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Documentary looks into how to confine nuclear material

How do you confine nuclear material?

That’s the question that Peter Galison and Robb Moss try to answer with the documentary “Containment.”

The film airs at 9 p.m. Monday, Jan. 9, on Channel 9.1.

Galison and Moss give viewers an inside look at the toxic remnants from the Cold War that remain in millions of gallons of highly radioactive sludge, thousands of acres of radioactive land, and tens of thousands of unused “hot” buildings, some of which are slowly spreading deltas of contaminated groundwater.

Robb Moss and Peter Galison at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University. (Courtesy of Redacted Pictures/Alex Morelli)

Robb Moss and Peter Galison at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University. (Courtesy of Redacted Pictures/Alex Morelli)

Governments around the world, desperate to protect future generations, have begun imagining society 10,000 years from now to create warning monuments that will speak across time to mark waste repositories. Filmed in weapons plants, at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, and in a deep underground burial site, “Containment” is part graphic novel and part observational essay, weaving between an uneasy present and an imaginative, troubled distant future, exploring the struggle to keep waste confined over millenniums.

“What we found out was fascinating,” Galison says. “We take a look at the future and how the generations will deal with it.”

The two began the project about two years before the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011.

“We wanted to see how we keep nuclear waste out of the biosphere,” Moss says. “And we looked at the radioactive landscape that is created.”

Production took the duo to the Carlsbad area for filming.

In 1979, the U.S. Department of Energy created the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation’s only deep geologic repository for nuclear waste, near Carlsbad.

As a condition for opening WIPP, Congress required that the site be clearly marked against accidental future intrusion.

Teams of futurologists, astronomers, science fiction writers – even experts on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – were convened in 1990 to imagine far-future scenarios and create a system of warning markers. Using animation and drawings, “Containment” explores several of the proposed scenarios and potential marker designs, and features interviews with those who envisioned them.

WIPP was built over a salt bed thousands of feet deep and millions of years old, a site considered particularly invulnerable.

“We think the only way radioactivity can reach the surface or reach the accessible environment is through human intrusion,” chief scientist Roger Nelson says.

But on Feb. 14, 2014, a waste barrel ignited and burst underground, releasing radiation into the environment. WIPP was subsequently closed for cleanup. News reports at the time played down the incident, but a recent Los Angeles Times story indicated that the explosion ranks among the costliest nuclear accidents in U.S. history, with costs that may rise as high as $2 billion.

The closure has backed up thousands of tons of radioactive waste from other states that were waiting to be transported to WIPP.

“We had to weave through the stories,” Galison says. “And finding the most powerful stories was a difficult task.”