Preserving Our Past and Future: Unraveling the Intricate Relationship Between Cultural Heritage and Nuclear Waste Preservation

Ki Culture
5 min readAug 28, 2023


The art of preservation, by COVRA. Photo by COVRA NV

In today’s ever-changing world, the preservation of cultural heritage plays a vital role in connecting us with our past, shaping our collective identity, and understanding our roots. However, as we navigate the challenges of the 21st century, it is crucial to consider some of the more practical aspects of heritage conservation including storage space, waste management, and preservation of toxic materials, such as nuclear waste.

Nuclear waste and cultural heritage might appear quite different initially. One brings to mind thoughts of danger, contamination and lasting hazards, while the other is about tradition, memories, nostalgia, and a sense of belonging. But if we look closely, these two seemingly separate areas actually share some interesting similarities.

The significance of cultural heritage in the future

Cultural heritage is highly significant as it helps us understand the past and present, connecting history, traditions, and values together. Heritage preservation is important, and its importance increases when we think about preserving it for the future. As society changes and values shift, an important question comes up: how will the generations after us see and value the legacy we leave for them?

In this sense, nuclear waste and cultural heritage come together like a puzzle. They can be seen as forgotten fragments of the past or as valuable things to safeguard. Although nuclear waste might remind us of danger and harm to the environment, it’s undoubtedly a lasting mark of human history, similar to challenging reminders like battlefields and concentration camps. In this unique sense, nuclear waste becomes an unexpected form of cultural heritage.

Similarly, cultural heritage is not free from uncertainty. It can make us feel proud and nostalgic, but it can also remind us of past injustices or differences in culture. How we understand cultural heritage is an individual experience, affected by the values of society. Over time, it adapts to changing feelings and situations. Both nuclear waste and cultural heritage push us to rethink what we consider important and meaningful in human history. This makes us deeply evaluate how we preserve and see things.

Managing nuclear waste and cultural heritage

Heritage management is a forward-looking task, which aims to safeguard pieces of the past for future generations. It is rooted in the belief that what we leave behind will matter to those who come later. This idea involves not just keeping heritage physically intact, but also recording and saving knowledge through archives and documentation. However, the strong focus on preservation in the heritage field often overlooks the need to assess whether what we’re doing now will be useful and appropriate for the future.

Handling both nuclear waste and cultural heritage requires a skilled touch, careful planning, and lots of knowledge. In both areas, it is important to keep things safe to reduce risks and ensure benefits for the future. Expertise takes center stage, whether it is about safely storing nuclear waste or looking after cultural heritage in museums and preservation sites.

Legal rules and ethics play a big role in how we deal with nuclear waste and cultural heritage. Regulations dictate what we can do with them, and ethical responsibilities adapt as social values change. Handling these things is complex, and this complexity shows how local places and actions connect to worldwide policies and concerns. Nuclear waste and cultural heritage both show how the past, present, and what we leave for the future are all connected and always changing.

The changing perceptions of nuclear waste and cultural heritage

Over time, our perceptions of nuclear waste and cultural heritage are likely to change. Just like old science fiction books give us hints about the time when they were written, future stories about nuclear waste will be seen under the scope of new evidence and will be significant for different reasons. The future pasts of nuclear waste have the potential to transform and challenge how we currently understand these aspects.

Likewise, stories about cultural heritage will keep changing. The past stories are now linked to issues like gender, sustainability, multiculturalism, and decolonization, which were not on the agenda in the past. Future generations might understand and connect with cultural heritage in new ways, reshaping its meaning and significance. Because of this, the way we see nuclear waste and cultural heritage in the future might be very different from now.

Cultural heritage and nuclear waste: collaborative initiatives

The collaboration between institutions managing cultural heritage and nuclear waste is an interesting development that blurs the boundaries between these two fields. COVRA, a nuclear waste repository outside Vlissingen in the Netherlands, houses both nuclear waste and ordinary cultural heritage objects. This collaboration challenges old ways of thinking and fosters new perspectives on existing challenges.

COVRA’s use of art in its facilities shows how cultural heritage can bring fresh insights to nuclear waste management. For instance, the HABOG building, designed for high-level radioactive waste treatment and storage, doubles as a work of art. Its outer facade is repainted every twenty years, visualizing the process of decay. Similarly, the storage facility for depleted uranium features a large sundial, symbolizing the passage of time.

Innovative collaborations like these prove how cultural heritage can offer new perspectives on nuclear waste preservation. By breaking down barriers between these fields, we can foster a deeper understanding of the challenges we face and develop sustainable strategies for managing both nuclear waste and cultural heritage.


The interconnections between nuclear waste and cultural heritage are more significant than they may initially appear. Both fields share uncertainties, serve as human legacies, require expertise in management, and are in constant change. Collaborative initiatives that bring together nuclear waste repositories and cultural heritage institutions offer fresh perspectives on the challenges we face. In the end, preserving nuclear waste and cultural heritage requires a collaborative approach that uses what we know and offers new perspectives. As we face the complexities of safeguarding nuclear waste and cultural heritage, we should recognize the uncertainties and interconnectedness of these fields. If we embrace these challenges and approach them through thoughtful decision-making processes, we can make sure that future generations inherit a world where the past is understood, the present is appreciated, and the future is responsibly managed.


Cornelius Holtorf and Andreas Högberg, “Contemporary Heritage and the Future.” In The Palgrave Handbook of Contemporary Heritage Research, ed. Emma Waterton and Steve Watson. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015, 509–523.

Cornelius Holtorf, “Cultural Heritage, Nuclear Waste, and the Future: What Is in It for Us?” In Bewaren of weggoien?, ed. Jeanine Dekker. Zeeuwse Ankers and COVRA, 2019, 11/01–11/16.

COVRA NV, “The art of preservation”,

Author’s bio:

Mariana Di-Bella is a Mexican cultural heritage specialist, sustainable tourism advocate, and fundraiser. With over two years of experience working in the nonprofit sector, she’s profoundly interested in aspects of cultural heritage and its intersection with sustainability, urban planning, and well-being. Mariana holds a BA in International Relations and an MA in Cultural Heritage Studies. Currently based in Vienna, she has lived and worked in different countries, including Mexico, France, Poland, and Singapore.



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