Peter L. Galison and Robb Moss have a nose for the contemporary world’s most difficult questions. Following their 2008 documentary Secrecy, which endeavored to shine a light into the obscure world of classified government secrets, Galison and Moss’s new film, Containment, about nuclear waste storage, may set itself an even more ambitious task. With a hundred million gallons of radioactive waste remaining from the Cold War arms race, and more being generated every year, the unsolved problem of safely storing these materials will have ramifications that stretch tens—and even hundreds—of millennia into the future. Splitting time between nuclear production and storage sites in South Carolina and New Mexico, and the regions surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan (which suffered a meltdown in 2011), Containment explores the problems—both practical and ethical—presented by the storage of hazardous waste. Approaching the topic from scientific, political, and civilian perspectives, Containment couples expert analysis with on-the-ground footage from the world’s nuclear hot spots to show both the gargantuan logistical challenges and moral urgency of this difficult issue.
Galison and Moss spoke with Crosscuts about collaborative filmmaking, “crazed future historians,” and their shared love of conceptual self-sabotage. Containment screens in the Walker Cinema on Thursday, March 17, as part of the Cinema of Urgency series.
What can you tell us about Containment’s inception? What originally drew you to this story?
Peter L. Galison: Robb and I had been collaborating for a decade—first, in teaching a course, bringing student filmmakers into scientific laboratories to think about the way the real work of technology, medicine, and science could be put on film. Then, finishing in 2008, we co-directed Secrecy, a feature documentary about the the moral, political, and technological controversies surrounding national security secrecy. Containment grew first out of work I was doing (in print) on the strange new lands that are at once our wild, biodiverse landscapes, and at the same time some of our most radiologically contaminated. I was utterly taken aback by the Department of Energy’s drive to mark one of these sites to warn the future against digging—for a period of 10,000 years. Robb and I began our discussions around this extraordinary, tragic, imaginative project.
Robb Moss: For me, the sheer fun of teaching with Peter led me to want to make a film with him, and we made Secrecy. Secrecy, of course, is a terrible idea for a film; there is almost nothing to see, and no one wants to talk to you. Filmmakers often start with a visual idea, something you can point the camera at, but in Secrecy there was almost no in-the-world material for the camera to see. As a way of imagining this secret world, we thought we might want to include animation into the mix and began working with the wonderful animator, Ruth Lingford. Secrecy premiered at Sundance early in 2008 and showed at the Walker later that year. We returned to use animation in a more extensive way in Containment.
Containment splits its focus between the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina, and the area surrounding the former Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. What led you to choose these three locations?
Galison: We began with our focus squarely on the WIPP site. It was the only open, licensed, deep underground nuclear repository, and it was for that burial ground that the far-future markers had been designed. Then we thought the story really had to take into account the source of this waste: the detritus of nuclear weapons production that had taken place over decades at places like the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. Japan’s triple disaster—earthquake, tsunami, meltdowns—hit in March 2011, while we were already filming. Soon after that, we realized we had to confront the massive loss of nuclear containment that ensued, but it took two years or so before we were in a position to travel to Fukushima. But then we saw a way to finish the film around these three sites: the production of nuclear materials, the burial of this waste, and the catastrophic release, in the Japanese accident, of materials that left waste strewn over the land.
Moss: It was incredibly difficult to gain access to these three sites, but it was extraordinary to be at each of them. Being underground at WIPP was both beautiful and chilling: underground tunnels filled with miners excavating caverns in the salt (the location of the WIPP site was chosen because the salt was still intact—and therefore perhaps stable—after having been deposited some 250 million years ago). We filmed huge barrels of nuclear waste as they were emplaced in these caverns. Utterly sci-fi. At SRS, we walked over huge mounds of underground containers, called tank farms, consisting of 51 one-million gallon tanks filled with 39 million gallons of nuclear waste.
In addition to policymakers and experts in various nuclear fields, the film is peppered with interview subjects who bring more of a layperson’s sensibility to the topics at hand. How did you go about finding voices in the communities affected by these issues? What kinds of stories were you looking for?
