Uranium-235. Potassium-40

Anna Canny

To hold it properly, securely, the material must be solid rock. When I close my eyes I see the models clearly. They map the cracks, and possible scenarios for cracks, the pores. That’s what keeps the volatile things from creeping up to the surface.

Above ground, the van rocks across the icy gravel and ever-present snow. On the driver’s side, Ismo is quiet as we pass the squat blue-gray buildings. I focus on his breathing. I find myself checking my own, with my hand firmly pressing my hard hat against my stomach.

The blue plastic of this hard hat will outlive me. It’s already outlived her. Plutonium-239 will outlive her by about 24,089 years. Uranium-235 will outlive her by 6,999,989. I’ve outlived her. It’s been four months since we buried Aina. 

And it’s been five months since I’ve been away from Onkalo. English speakers always translate the meaning of the word differently. Some say pit. Others, say cave. To me, the best translation is a hiding place. But really, this place is a tomb, and it’s one I am eager to enter again. 

In the beginning there was talk of sending nuclear waste into space. Or onto the ocean floor. There was talk of dropping it into the scalding ooze between tectonic plates. Instead, we decided on burial. Here, in a deep repository on Olkiluoto island, a flat hunk of granite that juts out into the Baltic Sea. We, me and my team, including Ismo, whose breath catches every once in a while in the back of his throat. 

I recall her delicate and unchanging breathing. There were three days I held her and stroked her dull, thinning hair until she fell asleep. In those days she was always hot and damp, which intensified her presence in my arms. I caressed her spindly fingers. I inspected the nail on each one. 

Uranium fuel pellets are the size of a fingernail. At the nuclear power plants, which are tucked behind thick fir trees nearby, engineers split atoms, leaving these spent pellets behind. They do not taste or smell of anything. But if you’re near one, its gamma waves tear through your skin. They kill your cells, or worse, they change them. When your DNA is altered, you get sick—vomiting, hair loss, hemorrhaging. If you’re really close, a spent uranium fingernail will kill you in three to four hours. 

That’s why we seal it up. First, in bentonite clay. Then a copper cask. Then a layer of bedrock, hundreds of meters thick. If we do our jobs right, nothing gets in or out. The radiation decays and becomes less volatile over time. This burial here will be Finland’s triumph. Radiation provides the clean energy we need, and they say we’ll be leading the way. 

When Aina was young, we used to take long walks in the forest. The tall, straight fir trees always made me feel small, and still she was smaller beside me, struggling to reach up and hold my hand. From the time she got her legs up under her she insisted on walking. I would squeeze her pudgy palm while she babbled on about imaginary friends. Her favorite was a tiny snail called Erno. I’d provide gentle mmms and ahhs, but mostly I’d just listen and watch as each strand of her white blonde hair tangled up with the rays of sunlight, until the two were indistinguishable. Later, when she snored quietly in the dim light of our studio, I swear it would emit a soft glow as it fanned out across the pillows. 

Humans are born with radiation inside of us. A lesser kind—radioactive potassium-40. But still, like any radiation, it permeates. We’re exposed to radiation by strangers on the bus. Or when holding someone chest to chest. It’s passing between Ismo and I now. I think it’s filling the space between us as a colorless, buzzing mass. 

The van’s lights blink as we cross the security gate and start our shuddering descent through the spiraling tunnels of sprayed concrete. It’s a bit foggy, and I feel my eyes adjust to the hazy lighting. They’re heavy, and somehow both puffy and sunken, like I’ve just finished crying. But I’ve cried only once these past few months, when I felt her heart stop thumping. It was an unruly, resonant sobbing. I don’t know how long it lasted. I only know I woke up, wrapped in fresh sheets with mocking beams of soft sunlight streaming in. Someone had removed her from our bed. 

Since then my eyes don’t seem to fit in my skull anymore. It’s as if my face has changed since she died. The parallel creases between my eyebrows used to appear only when I was worrying over a challenging calculation, or sometimes, when I faked a scolding glance. She knew that exaggerated expression so well. She’d giggle, and I’d smile easily. The skin would smooth again.

