Of Innovation, Waste and Value: A Visit to the Austrian Interim Storage for Nuclear Waste at Seibersdorf

by Carsten Horn

10…9… Before leaving the premises, you have to undergo a radiological control measurement. If your hands and feet are correctly placed on the probes, the countdown will begin.

Nuclear energy: Once the harbinger of a new era of unlimited energy supply and prosperity has come under attack by environmental and anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s. While at one point radioactive materials made inroads into everyday life as an ingredient in toothpaste and cosmetics, for instance – consider the Thorium-X-based toothpaste Doramad or the Tho-Radia line of radioactive beauty products – we are currently dealing with the impacts and residues of the everyday use of radioactive materials in research, industry and medicine.

Figure 1: “Creates a Natural Freshness in Your Mouth”: An ad for the radioactive toothpaste Doramad (credit: Suit)

While after the 2011 Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, related controversies have again increased in intensity and fierceness, they now seem to have taken another turn as policymakers and entrepreneurs consider expanding nuclear energy to respond to climate change. One prominent example of this is the taxonomy of sustainable investments of the European Union that classifies nuclear energy as a green energy source under certain conditions. This shift in debates conjures up questions about the long-term consequences of nuclear energy, not least the storage of nuclear waste. On a more general level, we are confronted with a crucial, yet disregarded question in science and technology-based societies: What remains of our innovations? What happens to technologies at the end of their lifetime? Such questions are often deliberately left in the dark (McGoey, 2019), and the damaging side effects of innovations are geographically or temporally displaced (Alexander & O’Hare, 2020). Against this backdrop, the European Research Council (ERC)-funded research project “Innovation Residues – Modes and Infrastructures of  Caring for Longue-Durée Environmental Futures” (INNORES) at the department develops a new approach for understanding self-proclaimed knowledge and innovation societies “in reverse”.


A bus takes us to an inconspicuous office campus just outside of the municipality of Seibersdorf, not even an hour’s drive from Vienna. At first glance, the campus looks just like any other one: A large parking lot upfront, a fenced-off area, and several, largely grey office blocks matching the architectural aesthetics of the 1960s and 70s – nothing out of the ordinary, it appears. The only thing that tells us something is different about this particular campus is a yellow sign at the entrance. Large black letters above an orange light bulb tell drivers to stop when the orange light flashes. Beneath it is a black trefoil against a yellow background, the internationally recognized warning symbol for radioactivity. The campus is not just any office campus. It is the Tech Campus Seibersdorf, home to several research institutions and enterprises, among them the laboratories of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), for example. On a cold but sunny Wednesday, it is the destination of a group of students on an excursion to round off the seminar “Of waste and value” taught by Ulrike Felt during the winter semester 2022/23.


The group is there to visit Nuclear Engineering Seibersdorf (NES), a subsidiary of the Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT). The AIT, at that time under the name Austrian Society for Atomic Energy Studies, had initially been established as a nuclear research institution, complete with a (now defunct and decommissioned) research reactor in Seibersdorf. Nowadays, the NES is commissioned by the Austrian government to collect and store the country’s nuclear waste. This may appear surprising, at first, because Austria does not have nuclear power plants in use. The plans to build three plants (Bayer & Felt, 2019) were aborted after widespread protests by the Austrian civil society, culminating in a referendum in 1978. The message of this referendum in which 50.5% of voters voted against the start-up of nuclear power plants: Nuclear energy should be kept out of Austria. The nuclear power plant in Zwentendorf that was finished but never went online is a material remnant of this history (Felt, 2015). But still, radioactive waste results as a by-product of activities in industry, research and medicine. The NES facilities in Seibersdorf are the designated locations for the processing, conditioning and storage of this low- to mid-level nuclear waste1. Moreover, NES assists in decommissioning former nuclear research sites, such as other research reactors. This work has received broader attention in recent years because NES is only an interim storage facility and the European Union has opened proceedings against the Republic of Austria for infringing the directive to provide plans for the final storage of nuclear waste (similar searches for repositories, accompanied by public protest, for repositories, are currently going on, for instance, in France and Germany). Thus, an advisory board has been assembled in 2021 to guide the process of finding a location for Austria’s final nuclear waste repository to start operating in 2045 when the contract between NES and the Republic of Austria ends (to contribute expertise on this question from the perspective of STS, Ulrike Felt is a member of this board).

