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Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Containment - the vessel and the djinn

This is a Festival review of Containment (2015)

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

15 July (account of the Q&A added, 16 July)

This is a Festival review of Containment (2015), which screened at Sheffield Documentary Festival on Sunday 7 June at 12.15 p.m., followed by a Q&A with directors Robb Moss and Peter Galison

This review started on 7 June has been a long time coming : not for want of what to say, but how to organize it (it failed, in every way, to write itself)

One could not fail to be struck, at the beginning of the film, by the graphics that directors Robb Moss and Peter Galison had commissioned for Containment (2015), which were based on the outcome of a US government project [the ‘far future’ consultation group], to engage viewers with another era, and with [fears about] what mankind’s knowledge-base* might be in AD 12,000 : as the film unfolded, it is ironic that it had been conceived that, at that remove, people might stumble across the thitherto undisturbed site of WIPP, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad (New Mexico), and of course, because one simply would just start digging through the surface there, not knowing what lay below.

Therefore, the consultation group had been tasked with establishing means to warn those people, ten millennia distant, not to do so and why. The strongest emotional conception, built on the notion that somewhere that felt physically very unsettling would deter them from wanting to be (or stay) there, is used in the poster for Containment (as above). And yet talking about the project perhaps quite unnecessarily ? took up [what felt like] quite a bit of space in a running-time of 81 minutes (?)*

The reason is that there is a significant issue of balance with having included that topic [much as one knows, e.g. from the participation, in the film's Doc/Fest Q&A, of the script consultant of Match Me ! How to Find Love in Modern Times (2014), that some films need several strands ‘to work’] : containment, in the sense of rendering (and keeping safe) nuclear materials, even in its own terms (please see below), is such an unexplored (or poorly explored) area that to consider imagining that one had succeeded (both during and after the process of nuclear fission which is another widening of the film’s scope), and succeeded so well that 3,500 generations later maybe people knew too little about what had been done not to be at risk of harming themselves, seemed a leap**. Even more, an arbitrary one (regarding the remit of the project), since ten thousand years is not even what we are told is one half-life for Plutonium-239 (Pu-239), one of twenty radioactive isotopes of Plutonium*** (link to the Wikipedia® web-page).

In this connection, it has to be a fault of Containment (but an easily rectifiable one, by adding on-screen text, or a voice-over, at the first reference) that it does not take a moment to say what ‘a half-life’ is (i.e. the time in which, through radioactive decay, one ends up with a mass of the substance half that with which one started : that radioactive isotope will constitute 50% of the mass of the material, whatever isotope(s) of that (or another) element [radioactive or not] it may have broken down into) : as suggested by the words quoted in the Tweet above, to have assumed that all those watching the film will already know and understand the jargon takes away its power to present this topic widely and coherently, when the safety of keeping nuclear material is of obvious relevance to us all.

Actually, as mentioned, the treatment in this film of what might be meant by the theme of ‘containment’ is itself wide. (It is also arguably at least as conventional to use it in the context of nuclear fusion (rather than fission, the process that a nuclear reactor is engineered to induce), denoting how to contain [or the problem of containing] the matter to be combined at phenomenally high temperatures.) That said, we do not even know, from sequences that deal with WIPP, how much Pu-244*** it was trying to store, or how, because that isotope will necessarily be around for a very long time to pose a threat (yet, from the way that we see the waste physically handled (please see below), one would not know it).

Instinctively, though, one always thought that it was highly presumptuous to imagine that, far into the future, one would get to that position (please see below). (Not least in the light of the qualms about the storage for waste in France (a country that has made itself wholly dependent on nuclear power) that are expressed in Energized (2014) [to a highly overdue account of which that now links…] by the person responsible for its design : as one recalls, his concerns came to affect his health (which, in our world, served to undermine his credibility), but he came to regret what he saw as the faults in the methodology whose implementation he had overseen.) For picturing the far future assumed (a) the lack of any site-specific mishaps, let alone (b) the survival of members of the human race who might mistakenly intrude. (Watching Last Call (2013), the companion film (for review purposes) to Energized, does not exactly leave one hopeful on (b)’s account…).

