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The Beauty of Decommissioning

Submitted by on May 18, 2012 – 9:54 amNo Comment

One might wonder:
What is there in common between nuclear decommissioning and aesthetics (or, in plain English, a sense or a perception of beautiful)? Let’s think twice, as in this case “appearances” are not deceptive (no pun intended…).

Environmental aesthetics is a relatively new sub-field of philosophical aesthetics. It arose within analytic aesthetics in the last third of the 20th century. Prior to its emergence, aesthetics was largely concerned with philosophy of art. Environmental aesthetics originated as a reaction to this emphasis, pursuing instead the investigation of the aesthetic appreciation of natural environments.

Since its early stages, the scope of environmental aesthetics has broadened to include not simply natural environments, but also human and human-influenced ones [1]. How do people react to the visual character of their surroundings? What can planners do to improve the aesthetic quality of these surroundings?

Too often in environmental design, visual quality—aesthetics—is misunderstood as only a minor concern, dependent on volatile taste and thus undefinable. Yet a substantial body of research indicates the importance of visual quality in the environment to the public and has uncovered systematic patterns of human response to visual attributes of the built environment [2]. This concept is associated with, but not limited to, well-known aspects of decommissioning such as site reuse/redevelopment, stakeholder involvement and landscaping.

I think the most useful way for me to address the topic of environmental aesthetics in decommissioning is not to write yet another essay on the nature of the field, but rather simply to describe some of the approaches and materials I have been exposed to professionally when dealing with nuclear decommissioning. Certainly it would be too presumptive of me to state that environmental aesthetics is the key factor in selecting the decommissioning strategy: and yet it would be sloppy for a decommissioning decision-maker to wholly disregard environmental appearance and the perception of it by the public. A few examples are given in the following.

Trawsfynydd NPP, Wales,
United Kingdom

The Trawsfynydd nuclear plant is situated on the shores of the Trawsfynydd Lake within Snowdonia Park, North Wales. (Image 1 shows a majestic profile of the station against its impressive landscape.) It was the first nuclear power plant in Britain to be built on a site inland. Its surroundings offer spectacular scenery and interesting wildlife. Trawsfynydd was designed by the architect Sir Basil Spence, noted for his work on Coventry Cathedral. He designed Trawsfynydd so the reactor buildings looked like a castle in the landscape – the concrete monoliths are not flat, they have a fluted surface. It is optimistic, triumphant and utterly original: its uncompromising concrete facade towers 55 meters high, with neat rows of windows set around rectangle slabs jutting out of the building. It’s crowned with four turret-like sculptural features on the roof. This is a building that unashamedly ignores the human scale. It intimidates and overpowers. In the context of decommissioning, these towers will be taken down several levels – from 55 meters to 30 meters high – and clad in local slate. To fulfill public demand, the landscape within the site boundary will reflect the character of the natural surrounding landscape so there are no visible boundaries and the landscape flows naturally through the site. In a few years, Trawsfynydd will enter a “care and maintenance” period until around 2090, and the site will not be completely cleared until the end of the century.

And yet, Spence knew the building would have a limited life as a nuclear power station. He therefore had the foresight to set himself a guiding question for the design, which was inspired by the great English neo-classical architect Sir John Soane: “Will it make a beautiful ruin?” [3]

It is interesting that the decommissioning strategy and the ultimate fate of Trawfynydd prompted a fierce public debate. Even environmentalists were split, with someone calling for the building to be placed under the protection of Listed Buildings, and others advocating full, thorough demolition to remove any signs of the nuclear stigma.

Before a final decision was taken, four teams of architects, landscape designers, engineers and others, including environmentalists, writers and artists, were invited to brainstorm the future of the site of the decommissioning nuclear power station [4]. Team 1 proposed celebrating, not burying the site and turning it into a model decommissioning factory. Team 2 proposed burying the station’s turbine halls in hills of slate, vegetating it, then up-lighting the surrounding hills with narrow beams of projected light. Team 3 proposed ripping down the turbine halls, greening the surfaces of the station, instigating research into water contamination, cleaning up the site using phyto-remediation and creating an International Energy Communications Center to hold relevant data on the decommissioning of all the world’s nuclear stations. And finally, team 4 proposed turning the site into a media center, by: exploiting the skills of electrical engineers; Snowdonia as a popular film location; and the value of the site as a place of technology and solitude. They also proposed to cover the reactor halls in a podded, white PVC skin and enclose certain activities.

he Fast Reactor Experiment at Dounreay, Scotland was nicknamed the ‘Golf Ball’ after its spherical shape.

he Fast Reactor Experiment at Dounreay, Scotland was nicknamed the ‘Golf Ball’ after its spherical shape.