Figure 2: Rows upon rows, shelves upon shelves: the nuclear heritage of Austria (© Ulrike Felt)


After a brief video and presentation showing the history and the mission of NES  – including the required safety instructions – by the head of the testing center for radioactive activity, the group of students, now wearing grey coats and white overshoes, enters the facilities. Five students also carry portable dosimeters that, signaled by occasional beeps, measure the radiation exposure (which would stay at 0 for most of the visit). Guided by several employees who happily answer the many questions that arise throughout the visit, the group has to pass through several airlocks where both guides and visitors must step on probes to measure contamination upon leaving. These added security measures – probes, airlocks, depressurized buildings to contain potentially contaminated particles – distinguish the inside of the NES facilities from other factory-like working environments that it otherwise resembles.

Figure 3: Impressions from the NES – left: a leaded window into the hot cell for highly radioactive materials with the robot arms visible in the background; right: workers at the NES in the reconditioning process (© Ulrike Felt)

The tour leads through different stages of the conditioning of nuclear waste. Conditioning is the process in which nuclear waste is brought into a solid form that can then be ‘packaged’ into containers, such as steel drums. Currently, a major project at NES is the reconditioning of nuclear waste that has been stored at the facilities since the 1970s. In the so-called source-processing center, where radioactive material is handled and processed, the group observes how technicians in ventilated protective gear resembling spacesuits (depicted in the image above) open the old steel drums and place the nuclear waste in new, 200l, concrete-enforced drums. The hot cell  in another part of the same building, separated by another set of airlocks, is the only place technicians at NES deal with highly radioactive materials. There, the waste is located (and temporarily stored) in a cubicle or chamber that resembles a bank deposit safe with 1m thick, high-density concrete walls and multi-layered lead windows. Workers handle it using robot arms that they control from the outside. Finally, the group walks to the storage facility, the so-called transfer storage. In a warehouse firmly anchored in the ground to withstand earthquakes, thick concrete walls to contain radioactivity and tailored climatic conditions to minimize the risk of corrosion, rows upon rows, shelves upon shelves, more than 12,000 drums containing the collected nuclear waste of Austria are stored.  Labeled with letters and numbers that convey information about the type of waste they contain or QR codes, each drum can be inspected individually (legally required once every five years at least), together with its documentation that contains information about the radioactive materials it holds and the processing activities it has undergone. As our guide explains, the goal of this interim storage is to store Austria’s nuclear waste until 2045 (when Austria’s final repository has to be found) without foreclosing other possibilities for dealing with nuclear waste that may emerge in the anticipatable future.

2…1…0… After a brief moment of anxious waiting, the measuring device displays the relieving words: “Not contaminated”. You are now allowed to return through the airlock.

Figure 4: 3…2…1: The Author waiting for the probe to display its result (© Ulrike Felt)

Nuclear waste repositories, such as the one in Seibersdorf, are material rem(a)inders of one of the blind spots of innovation processes and discourses: the left-behinds or “residues” of innovations. As mentioned above, NES does not just store Austria’s nuclear waste as a residue of research and innovation. It is located at the site of Austria’s first research reactor – originally intended to make Austria fit for exploiting the benefits of nuclear energy – that has, since its decommissioning, become a material residue of earlier promises and visions of nuclear future(s). The grey concrete of the reactor is now a canvas for colorful artwork. Moreover, if and when a final storage for Austria’s nuclear waste is found by 2045, parts of the NES facilities at Seibersdorf will themselves become material left-behinds of the history of nuclear research in Austria.

