where radionuclides could potentially travel underground in the distant future, in the event that a copper canister buried at a nuclear waste repository in Western Finland someday ruptures.

A radionuclide is an element with an unstable nucleus. It emits radiation as it breaks down, undergoing a process called radioactive decay. Certain kinds of radionuclides — if inhaled or ingested in significant amounts — can still pose health risks to humans and other lifeforms tens or even hundreds of thousands of years in the future.

Risto was working on what, in the mid-02020s, will likely become the world’s first operational deep geologic repository for used-up — or “spent” — nuclear fuel. Spent fuel is a byproduct of nuclear power reactors: an emissions-free energy source that many see as crucial in the fight against climate change. Roughly 263,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel have piled up — usually in temporary cooling pools or concrete casks — in storage facilities on or near the surface of the Earth. Risto’s mission was to secure Finland’s 2300 tons of spent fuel deep underground, where it will be less vulnerable to future natural disasters, wars, neglect, sabotage, weaponization, or leaks.

When Risto spoke, he strung his sentences together carefully and methodically. His tone was calm, warm, and straightforward. He wore a simple, casual, dark-colored collared shirt to work.

Risto described how he spends his weekdays sitting alone at his desk, developing geophysical and hydrological models on his computer — departing, at times, for the occasional meeting down the hall. He was pleased that his models indicated that local populations will be safe from radiological hazards for many millennia. Yet he envied his peers who worked outdoors. His geoscientist colleagues drilled boreholes into Finland’s underground. They sampled water and minerals from across the country, providing data inputs that were fed into his models of future subsurface worlds.

The minutes ticked by on my audio recording app. I scribbled down notes, distracted occasionally by the soft, serene drifts of snow falling outside the window across the dark Nordic sky.

Risto recounted a childhood memory to me. He recalled sitting outside, decades ago, watching an ant repeatedly try to climb up a ridge of mud formed by a human bootprint in the ground. The ant kept climbing up, falling down, climbing up again, falling down, ad nauseam. Risto was never sure whether the ant ultimately made it. But he was struck by two things. The first was the ant’s tenacity in ceaselessly trying to surmount what should — perhaps like his own efforts to augur far future worlds — have been dismissed outright as an insurmountable obstacle. The second was the steadfastness with which the ant repeatedly climbed up and fell down: deploying its best problem-solving strategies to tackle an inordinately difficult challenge without any certainty that it could be accomplished.

Risto was under contract with Posiva, a Finnish nuclear waste management company. Posiva had already tunneled deep into the granite bedrock below Olkiluoto, a small islet in the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic Sea. There, they built a subsurface laboratory called Onkalo (Finnish for “cavity” or “hollow”). Onkalo researchers provided Risto with information about the prospective nuclear repository site’s local geophysical conditions.

In the years ahead, Posiva would continue renovating Onkalo into a full repository — expanding it to a depth of 400 to 450 meters. Posiva’s repository would be filled with deposition holes, where Finnish nuclear power companies TVO’s and Fortum’s 13,500 or so spent nuclear fuel bundles will be buried. These comprised over two thousand tons of uranium, plus fission products like cesium, iodine, and technetium. Risto’s colleagues at Posiva planned to slide these bundles into tube-shaped cast iron containers, then seal them inside large copper canisters at a nearby encapsulation plant. Emplaced in the holes, the canisters would be surrounded by an absorbent bentonite clay. The clay would absorb groundwater, expand, and serve as a “buffer” between the waste and the bedrock.

I was working on a very different project.

I am a cultural anthropologist. I study how different cultures conceptualize the passage of time, and engage with futures and pasts, near and distant. Studying how a community frames its time horizons can not only offer a window into its worldviews, values, and lifeways. It can also inspire a more robust societal time literacy.

An expanded temporal awareness will be necessary for tackling long-term planetary challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, microplastics accumulation, antibiotic resistance, asteroid impacts, population growth, supervolcano eruptions, and sustainable urban planning. So, I spent thirty-two months conducting ethnographic fieldwork among a quirky band of experts who routinely ponder the fate of long-lived radionuclides such as uranium-235, which has a half-life of over seven hundred million years.