A little impressionistically, the film takes WIPP as just one of several foci for the purposes of looking at containment, including a secret US government site on the Savannah River, and the Fukushima nuclear plant, in Japan, and the landscape around it that remains contaminated albeit not, seemingly, contaminated enough for a woman not to visit the nearby town, and the family restaurant there where she had last had lunch, or a man to go back to his former home most days ? (In the Q&A (in which Robb Moss and Peter Galison both took part : more on the Q&A below), the last, rather pointed question seemingly put by someone with expertise in these matters observed, having asked after figures for measurement of contamination in the area, that the film had simply not quantified the levels of radiation that surround Fukushima, or even made a comparison with Background Radiation (link to a definition from Wikipedia®)).

At other points in the film, we had had to wonder (as the film left us doing so) why a man was handling a turtle from the Savannah River whose shell he had said was contaminated with radioactive Caesium so he seemed to be saying, as Robb Moss had to agree, in conversation afterwards, it did sound [although Moss went on to interpret the turtle as having previously been contaminated (or that others like it had been ?)]. Or why thin rubber gloves sufficed to protect employees at WIPP from the vessels, containing nuclear waste for storage, with which they were working. In themselves, in the orthodoxy of scientific understanding, there might have been reasons why this is [thought] adequate protection / safe, but the film did not explain, and thereby (as it wants to tell us itself) hangs quite a tail about what anyone really does know of these matters :

* Containment gives time, just before showing us the turtles, to show us a minister of religion on a vessel on the Savannah River, commenting on the proximity of the site to where people from his church live (although he takes it that they are deemed not to be in enough numbers for them, or any risk to their health, to be a consideration ?), and how the warning notices about fishing relate not to privacy, but to radioactivity in the fish

* What happened at Fukushima, the result of a tsunami consequent upon an earthquake, had revealed the flaws in its design, in that the pools that contained the spent fuel-rods from the reactor had been deprived of supplies of coolant, and so the danger that was posed was as much from them overheating as from the reactor(s) doing so – though, as was commented in the Q&A, it appeared that the set-up would not have survived the smaller size of quake that it had been intended to withstand ?

* Towards the end of the film, we hear how there has been an explosion at WIPP (in 2014 ?), which is not only attributed to human error in the design of the vessels constructed to hold waste (in making them, the word ‘organic’ had been misinterpreted for ‘inorganic’ (or vice versa ?), which led to using constituents that, combined, gave rise to a chemical reaction : the simple mistakes that threaten great consequences), but also proves that the underlying assertions about how geological layers, between which the storage is taking place, and which are supposed to work to guarantee its integrity, are simply wrong since radiation did, after all, escape to the surface

The last that we hear is that operations at WIPP have been suspended as is usual in life, or politics, it takes a mistake to displace [over]confidence such as that of The Mayor of Carlsbad, and the claims of the geologists, which would otherwise be accorded credence : all that thinking about how to alert people to the existence of a secure facility that has been discovered not to be secure…

In essence, the film contains a lot of material, as well as reminding one vividly of the situation of Meryl Streep, Cher, and Kurt Russell in Silkwood (1983) : one does have to ask oneself how far we have really come since then, or, indeed, how close is the world of that film, still, in terms of our competence, of what we really understand about dealing both with nuclear waste and what our experiments with nuclear fission have done with Earth (and left us with*) ?

Detail that emerged in the Q&A (and later…)

In the Q&A, it was put to Moss and Galison when asking about the ‘far future’ project that they had given space to this aspect, but had also, by contrast, not chosen (or chosen not ?) to pre-date the circumstances of Fukushima by referencing what had (or could have) happened at Chernobyl (or Three Mile Island) : with little explanation of what this actually meant, Containment just told us that there had been ‘three meltdowns’ at Fukushima (another tacit assumption of knowledge on the part of the viewer ?), albeit it suggested that the situation had very nearly been much worse (yet without saying in what way, or how).

