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The Elephant's Foot

by LiveModern Webmaster last modified Jan 04, 2012 02:54 AM
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by Geoff Manaugh ( last modified Mar 22, 2011



[Image: Parable of the elephant, illustrated by Katsushika Hokusai].

An article this past weekend in the New York Times introduced us to a man named Sergei A. Krasikov, caretaker for the concrete "sarcophagus" inside of which rest the remains of Chernobyl's stricken reactor.

The article is at once a sobering introduction to the inhuman spans of time across which matter remains radioactive—the author quips, for instance, that "The death of a nuclear reactor has a beginning... But it doesn’t have an end," and that "one had to look at [Chernobyl] to understand the sheer tedium and exhaustion of dealing with the aftermath of a meltdown. It is a problem that does not exist on a human time frame." But, at the same time, it seems to suggest the framework for an expressionist short film: a Sam Beckett-like encounter with something perpetually out of reach, terrifyingly out of synch with those who wait for it and buried in pharaonic concrete.

Krasikov, a keeper of the sarcophagus, visits this site twelve times a month:
Among his tasks is to pump out radioactive liquid that has collected inside the burned-out reactor. This happens whenever it rains. The sarcophagus was built 25 years ago in a panic, as radiation streamed into populated areas after an explosion at the reactor, and now it is riddled with cracks.

Water cannot be allowed to touch the thing that is deep inside the reactor: about 200 tons of melted nuclear fuel and debris, which burned through the floor and hardened, in one spot, into the shape of an elephant’s foot. This mass remains so highly radioactive that scientists cannot approach it.
This abstract "thing that is deep inside the reactor" is thus held outside of human contact, separated from experience by a provisional monument: the sarcophagus shell. Sheltered there, precisely because of its temporal excess, in a state of near-immortality—capable of interacting mutationally with living matter for up to a million years—the "thing" enters into a timeframe more appropriate for mythology.

Indeed, semiotician Thomas Sebeok once proposed the creation of an "atomic priesthood" whose responsibility, for thousands of years to come, would be to pass on information about sites of nuclear waste storage and contamination using a combination of myths, folklore, and annual rituals.

[Image: Sebeok's report].

In an April 1984 technical report called "Communication Measures to Bridge Ten Millennia," Sebeok suggested that "information be launched and artificially passed on into the short-term and long-term future with the supplementary aid of folkloristic devices, in particular a combination of an artificially created and nurtured ritual-and-legend."

This "relay system" to last ten thousand years would thus be comparable to a priesthood—a Vatican of the elephant's foot, so to speak—a Cult of the Thing—using "whatever devices for enforcement are at its disposal, including those of a folkloristic character."

These priests would thereby act as effective caretakers for whatever nuclear sarcophagi might yet be to come. (For more on this topic, watch for Volume magazine's forthcoming issue on "Aging," in which I have an essay about the long-term storage of nuclear waste).

[Image: Satellite photo of Fukushima Daiichi complex].

Finally, it's troubling to note—though I don't mean to suggest equality between this situation and Chernobyl—that Japan might yet need to "to bury the sprawling 40-year-old plant" at Fukushima Daiichi "in sand and concrete to prevent a catastrophic radiation release."

If this does come to pass, of course, it will be architecturally temporary—for a situation in which the very idea of "permanence" takes on near-incomprehensible scale.

(Thanks to a tip from @_sealegs. Also, don't miss the earlier interview with Department of Energy geophysicist Abraham Van Luik).




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