I took Finnish language courses and immersed myself in Northern European life. I conversed with nuclear waste experts in person, read their technical reports, and heard out their critics. I visited them at work and grabbed coffee, lunch, or drinks with them whenever possible. I ended up recording 121 interviews with physicists, engineers, geologists, mathematicians, hydrologists, artists, systems analysts, industry lobbyists, managers, chemists, finance professionals, activists, lawyers, politicians, academics, and others.

I encountered a scene in which mind-bending visions of far future bodies, societies, and environments figured into everyday office routines, industry plans, and regulatory rules.

Finland’s nuclear experts taught me how to see distant future worlds through their eyes. They pondered far future glaciations, earthquakes, floods, landscape evolution, and human and animal population shifts. They reckoned with planetary timescales in ways strikingly out-of-sync with industrial civilization’s manic fixations on the now. Yet I often struggled with the seemingly absurd proposition: the notion that a small band of well-funded nuclear waste experts could, over several decades, develop increasingly credible forecasts of happenings tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of years from now.

Still, I often asked myself: what if nuclear waste experts' long-term thinking techniques were distributed more widely across society? What if longsighted perspectives like theirs were more commonly instilled by education institutions? Would societal outlooks more in sync with the slow, geophysical rhythms of our planet take root? Could this shift in temporal awareness help stave off planetary ecological crisis? I began exploring whether my fieldwork informants’ longsighted sensibilities could — as Stewart Brand once put it — help make long-term thinking more automatic and common instead of difficult and rare.

Safety Case

Before Posiva could build and operate its Olkiluoto repository, it first needed permission from Finland’s Ministry of Employment & the Economy. To get that permission, the repository’s safety assessment — its “Safety Case” — first had to be approved by Finland’s nuclear regulatory authority, Säteilyturvakeskus (STUK). The Safety Case explored whether potential radiation exposures to future populations would be safely below the country’s legal limits, even tens or hundreds of thousands of years from now. It consisted of thousands of pages of technical evidence detailing the repository’s design, reporting engineering principles, and presenting numerous quantitative models, computer simulations, and scenarios that forecasted the facility’s fate across deep time.

Risto’s models fed into the Safety Case project. When I met him and his colleagues during my fieldwork, they were asking questions like: what complications could the decaying radioactive waste’s heat pose to the repository’s long-term effectiveness? At what rate will Posiva’s copper canisters and cast-iron inserts corrode underground? What will the effects of far future permafrost be? How will the coming Ice Age’s glacial ice cover affect the repository? What about the potential seismic activity slated to occur there once the ice sheet melts? What role will anthropogenic climate change play in all of this?

Some Safety Case experts made computer models depicting how radionuclides could — in worst case scenarios — escape from the repository, travel through underground rock fractures and groundwater channels, and get released at various points on Western Finland’s surface. Others prepared reports with titles like “Climate Scenarios for Olkiluoto on a Time-Scale of 120,000 Years.” Some examined how the coming Ice Age’s potentially three-kilometer-thick ice cover could affect the facility 50,000 or 60,000 years from now. Others forecasted postglacial seismic activity as the ice sheet melts and retreats.

Some Safety Case experts researched whether groundwaters of various chemical makeups could corrode the repository’s “engineered barrier system.” Others made computer models of how the Olkiluoto island site will eventually become an inland site. This meant modeling how Finland’s shoreline will widen further out into the sea as it “uplifts" in elevation — a process Finland has been undergoing since the retreat of the previous Ice Age’s enormous ice sheet. As this landmass “rebound” continues, Finland’s coast will eventually engulf Olkiluoto into its mainland.

The Safety Case's “biosphere assessment” experts modeled how Western Finland’s lakes, rivers, mires, and forests could sprout up, disappear, or change shape and size over the coming 10,000 years. They considered future soil erosion, floods, and fires. They examined scenarios showing how radionuclides could, potentially, disperse in far future ecosystems — bioaccumulating, at times, in plants and animals along the way. They simulated 6,000 future people living around the Olkiluoto area and eating only local food. They determined that a certain amount (a “critical group”) may face a greater likelihood of radionuclide exposure due to unlucky food selections.

It was obvious to the Safety Case experts that the Okiluoto region — freezing and dark for much of the year — could not support a population of this size without importing food from elsewhere. However, the biosphere assessors made “conservative” assumptions about local food consumption to persuade STUK regulators that Western Finland’s future communities would be safe even in impossibly pessimistic scenarios. They focused on the ten thousand years following the facility’s scheduled closure: roughly the same amount of time since human habitation began in Finland after the previous ice age. However, the repository’s longevity was modeled over a span of 250,000 years, to include at least one future ice age cycle. Posiva’s “Evolution of the Repository System beyond a Million Years in the Future” report looked even further ahead.