The material presence of residues that we can experience in multiple ways in Seibersdorf demands an awareness of the different forms of overflows novel technologies create along their lifecycle, some of which are classified as waste. It urges us to be attentive to the material-semiotic consequences of the things we produce and the futures we leave behind for coming generations (Adam & Grove, 2011) – in some cases, as with the nuclear waste treated and stored in Seibersdorf, for many hundred years. In this sense, to not lose track of “innovation residues”, it may be more fruitful to conceptualize societies not only through what they produce as knowledge or innovation societies but also through how they discard their innovations and the by-products of innovation once they have ceased to be innovations: How they generate and take care of their waste(s)? What infrastructures of care do they create for their waste(s)?

This is not only true for nuclear waste, even though it is a particularly controversial type. The INNORES project opens up the discussion about what is classified as waste, when, how and by whom. It extends our view of the left-behinds to innovations that have only recently been officially acknowledged and addressed as possibly dangerous forms of waste (such as microplastics) or have not yet been linked to waste(s) at all (such as what the project calls “data waste”). We should think about microplastics that, as we increasingly realize, have become entangled with our bodies, thus exposing their permeable boundaries. We must think about the remnants of our digital devices that are shipped to the Global South and disassembled by informal workers. We urgently need to talk about the so-called “forever chemicals” – anthropogenic chemical compounds used in a variety of everyday objects that only degrade over long periods – that we also incorporate. We have barely begun publicly discussing the data waste our digital practices leave behind that ‘rots away’ in energy- and water-devouring data centers across the globe. A visit to Seibersdorf reminds us that it is high time to open discussions about how we discard, value and care for our waste(s).

Based on its respective radioactivity and decay time, nuclear waste is typically classified into different groups whether they are low-, intermediate- or high-level, and whether they are very short, short, or long-lived*. The bulk of nuclear waste in the world falls into the categories of low-level or intermediate-level nuclear waste. Each of these categories requires different forms and temporalities of containment. The expected storage duration for low-level waste, for instance, is ‘just’ 300 years (which is, of course, vastly different from the hundreds of thousands of years for which high-level waste needs to be stored) – thus raising questions of what to do with this type of waste after this time.


Adam, B., & Groves, C. (2011). Futures Tended: Care and Future-Oriented Responsibility. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 31(1), 17–27. https://doi.org/10.1177/0270467610391237

Alexander, C., & O’Hare, P. (2023). Waste and Its Disguises: Technologies of (Un)Knowing. Ethnos, 88(3), 419–443. https://doi.org/10.1080/00141844.2020.1796734

Bayer, F., & Felt, U. (2019). Embracing the “Atomic Future” in Post–World War II Austria. Technology and Culture, 60(1), 165–191.

Boudia, S., Creager, A. N. H., Frickel, S., Henry, E., Jas, N., Reinhardt, C., & Roberts, J. A. (2021). Residues. Thinking Through Chemical Environments. Rutgers University Press. https://doi.org/10.36019/9781978818057

Felt, U. (2015). Keeping Technologies Out: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Formation of Austria’s Technopolitical Identity. In S. Jasanoff & S.-H. Kim (Eds.), Dreamscapes of Modernity. Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power (pp. 103–125). Chicago University Press.

Hecht, G. (2023). Residual Governance. How South Africa Foretells Planetary Futures. Duke University Press.

McGoey, L. (2019). The Unknowers. How Strategic Ignorance Rules the World. Zed Books.

Carsten Horn is a doctoral candidate in the ERC-funded research project “Innovation Residues. Modes and Infrastructures of Caring for our Longue-durée Environmental Futures” at  the STS Department. He investigates the residues of digital practices, digitalization and datafication at the interface of digital and environmental concerns. In his dissertation project “Datafication and its Discontents”, Carsten studies the emerging controversies around data centers in Austria, France and Ireland.

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