A visitor centre that turns nuclear waste into quite an experience

Safely storing small nuclear waste

In Dessel, north of the city of Antwerp, arises a set of warehouses that are quite out of the ordinary. On a former festival ground, the NIRAS centre for nuclear energy is building a facility that will store and dismantle small nuclear waste. To inform locals as well as the public at large of exactly how this potentially dangerous waste will be stored and what safety measures are taken, NIRAS included a visitor centre in their plans. Here, the ins and outs of nuclear waste disposal are clarified in interactive installations that explain complex solutions in very visual setups.

Turning info into entertainment

Our task: to design and build the multimedia part of an exhibition that turns rather dry information into an experience. This experience ought to be both delighting and enlightening. Our basis was the text for the audio guide that would lead visitors all along the exhibition. To turn this neutral storyline into something that would titillate all senses, we turned to our toolbox and designed a wide array of interactive installations. We built an ‘energy valley’ with over a thousand LED lights. We cooked up a kinect application that shows you just what radiation does to, say, a Hiroshima employee. And we used projection mapping to breathe life into a miniature city, highlighting the parts where radioactive waste is being produced.

Make it immersive

At times, our designs served the purpose of illustrating what was heard in the audio guide. In the entrance, for instance, is a scale model of the premises, showing what goes where. Other parts left us room for a little more imagination, though. To give visitors a feel of what it’s like to do tests on radioactive materials 200 metres below ground, we outfitted an elevator with 360° screens and a vibrating floor. In the room where the history of atoms is explained from the Big Bang right up till today, benches shake when supernovas explode on the sky dome above you. In the meantime, you can feel the hot air that’s freed in that explosion.

Navigating a difficult subject with caution

However, with a subject like radioactive waste storage, it’s important to find the right tone. Rather than convince visitors of their methods, NIRAS wants to explain what they do and leave visitors to reach their own conclusions. In matters like these, nuance is everything. And so we pored over how to make radioactivity look—not the classic green radiating aura, thank you—and steered clear of decorating barrels with skulls, or making exhaust steam look gray and dirty. In an environment where safety is of the essence, making people feel at ease is just as important as informing them.

Technically, Tabloo was quite a feat

After a year of engineering and prototyping in-house and close collaboration between our art, software and hardware team, we built one installation after another, each with its own challenges. Syncing an audio guide with video loops, static prints, kinetic effects and even smells into a seamless story proved interesting—but doable. The solution lay in developing a custom-made audio guide that would interact with everything else. Visitors scan an image with the iPod they’re given at the entrance, which then triggers a plethora of visual and other cues. The end result is a visitor centre that works both for school children and research fellows, and opens up the debate to a wide audience while providing them with an interesting afternoon.

Foto_Big Bang

In collaboration with Bailleul Design Agency & Bruns

Renders by Bailleul Design Agency

CREATE Studio: digital development & design

CREATE Systems: hardware integration & support