The Safety Case experts saw their models as highly-educated guesses — simply the most credible futurologies they could concoct using the best science and technology available to them at the time. They conceded that their forecasts could be dead wrong. Yet they stressed that embarking on imperfect projects to envision far futures is, ultimately, more enlightening than never embarking in the first place. Assembling multiple, flawed future scenarios always trumped the darkness of envisioning zero.

This spark of epistemic optimism was the Safety Case experts’ secret to approaching deep time not as a matter of navel-gazing speculation, but as a labor of pragmatic, experimental, transdisciplinary collaboration.

Ants, Forests & Nazca Lines

Taimi held a doctorate in geophysics and engineering geology. She shared an interest in archaeology with her daughter, who was studying it at university. When we first met, Taimi compared the Safety Case project to the Nazca Lines: huge geoglyphs built from 400 and 600 AD in what is now called Peru. Taking a zoomed-in view from the ground, Taimi explained, the Nazca Lines look merely like long walls or arbitrary lines of stones. Taking a zoomed-out view from a helicopter, however, the Nazca Lines take form as images of hummingbirds, monkeys, lizards, and sharks. To design the Nazca Lines or to design the Safety Case, Taimi reasoned, each collaborator must grasp how his or her own tasks scale-up to comprise the project’s bigger picture.

Laura was a Safety Case expert too. She grew up in Italy and earned her PhD in Chemistry in France. She spent time in the United States, working for a large national science policy research organization. After that, she moved to Finland with her American husband, a Safety Case bentonite clay expert. Like Taimi, Laura encouraged her colleagues to playfully swing around between different perspectives on their own work. She compared the Safety Case to a forest.

Some experts, Laura explained, need to take a zoomed-out view of the project’s “treetops” by ensuring that the Safety Case’s many models, datasets, scenarios, and engineering designs are stitched together properly. Others need to take a zoomed-in view of the portfolio’s “roots,” by focusing on how highly specific datasets (e.g. datasets on groundwater chemistry or fish populations in Western Finland) are fed into higher-level models of biosphere activity or underground radionuclide movements. Still others need to zoom into the “branches,” where middle-level models were fed with information-inputs that originated in the Safety Case’s roots, but also created information-outputs that later fed into the higher-level reports in the treetops.

For the Safety Case to grow, different models had to be engaged by dozens of experts from dozens of different positions, scales, and levels simultaneously. Only from this multi-angled, multi-temporal perspective could Posiva’s tentative forecasts of far future worlds be made. For Taimi, this involved zooming in-and-out between the ground-level details of one’s own work and the wider project’s airplane-level overview. For Laura, it was about appreciating the Safety Case’s multi-disciplinary, multi-level breadth. For Risto, it was about pressing on, like a Sisyphean ant, toward far future horizons, despite impossible odds.

This was how the Safety Case models learned: through an optimistic faith that multi-decade collaborations, among multi-disciplinary teams, can make future visions greater than the sums of their parts appear. Yet the Safety Case experts also integrated admissions of vast uncertainty into their own models and reports. They used methods with names like “Knowledge Quality Assessment.” The idea was that their models’ claim to legitimacy would be bolstered, not undercut, by transparently admitting to — and systematically detailing — various reductive assumptions in their knowledge base.

While looking deep time in the eye, the Safety Case experts embraced something akin to what philosopher Emmanuel Levinas once called infinition: an intellectual sensibility in which the mind allows complexity to overflow the thoughts that try to think it. This drew some of Risto’s colleagues to identify with ants too. Two of them told me how, when collaborating with dozens or even hundreds of other specialists, they felt like mere ants working in a larger collaborative ant colony. They felt themselves inhabiting a collective intelligence that superseded any individual expert’s intelligence.

Personal reflections like these showed me what grappling with nuclear waste’s deep time horizons was all about. It was about pressing onward toward impossible scientific horizons, while working in complex collaborations that, as a whole, exceed any single person’s comprehension, yet still somehow work. We hope.