Dounreay’s Golf Ball, Scotland, United Kingdom

The Fast Reactor Experiment at Dounreay, Scotland (nicknamed Fred, and after its spherical shape, the Golf Ball) was eventually scheduled for full demolition as part of Dounreay’s current site decommissioning program. Before that decision, the debate about the fate of this building lasted for quite a few years. On one side, the 60-meter Golf Ball (see Image 2) has become an iconic site landmark; when news of its demolition spread, a proliferation of reuse suggestions came about. It was once mooted as a site for a museum, a space observatory, a hotel and even a nightclub. The decisive factor however, was the high cost of regularly painting the structure to prevent corrosion (the building is very close to the sea). It was estimated £100,000 ($160,000) a year would have to be spent on its care and maintenance, with £500,000 ($800,000) needed to paint it every 10 years. Several million would have to be spent on decommissioning, and even then its metal shell would never be 100% clear of radioactive contamination engrained in metal surfaces, so a hazard would remain.

The organization managing Dounreay expects to take until 2032 to complete the clean-out and demolition of the remaining facilities. The dome is likely to be one of the last to be removed.

There were a few more spherical domes built by the nuclear industry worldwide, e.g. the Advanced Gas Reactor (AGR) at Windscale, England; Big Rock Point in Michigan, US (now demolished); and Garigliano in Italy [5].

It is likely that aesthetic concerns will play a role in the decommissioning (or preservation) of fancily-shaped reactor buildings. Two such buildings are the oval-shaped Philippines research reactor and the Garching reactor near Munich (dubbed the “Atomic Egg”).

Is Landscaping the Only Answer?

A reader hostile to provocation may readily skip the remaining part of this article. The author remains neutral to its contents, but he is pleased to offer a new viewpoint to the readers. The traditional view is that a decommissioning site is ugly. Greenfield is what is expected of a decommissioned end state (see Images 3 and 4).. Yet, in art history a ruin as-is has often conveyed a symbolic, aesthetic meaning. Ruins are ambivalent. The ruin is the victim of destructive time (weather). The ruin is also the resistance in time (weather). Ruins are mediating between perception (collection) of time (weather) and perception (collection) of the space. A comprehensive collection of paintings highlighting symbolic meanings of ruins can be seen in the works of J.M. William Turner. [6]

In more recent times, “modernism as a ruin” has become an artistic concept. If desolation and dilapidation—as hopeless and merciless final signs of exploitation—bring down the utopia of a humane, enlightened society, then humility is called for in order to make something out of nothing with whatever is left behind. This concept is associated with the crisis of industrial growth first perceived in the 1970s, with a new generation of artists challenging the predominance of formal “beautiful” and resulting in somehow anarchic methods [7].

Will public opinion consider one day the long-term preservation of industrial ruins as noteworthy memories of a past, different era? Only time will say.

About the Author:
Dr. Michele Laraia is the former IAEA Nuclear Decommissioning Team Leader, and a chemical engineer by background. He obtained his degree at the University of Rome. From 1991 to 2011, Laraia worked at the IAEA, Waste Technology Section, as Unit Leader responsible for decontamination and decom­missioning of nuclear installations, closeout of uranium mining and milling sites, and environ­mental restoration. His tasks included drafting and preparation of technical reports and other docu­ments, organization of international conferences and seminars, and the management of technical cooperation projects with developing countries, either on a national or regional scale.

From 1975 to 1991, he worked at Italy’s Regulatory Body (ENEA/DISP) in the capacity of reviewer of ra­dioactive waste management systems, and since 1982 as licensing manager of decommissioning projects. During the 1982-1991 period, under his management, seven small research reactors and other nuclear fuel cycle facilities were dismantled in Italy and their sites returned to other uses. In other plants, modifications to license conditions were implemented to achieve a safe storage state was granted to Gorigliano NPP.
Dr. Laraia currently offers consultant services. To contact him, email: Michele.laraia@ndreport.com.

[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Environmental Aesthetics, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/environmental-aesthetics/
[2] Environmental Aesthetics: Theory, Research, and Application, edited by J.L. Nasar, Cambridge University Press, 1992
[3] Pulling down Snowdonia’s power station would be a nuclear waste, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/dec/21/snowdonia-nuclear-power-station-wales-architecture, Dec 21, 2009
[4] Nuclear decommissioning: will it make a beautiful ruin?, February 18, 2008 http://davidbarrie.typepad.com/david_barrie/2008/02/will-it-make-a.html
[5] Doomsday for Dounreay dome as site is too costly to develop, Sep 17, 2010, http://www.nucpros.com/content/doomsday-dounreay-dome-site-too-costly-develop
[6] Nature and functions of ruins in the western painting, XV-XXth s http://flaviuspub.reverso.net/wodka-over-blog/919/en/article-nature-et-fonctions-des-ruines-dans-la-peinture-occidentale-xv-xxe-s-92284017.html
[7]Modernism as a Ruin – An Archaeology of the Present, http://foundation.generali.at/index.php?id=756&L=1

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