Although it seems to turn out that the scenario first envisaged by Ralph Lapp in 1971 (and retained by the world of film in The China Syndrome (1979)) is more of a fictional one, and that, if this popular description is therefore used (in the nuclear field), it denotes a lesser catastrophe, one asked, for example, how close to that syndrome events at Fukushima had been (and the rest of the Wikipedia® article goes into detail about such nuclear meltdowns, which, in their answer, the directors did not).

They said, but without a complete explanation for not doing so, that they had considered talking about other sites, such as Chernobyl (and may have said that they had been there), but that they wanted to look at linguistic and sociological aspects of the subject, by making part of the tone of the film to imagine the future, too to suggest a measure of distance on what was being shown. As well as having an artist realise some of the designs, they achieved this aim with and through stylization (e.g. we see an animated sequence both of naive discovery, and of deploying an earth-boring machine that is distinctly reminiscent of The Mole from Thunderbirds).

In the event, the question that was mentioned above (about contamination at Fukushima, compared with that at Chernobyl), elicited nothing from them in terms of units (or doses), but generalizations : although the mountain area was further away, it had higher levels than a flatter one that was nearer, because of the direction of the wind, which had changed twice at the time.

In the bar afterwards, some viewers were heard (who must clearly have approved of the film), critiquing the questioner for having challenged the film-makers (presumably because of the enquiry about Background Radiation) as if in the same breath as those who had (once) advocated dumping nuclear waste in the oceans (which he was not remotely proposing)… ?

Before that, in the space just outside the screen, there was a lot of chat going on with Messrs Galison and Moss, which is where that query about the turtle was made (please see above). As to the handling of containers at waste at WIPP, Moss made the puzzling assertion (which then had to be checked please see below) that one can hold a piece of Plutonium with no ill-effect, because the danger is inhaling its dust into one’s lungs. One’s knowledge of radiation, though one could not grope for the word isotope (in the depths of one’s memory), suggested that a substance, almost by definition, had to emit, at the very least, alpha-particles to be radioactive : as one recollects, one did blurt this out to Moss, to which he countered, by saying that a piece of paper will stop them.

As, by now, the lateness of the hour had made one abandon plans for what to watch next and (after making notes, and coffee, in the bar) head for a drink****, the word ‘Becquerel’ came stumbling into one’s mind (a standard measure of radiation). Over a pint, one was soon checking – on the Internet (when the source of information about isotopes (above) was found) what had been claimed about Plutonium (apparently, according to Wikipedia®, first made by bombarding U238 with deuterons) :

The web-page confirms that Plutonium 238 (Pu-238, with a half-life of 88 years) emits alpha-particles, and talks about the significance of the spontaneous fission of Pu-240 in connection with terms such as ‘weapons grade’ Plutonium. Thus, ’Supergrade plutonium’, with less than 4% of plutonium-240, is used in U.S. Navy weapons stored in proximity to ship and submarine crews, due to its lower radioactivity.

Somehow those statements about safely holding a piece of the element begged the question what sort of Plutonium one was talking about…

Seen at Sheffield : Doc/Fest films with full reviews


* And, having said that, some of its ideas had saved – as if it has an inherent, rather than a given, meaning the symbol on a yellow ground with a round core, and a triangle of pulses that, almost sonically, emanate from it (pictured below, in one of several versions). If we have, in these postulated far-off generations (and we saw endless scenarios that had been envisaged), forgotten about nuclear waste, why, then, will that symbol signify ? (Surely, a fantasy that we will be nuclear free, with the States and others so keen on their arsenals ?)

** As an abiding problem, only briefly touched upon as [the idea of] the safety and integrity of WIPP was talked up by Carlsbad’s Mayor (as well as addressed, in general terms, by Allison MacFarlane who chaired the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2012 to 2014, and who seemed to have more questions than answers).

*** Plutonium-239 (Pu-239), with a half-life of 24,110 years, may have to be seen as a major headache that the twentieth century has caused, but others are far more persistent : the half-life of Plutonium-242 is more than 15 times longer (373,300 years), and that of Plutonium-244 a staggering 80.8 million years.

**** For those interested, The Sheffield Tap (@SheffieldTap) was a good discovery at Doc/Fest :

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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