Deep Time Reckoning

The Safety Case project stretched my informants’ intellects and imaginations into deep time. Engaging with their efforts anthropologically can help us stretch ours too. In my book, Deep Time Reckoning, I argue that something like the Safety Case experts’ multi-temporal, multi-perspectival sensibilities must be normalized across society and woven more tightly into the fabric of our institutions. Embracing this longsighted spirit of infinition can not only help us appreciate the brevity of our time here on Earth. It can also help us become more effective ecological stewards during a deeply uncertain moment in planetary history.

We’re inhabiting a remarkable time of geophysical transformation ushered in by human manipulations of Earth’s climate, erosion patterns, biodiversity, nitrogen cycle, atmosphere, and rock record. Gazing into deep time is no longer just for geologists, theologians, paleontologists, astrophysicists, archaeologists, climate scientists, anthropologists, or evolutionary biologists. It is our collective task. We all need to take a longer view on problems of ecological degradation and planetary stewardship. The question is how we can retool and scale-up the Safety Case experts’ long-term thinking patterns to design techniques for inhabiting a longer now.

While the Safety Case experts knew they could never fully grasp the future’s breadth, they never collapsed into a postmodern abyss of despair. Their optimistic ethos can inspire a multi-temporal mental workout routine for drawing a more nuanced awareness of deep time into our everyday habits and intuitions. An American farmer could, for instance, draw upon the Safety Case experts’ style of multi-perspectival, whole systems reasoning to ask:

How do the rhythms of seasonal weather fluctuations affect my profit fluctuations? How is the multigenerational history of my family farm alive, or not alive, in my current way of life? How would the temporal frames of a meteorologist, ecologist, or banker view my farm’s future differently? How would a locust or a crow see my situation? How was my land’s history shaped by America’s homesteading settlement patterns, government programs to mitigate the Dust Bowl, Native Americans’ multi-millennial effects on the landscape, and the extinction of North American megafauna? What will this region look like in 22,000 AD? What about 220,000 AD? What did this region look like during the time of the dinosaurs? How is my agrarian cultivation of land, and my provision of food to today’s populations, feeding into the long-term future of humanity?

Setting aside a few minutes each day for deep time contemplation can provide a rejuvenating critical distance from the frenzy of the now. It can help one appreciate how any given event, entity, or vision of tomorrow can be viewed from multiple different temporal standpoints simultaneously. The trick is to scan one’s everyday life for what anthropologist Richard Irvine calls temporal disjunctures: moments when we lose sight of the longer-term geological and ecological temporalities that make our lives possible in the first place. It means reflecting — in sociologist Barbara Adam’s terms — on the myriad intersecting timescapes that converge to shape our worlds: the schedules of democratic electoral cycles, the rhythms of capitalist commodity production, the rapidity of accelerated global communication speeds, and so on.

Yet individual actions will not be enough. To come to grips with long-term planetary threats such as asteroid impacts, climate change, or supervolcano eruptions, core societal institutions must hone their multi-temporal reasoning capacities on an organizational level. We could ask ourselves:

Should *all* industries with long-term ecological impacts — like the chemicals industry, the fossil fuels industry, or defense contractors — have long-term safety departments like Posiva’s? Should governments follow Kurt Vonnegut’s advice and establish a “Secretary for the Future” cabinet position? Should the UN establish a "Ministry for the Future,” as in Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent climate fiction novel? Should a corporation consider installing a Days Division, a Decades Division, a Centuries Division, or even a Multi-Millennial Division — each designing scenarios and forecasts scaled to different timescapes? If environmentally extractive industries will not implement long-term stewardship programs voluntarily, should multi-temporal responsibility be required by law?

These questions have no easy answers. But simply posing challenging, future-pointing questions like these can introduce more textured approximations of future worlds into our everyday lives. This can help us draft blueprints for endowing our societal institutions with more robust mechanisms for navigating multiple, intersecting socioecological time horizons. To get there, though, we must first acknowledge — as anthropologist Ghassan Hage once put it — that "regardless of what and who we are, we, as individuals and as a society, can dwell in the world in a completely different way from the way we dwell in it at any given moment.” One way of pursuing this — as Finland’s Safety Case experts have shown — is to rethink how we dwell in time.

Vincent Ialenti is a Berggruen Fellow at The University of Southern California and an incoming Long Now Research Fellow. His recent book, Deep Time Reckoning (MIT Press) is an anthropological study of how Finland’s nuclear waste experts reckoned with far future societies, bodies, and ecosystems.

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