Now they’re permanent. And even the bone of my skull feels carved to a new shape. Not with a delicate hand. Crudely, like the tunnels here, with massive whirring machines, and explosives. 

Somehow my eyes remain in place. I blink with vigor as we get out of the van. An excavator sits in the far right tunnel. In the gloom, I imagine it as a menacing primeval creature.  

Nuclear energy production is actually much safer than it seems. Meltdown is extremely rare. But on the surface, where facilities are exposed to unpredictable change, the odds are just too high. An earthquake or a tsunami unleashes predictable, catastrophic consequences. And these things are inevitable.

Fortunately, at 430 meters down, we’re somewhat immune to the geological violence of the surface. Okiluoto has been still for two billion years. Between two fault lines, and far removed from the surface, there is stillness and regularity.

We’re here to run some tests on the bedrock, to understand the way that water might come through. This is a triple check. It’ll take a few hours, but here, in this hollow, time feels far away. 

I’ve spent a third of my life now, mapping, modeling, and forecasting this repository’s fate over the coming hundreds of thousands of years. My official title is Safety Case Expert. I’m trained as a geologist. But my real expertise is time. I casually zoom in and out of timescales. I specialize in blending events and artifacts from the distant past, the incomprehensible future, and the present in crude but carefully calculated analogies. 

Dance recitals, and a report that I stayed up late writing: Climate Scenarios for Olkiluoto on a Time-Scale of 120,000 Years. Baby teeth in a pill box on my bedside table and a 17th century cannon ball at the bottom of the ocean. We used it to study how our copper waste canisters might corrode over time. A wooden casket, which seems so insubstantial in comparison. And a glacier in Greenland, which I studied two summers ago. She asked if I had seen any penguins. I didn’t tell her it was the wrong glacier.

I never planned on having children. Aina was a shock to me. The first time I held her she was swaddled in white. It enhanced a vivid redness in her skin, which lasted for the first week. She inspected me with pursed lips and her perfectly set eyes. Two deep furrows extended up from the bridge of her tiny, upturned nose. And immediately then I was moored by her. 

I used to move through time easily, gliding along a well-mapped continuum between cups of lukewarm office coffee. But now, time is a heavy loop. I wake up each day and feel my loss anew, brand new, over and over again. Perhaps I should quit my job. 

There’s another ice age scheduled, 50 to 100 thousand years from now. Glaciers will come, pushing hundreds of thousands of pounds of weight down on the surface. This bedrock will hold. I’ve done those calculations. I rely on logic. But still I wish I could light birthday candles each year for 100,000 years. 

So we plan for a burial. A quiet, undisturbed decay. By the time the radiation reaches a safe level we’ll all be dead. Me and Ismo and all the others. Their families. The brains that we used to study chemistry or geology, or engineering will be rotted. The paper portfolios on my desk disintegrated. The computers running calculations will be long since obsolete. The materials in them might make it—the steel, the aluminum, copper, gold, and silver. Things the Earth made. Things it will absorb again. My puffy eyes and her tiny fingernails will be rotted and gone too. 

It’s hubris, really, to believe that we can plan at all. But I did. I planned on seeing the way her face would change, those twin furrows deepening with each passing year. 

Here, the plan goes as follows: When these tunnels are finally filled with fuel rods, we’ll pack clay behind us. Then bedrock. The blue-gray buildings will be taken down. There will be no trace of us at all. I’ll be buried by then too, next to Aina, in our flimsy boxes. We’ll endure glaciations and lakes and rivers filling up and running dry. Shifting land and hills forming and eroding. All the while, we’ll be radioactive beneath the dirt. 

No human being will see what we’ve built here. Not my child. Not anyone else. We’ll leave the inconspicuous land to new creatures and hope they don’t dig. 

We’re heading up now. I’m picturing armored plants and winged things in a distant future. I’m counting down the number of times I’ll visit this hiding place again. I’m hoping that the creatures keep their soft bellies. 

Maybe there will be no animals at all. Maybe the ice will come and stay longer than it ever has before. Maybe the rocks and trees will be gone, and all will be swaddled in white. But I resolve to keep investing in futile things. And as the van shudders to the light again, past those blue-gray buildings, I start to cry.