'Containment' Fiercely and Poetically Lays Out the Forever Effects of Nuclear Waste

by Cynthia Fuchs

22 February 2016

How do we warn people of the future about our deadly legacy?
cover art


Director: Peter Galison, Robb Moss
Cast: Arjun Makhijani

(Rocofilm International)
Doc Yard: 22 Feb 2016
UK theatrical: 7 Jun 2015 (Sheffield Doc Fest)

“You can’t see radiation from a nuclear accident. Because it’s invisible, it grows in your imagination.” Fumihiko Imamura speaks over long, slow panning shots of land, grasses waving in the breeze, trees covering hillsides, boats grounded, homes destroyed, and structures abandoned. The land abides, but structures and lives are lost.

The Director of the International Research Institute of Disaster Science at Tohoku University goes on, observing the effects of natural disasters, like the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated the city of Sendai and other areas in Japan, killing nearly 20,000 people. Imamura describes as well another, persistent disaster: the level seven meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex. “People worry about cancer from the radiation,” he says, “and cancer takes a long time to show itself. It’s an unseen fear and the worry lingers.” 

Imamura’s observation, at once fearsome and poetic, lays out a primary focus for Containment, Peter Galison and Robb Moss’ look at the forever effects of nuclear waste. Fukushima is but one recent, alarming tragedy. Others are less sudden, produced more directly by humans, such as the pursuit of nuclear weapons in the US during the Cold War.

The film also visits the Waste Isolation Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico, which was forced to close in 2014 following a radiation leak, and the Savannah River site (SRS) in South Carolina, where the WIPP waste has been moved. As these three locations provide images of construction and labor, reflection and loss, the film integrates graphic novel-ish animation, illustrating a future that may or may not come to be.

This future is imagined by a group of experts assembled to develop markers to last for some 10,000 years, markers to warn our descendants to beware of the radioactive waste researchers and workers are trying to secure today. As Containment tells the story of this effort to tell stories, it looks forward and back, documents and imagines, laments and hopes. It includes observations by a self-described “salesman” who sees economic opportunities in WIPP, as well as constituents who speak against bringing waste to their community in Savannah. Their stories intersect with a diverge from those narrated by futurists, as they consider the morality of even participating in the markers project or how such markers might best convey vital meanings—by pictures, by children’s tales or by scary logos. 

Screening at the Doc Yard on 22 February, where it will be followed by a Q&A with the directors and editor Chyld King, Containment contemplates how humans might communicate across time, project themselves into a world they can’t know. “We’re trying to extend ourselves across time,” says architect and markers designer Michael Brill, his own archival interview a function of just that process, in the short term (he died in 2002).

Now, as such extension is initiated, the film shows a range of approaches, explanations and meditations by researchers, academics, artists, and engineers. The warning must indicate the perpetual devastation of radioactivity, the horrors attending the release of the such waste into the environment. The story that must be told, Brill notes, is grim by definition.

He compares this project to the one undertaken by SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), saying, “We want to tell the extraterrestrials the best of ourselves, but we need to tell our descendants something that was worst about ourselves.” That is, we need to tell stories not only of building weapons to kill each other, but also of not considering the damage this will do to people we’ll never know.

The film illustrates this “worst” with footage from Fukushima, where homes and towns are abandoned, where comparisons might be made between the atomic bombs of 1945 and what happened in 2011 (this meltdown occurred while Galison and Moss were filming, changing the shape of their film and providing them with urgent imagery). A woman picks her way through empty streets in Namie, ten miles from the closed nuclear plant, her face covered with a surgical mask as she recalls the last time she had lunch in a friend’s restaurant, the camera pausing to show delicately decorative bottles and plates on a table: “Even the soy sauce is still here,” she notes. A cattle farmer walks over his many acres, almost lost to your view in an extreme long shot of green and grazing cows. “It’s government policy to kill the contaminated cows,” he says, as he leans into one of the animals in his care. “My destiny is here with the cows.”

Another elderly man, living now in the Haramachi Temporary Housing Fukushima District, leads the camera crew through his tiny apartment, every shot framed by a doorway, narrow and close. The man regrets the loss of his home, though he still visits, despite warnings that he should not. Stationed in Tokyo during WWII, he remembers, “During the war all burned too, but we rebuilt.” Now, he says, “I have one hundred acres of timber in the mountains, but it’s all been exposed to radiation.” This land has been home to his family for 16 generations, he says. “My generation is going to be the last one.”

He’s resistant to the official cautions now, a resistance borne of frustration and loss. His story suggests how difficult it is to convey warnings, to bend people to behave in any particular ways. Back in the Savannah Rover Site, signs advise citizens against trespassing or fishing in water contaminated by radioactive waste. One of the monitors gestures toward the sign, yellow and weathered, noting that nothing is specific, the story is incomplete. “People think it’s a territory thing,” she says, “not a the-fish-are-radioactive thing.” 

While it may be difficult to grasp the abject destruction of radioactivity, the stories about it are helpful not only for imagined future populations, but also for the rest of us, now. Reverend Willie Tomlin Willie of Burke County, where the Savannah River Site is located, puts daily existence into perspective, to see that “very little of our destiny is in your own hands. You can’t tell your body when to grow, you can’t tell your heart when to beat, you can’t tell your lungs when to expand.”

The contamination—unseen and illegible—reveals another truth. “We want to think we have some control, but we don’t have it. We’re here,” Tomlin says, “We’re just here.” Containment tells a compelling, careful, and haunting story about what it means to be “here”.



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