Galison: From early on we wanted the film to get at the lives people lived around the waste. We wanted to know not only what the waste was and how it was managed, but also what life was like for someone who lived and worked with these materials on his or her mind. We talked and wandered with preachers and miners, cattlemen and politicians, housewives and scientists. We were less interested in polemics for or against nuclear power and more focused on people who lived and worked in and around these sites.
Moss: In particular, we were interested in the experiences of those who had lived around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants before the radioactive releases. Watching them move about in their former, now radioactive homes, was both sad and unnerving.
You come from very different backgrounds academically—Peter, as an expert on the history of science, and Robb, with more experience as a filmmaker. Describe the collaborative process on this project. Did you find yourselves occupying distinctive roles, or was there quite a bit of overlap?
Galison: From the very beginning of our collaboration, we have worked to avoid separating roles. We both think about the big ideas of the film, we both get into the details of transitions, silences, music, animation, archives. We are both in the field at every shoot. Essential, truly essential, to the whole of our work is a third member of our team: our editor Chyld King. Many hours each week—over the many years of these two films (Secrecy and Containment)—we have shared an edit room: experimenting with different cuts, looking for ways to elicit the particularity of characters and places. It is one of the great privileges of my life that I’ve been able to work with Robb and Chyld over these last years.
You’ve talked about how on both Containment and Secrecy you set out to, in a sense, film the “unfilmable”—classified information in Secrecy and both invisible radioactive contamination and an unknowable future in Containment. What have these projects taught you about representing intangibles on film?
Galison: We have worked so hard to bring the invisible into visibility because we are convinced that unseeable abstractions are easy to let slide. If secrecy is unimaginable, if nuclear waste is so utterly out of our perceptual range, they vanish from our national awareness. This aim has brought us to unexpected places in our filmmaking: to deepening use of animation and graphic novel sequences, for example; to the use of artworks integrated into film; to back and forth between observational, site-specific filming with soundstage recording of interviews. I should say we both hugely enjoy the challenge of finding ways to put the imperceptible onto the screen.
Moss: In both films we dug ourselves into very deep conceptual holes that we had to dig our way out of. This meant years of trial and error as we found our way through the material. This is both the fun and agony of filmmaking.
Do you each have a favorite futurist scenario from your research into the WIPP site long-term nuclear waste warning plans? Some of them get pretty zany.
Galison: The scenarios sure did get zany—the futurists themselves were so astounded by the difficulty of their 10,000-year task that they slid into the absurd. One particular scenario that didn’t make it into the film in any detail involved a cult called “the Markuhnians” (a cross between Herbert Marcuse and Thomas S. Kuhn). The idea that crazed future historians of science—ignoring absolute scientific truth and hunting for lost mystic scrolls—might be responsible for the catastrophic release of nuclear materials particularly warmed my historian of science soul.
Moss: I am still partial to the Nickey Nuke scenario: a nuclear waste theme park that has families coming to see Nickey Nuke for 10,000 years, one that through endless fun, continuously transmits the warning not to dig into the waste. Amazing.
Ultimately, your film seems to raise a lot more questions than it answers. How optimistic are you about our future as it relates to the containment of nuclear waste? What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?
Moss: In some ways our film functions like the warning markers that we discuss in the film, and will probably fail for similar reasons. Perhaps we can raise some awareness of these issues in the present, and perhaps that is all we can do.
Galison: Is there hope? In a way I think the film, even the long-shot hope that we can warn the far-distant future, is an act of extraordinary hopefulness. True, to paraphrase Immanuel Kant, there are some tasks that are both necessary and impossible. Try to speak to a time nearly twice as far from us [in the future] as Stonehenge is in the past? How remarkable. We—who can barely plan beyond a fiscal quarter or a two-, four-, or six-year election cycle—trying for once to think about our planet in the long run. Do I think this or that particular scheme is a surefire method? Of course not. But pressured to think beyond the tiny radius of our individual lives, we might just create a precedent for caring about the planet that will mean something for those who follow.