Best Attempts for Navigating the Unknownable Future
11.18.2010, 4:55 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

still from best attempt (142, 192, 502), smudge studio, 2010

We just posted a 35 second video over on vimeo. It depicts a brief encounter we had last summer during a research trip. We had just left the Red Rock Pass and unexpectedly spotted a truck transporting transuranic waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. The driver was traveling under the speed limit, and on our first pass, we recognized the TRUPACT containers. We slowed down to take in the view again–this time on film (we happened to have a Super 8 camera handy in the car).

These radioactive waste transportation trucks are monitored by satellite, tracked by a control room at WIPP, and the drivers must stop every 3 hours, or 150 miles, to inspect their load.

In seeing this truck right outside our window we realized that the truck itself–with its containers, its route, its rules of the road and its destination– represents our (human) best attempt to date to design for and address the reality of nuclear waste and its long-term future. Our brief passing of this truck was a momentary point of contact with this waste, bound for deep time in the salt domes of southeastern New Mexico.

routes to WIPP

This was our first encounter with a truck transporting nuclear waste.  But some 9,000 shipments have traveled the US interstate system alongside civilian vehicles since 1999. So the experience isn’t exactly rare.  Looking a map of the waste shipment routes, it’s easy to see that several states aren’t on designated routes to WIPP, which puts many of us (especially east coasters) out of touch with the reality of this waste’s existence.

To be confronted unexpectedly with the material reality of transuranic waste on the same highway with civilian traffic is a bit unnerving. Yet, for us, driving alongside one of these trucks is to more fully grasp the material reality of our present moment- and our future. We’re going to see increasingly more waste on the move in the coming years, as more repositories will be needed to handle waste from the new generation of nuclear power plants being constructed.  Yucca Mountain is theoretically  already ‘full’–and it hasn’t even opened.  Thousands of shipments of nuclear waste will have travel on highways or by train through our backyards to wherever we deem to be their final resting places.

stills from best attempt (142, 192, 502), smudge studio, 2010

We discussed these ideas more extensively during our presentation two weeks ago at the Design and Existential Risk panel (Parsons, The New School).  In the days since our presentation, we’ve been left thinking about how, when and where humans attempt to navigate the highly precarious and unknown spaces of deep time through design.  It occurred to us that the more we see trucks transporting nuclear waste outside our own car windows, the more indication we’ll have that humans are grasping–finally and pragmatically–the reality of the risk that this waste poses. Our current system of leaving nuclear waste where it is seems wholly insufficient. The waste is already here for the duration–“the duration” being nothing less than the rest of the life of the planet (4.6 billion year half-life for uranium 238).  On that day in Idaho, we drove by one of our “best attempts” to address such realities, rather than deny them or cower before them in fear.

These issues and passing that truck last summer has now motivated us, as artists, to initiate an ongoing series of projects called “best attempts”. This short film is our first piece. For this project, we’ll offer responses to specific materials, processes, spaces and practices created by humans in our best attempts to design for spans of time ranging 1,000 to 1,000,000 years.

Please check out the video and let us know what you think. Also feel free to pass it on to friends, embed and distribute widely.

*thank you to John Drew for encouraging the distribution of this video and to Ed Keller for the context to develop the ideas.

3 Comments so far
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[…] recent FOP posts, we wrote about designs that we deem to illustrate “best attempts” by humans to create materials, practices and infrastructures capable of meeting monumental […]

Pingback by To Contain and Confine: Best Attempts for Design Futures « FOP

I’m a wholehearted supporter of nuclear power but not the status quo type that is so expensive and prone to Fukushima type failure.

I understand that New Mexico has stable salt formations that are very stable places for storage of nuclear waste.

However I don’t believe that nuclear waste is really waste. All of that hot stuff can be transmuted to lower level waste throwing usable energy off in the process. Means to do that are well understood by anyone familiar with nuclear chemistry.

All that’s needed is less ignorance and the will to move forward.

Comment by zhando

[…] traveled alongside civilian traffic within the U.S. Interstate system. In spring, 2009, we encountered one of a mobile nuclear infrastructures in Idaho, presumably delivering waste to WIPP. In our moments of passing this truck, we realized […]

Pingback by Repository: A Typological Guide to America’s Ephemeral Nuclear Infrastructure « FOP

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