Grappling with the Potency
06.18.2012, 12:05 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

“If one leaves the material as it is, presenting it just as material, then it starts to tell us something and speaks with a mighty voice.” – Gutai Manifesto, 1956

Sayonara Nuclear Power rally in Tokyo, September 2011, image cc Kumuaka (The kanji ”脱原発” written on the flag mean “abandoning nuclear power generation.”)

Over the past several weeks, we’ve followed a flurry of dispatches in the news, blogosphere, and from friends that, for us, signal urgent design challenges.  Speaking with the mighty voice heard by the writers of the Gutai Manifesto, the materials involved in nuclear power generation are posing an unanswered question:  How might humans co-exist with the nuclear’s most potent and “vibrant” materiality capable of dramatically re-shaping our daily lives, landscapes, and livelihoods?

We at FOP have been attempting to invent ways to address nuclear material “as it is,” “just as material,” to see what it might tell us.  What might the mighty voice of nuclear material say to artists and designers about the necessity of building life-friendly ways to live and work alongside its potency?

The recent litany of reports concerning “the nuclear” cuts across and links far flung geographic locations and disparate public policies, notions of citizenship, infrastructural designs, historical memories, and cultural sensibilities. Here in the United States, news includes last month’s resignation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) chairman, Gregory Jaczko, which resulted, in part, from his ill-received post-Fukushima push for stricter regulations for U.S. reactors. His likely replacement is Allison MacFarlane, a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future whom we first referenced in March, 2011. This past week also brought stories about Kristin Iverson’s new book on the widespread radioactive contamination at Rocky Flats in Colorado that resulted from a largely undocumented fire in 1957. She also reports that, for more than four decades, Rocky Flats has been unable to account for some three tons of plutonium. And, notable for us here at FOP, on the heels of completing our Repository project came news that a federal appeals court rejected the NRC’s conclusion that nuclear power plants across the country could store spent fuel on-site indefinitely.

Across the Pacific, challenges for designers of infrastructures for “the nuclear” are even more daunting. In early May, after several months of transitioning nuclear reactors in the country to offline status, all of Japan’s reactors were offline for the first time since 1970.  Now, two reactors at the Ohi power station near Osaka have been approved to go back online by mid-July. This decision was arrived at through coordinated efforts of industry executives and selected public officials, primarily spearheaded on a national governmental level—in stark opposition to public opinion. The day before Japanese Prime Minister Noda gave the order to restart the reactors, he received a petition that called for the abolition of nuclear power.  It was signed by more than 7.5 million people, and delivered by Kenzaburo Ōe, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994. Oe’s Hiroshima Notes features interviews with hibakusha (survivors of the bombing).  It appears that Fukushima is becoming more and more closely linked in the Japanese psyche with Hirsoshima and Nagasaki.  For many in Japan, the status quo of the nuclear industry is no longer acceptable.  This week, Japanese friends shared videos with us of heated confrontations between officials and Japanese people who attempted to block the incineration of radioactive tsunami debris in country’s southern prefectures. The bass beat to these reports, in Japan and the United States, is the ongoing instability at the Fukushima Dai-ichi, where the status of spent fuel pools and reactor vessels is riddled with uncertainty, especially at #4 reactor.

low-level radioactive waste, Nevada Test Site, image wikicommons

Collectively, these tales underscore a seemingly irresolvable design question:  how might humans contain materials whose potency outscales the human? For Timothy Morton, such materials constitute what he has termed “hyperobjects,” which he describes as:

“… real objects that are massively distributed in time and space. Hyperobjects are so vast, so long-lasting, that they defy human time and spatial scales … take Plutonium 239, for example. No self-interest theory yet devised can cope with building the right storage to house deadly radioactive materials for the 24,100 years they take to decay. Instead, we shall need to design without a view to look after Number 1, or Number 2, or even Number 1 million, because no one meaningfully related to me, not even by the craziest distance imaginable, will be alive 24,100 years from now. Yet everyone alive then will be affected by decisions we make regarding Plutonium 239.”
– “Zero Landscapes in the Time of Hyperobjects,” Graz Architecture Magazine 7 (2011)

What we design and live in relation to when we speak of “the nuclear,” is vibrant matter—in this case, a particularly active, potent, and long-lived version of material force that needs to be contained, for millennia to come, by built environments that are incredibly complex and expensive.

Cold War era designs for containing spent or discarded nuclear materials have failed.  The growing amounts and intense potencies of nuclear waste from power plants and dismantled weapons now create design situations and specifications unimagined during the Cold War.  Contemporary realities of “the nuclear” are radically different from those of the era that coined terms such as “nuclear waste” and policies such as “temporary on-site storage.”  When we continue to use relatively innocuous language such as “waste” or “burial” to describe and design for the forceful materials and hyperobjects generated by “the nuclear,” we run the risk of working with antiquated terms and assumptions that predetermine how conversations or design “solutions” might develop from here.

We need new ways of thinking and talking about contemporary situations of “the nuclear” now being signaled, almost daily, in the news.  Our Repository project is an experiment in inventing ways to perceive and communicate the reality that nuclear materials are vibrant, and are in constant motion. Repository attempts to give aesthetic expression to the idea that design for nuclear “waste” is design for and with the fluid dynamics of the world we inhabit: ever-shifting forces of hydrology, wind, aquifer levels, erosion, human inhabitation, tectonic movement, and climate change.  It is a call to design and discuss in response to what nuclear materials have been telling us about themselves since 1945, namely, that they are events.  For the rest of the human species’ time on earth, nuclear materials will engage in potent acts of free-ranging, errantry, outscaling, and cooling.  And for the rest of the human species’ time on earth, designers will be following their lead, generating interminable next iterations of shuffling, landfilling, protoscaping, and cycling,

inside the core of Idaho National Laboratory’s Advanced Test Reactor (ATR), image wikicommons

4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

[…] Grappling with the Potency « FOP. […]

Pingback by Grappling with the Potency / FOP « word pond

So where is Japan now getting its electricity? Old, out of date coal-fired power plants. Which is worse? I don’t have the answer.

Comment by D. Trent

Thanks for your comment. We’ve been intrigued by how the rhetoric in support of nuclear power has changed over the decades. Starting as justifying it in the name of “atoms for peace” and harnessing nuclear power for “the good of mankind,” to justifying it in the name of economics (“electricity generated by nuclear plants will be so inexpensive, it will be nearly free”), to now justifying it in the name how it will save us from climate change (however, it will take decades to build new nuclear reactors to replace fossil fuel plants, and climate change is well underway–it seems we could just as well use these decades to develop wind/solar and other alternatives). We understand that some 30% of all electricity used in the United States is wasted by consumers. We also understand that across the U.S., about 20-30% of our electricity comes from nuclear power. It seems that if we were to stop wasting 30% of all electricity the comes into our homes and factories, we could turn off all nuclear plants and hardly sense the difference.

It seems that this moment is an opportunity for people to make choices about where their energy comes from, how much they want to use, and the materials involved. 7.5 million people in Japan have signed a petition indicating they are willing to engage with this issue and begin to consciously work through the complex problems of energy that, for the moment, have no simple answers.

Comment by smudge

NYTimes 6.18.12: Japan Poised to Become Second-Biggest Market for Solar Power
Incentives set to begin July 1 are expected to drive the nation past Italy, which holds the No. 2 spot worldwide.

Comment by FOP

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.