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Nuclear culture in Japan. Pt 2: Road trip through Fukushima exclusion zone

After my lecture at the Actinium nuclear forum in Sapporo, a group of us (Arts Catalyst team and artists with Kyoko Tachibana from our partners S-AIR) travelled by plane and bullet train to Fukushima City (located 60km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant). If we weren’t already aware of what we were heading into, this was the first thing we saw on leaving the rail station:

Geiger counter, Fukushima City

Geiger counter, Fukushima City

Fukushima City was not evacuated after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. It is the prefectural capital with a population of more than 280,000. On the surface, life appears to continue here as normal.

We met with Shuji Akagi, an artist and high school art teacher, who lives in the city (Shuji’s work was shown in the Actinium exhibition and he spoke at the forum). Since 2011, Shuji has been meticulously photographically documenting the decontamination of the city. He took us on a tour of the city to give us some insight into this vast process, which involves the rather low-tech process of scrubbing roads, buildings and trees with street sweeping vehicles, high-powered sprayers, and hand-held brushes. In addition, the first metre of topsoil is being removed from parks and gardens and reburied elsewhere. The plan is to decontaminate the entire city. It has taken three years so far and it looks a long way from being finished.

Roadway circular scratches caused by machine

Scratches from decontamination process on the roads, Fukushima City

The photo below is of one of the temporary storage sites for contaminated topsoil in the heart of this busy city. Hidden from street view behind a fence, here they are storing topsoil, which will then be reburied elsewhere in Fukushima prefecture. The city has difficulty finding storage sites to keep contaminated soil. When first removed, it is temporarily stored on the premises of schools and people’s homes, buried in yards or covered in plastic sheets, awaiting collection. 

Numerous black bags containing soil with blue covering in large hole in central city location

Contaminated topsoil, Fukyshima City

Sign with blue Japanese writing

Blue ‘decontamination site’ sign – these are found all over Fukushima City and the region

All around the city, you see these piles of contaminated topsoil.

Blue covered pile outside shop with vending machine next to it

Contaminated topsoil awaiting collection, Fukushima City

Shuji took us to see a large temporary storage site, where this topsoil is then taken, just on the edge of the city by Fukushima University. The topsoil is stored here before being relocated again for burial.

Vast hole in the ground containing large black and blue plastic bags. Sign - picture of worker with hands outstretched in warning and Japanese writing

Temporary contaminated topsoil storage site, near Fukushima University

How do the people of the city feel about the decontamination? Do they discuss its progress? Do they think it is effective? Shuji told us that it is rarely discussed by the city’s inhabitants in general conversation. The city authorities say the city is safe and the city returned quite quickly to normal after the disaster, almost as though nothing had happened. He finds this very strange. But he does not know if he is too worried, or not worried enough, about the dangers posed by the contamination. He knows he looks for spots of high radiation, while others prefer to be reassured, and he finds it difficult to find others in the city as concerned as he is. The art world outside Fukushima and internationally, where his photographs are widely exhibited, gives him an arena to discuss the things that concern him so greatly that he relocated his family to another city, 80 km away, although he still works in Fukushima City to keep up their income.

From Fukushima City, our group drove to Soma, closer to the Fukushima restricted zone, where we stayed the night. Shuji accompanied us, interested to visit the evacuation zone around the power plant. In the early hours, the hotel shook. An earthquake. A small one for here. A common occurrence. And this is where they build nuclear reactors? This feels increasingly uncanny, a place where abnormal things have become normalised.

The restricted zone

It is complex to explain the spatial aspect of the exclusion and restricted zones around Fukushima. This is one map I’ve found that can help, and it usefully shows the location of Fukushima City. Initially, the exclusion (evacuation) zone was a 20km circle around the around the Fukushima Daiichi plant  – shown on the map below. However, the coloured areas show how the radiation was actually distributed, due to the wind direction. This meant that the original evacuation zone was soon extended Northwest towards Fukushima City, although the city itself was left outside it.

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The restricted zone today continues to be adjusted to allow people into areas with lower radiation levels, and move them out of areas with higher levels. Below is a recent, although by no means up-to-date, map. The green areas show those parts of the original exclusion zone that people are now allowed back into. The orange are areas where people are only allowed in during the day to work or visit former homes, but cannot live there, or which can only be visited at all with a special permit. The pink area is the Red Zone, the most contaminated area, which is extremely restricted. Due to the revised shape of the exclusion zone, by driving down Highway 6 from Soma, and with a special permit, we were able to come within 4km of the Daiichi power plant itself and to visit the evacuated town of Namie.

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The morning after our bumpy sleep, we set off with Shuji and a local guide (a former farmer, evacuated from his house in the exclusion zone, who stays in the area working with an NGO). Driving along Highway 6, we found ourselves tailing one of the many trucks carrying radioactive topsoil. It’s a massive industry here, the clean up. We stopped in Minamisoma (a formerly evacuated city to which inhabitants have been allowed to return) to pick up our permit, allowing us to enter the Orange Zone.

Our guide took us to the coastal area where he lived to the north of the Daiichi plant. In most of the area affected by the tsunami, the clean up has erased most obvious physical evidence. Here, the physical evidence of the tsunami is frozen in time, a consequence of the radioactivity that has fallen on the area. “Here most people got out” our guide says as we reached some derelict houses. “Here, over 100 people died”, he informed us, as we passed an area where there was no trace of any houses – washed away by the force of the tsunami.

Damaged rural houses

Houses deserted post-tsunami damage, Fukushima exclusion zone

Interior of house devastated by tsunami

Interior of house devastated by tsunami

Gold dome and square building

Deserted planetarium, Orange Zone, Fukushima

Boats stranded in paddy fields by the tsunami

Boats stranded in paddy fields by the tsunami

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Tsunami debris

Passing the checkpoint at which we showed our permit, we arrived at the edge of the Red Zone. Getting out of our minivan, we could just make out Fukushima Daiichi’s plant’s reactors, 4 km away, across a river with a broken bridge. Ele Carpenter took her Geiger counter out and placed it close to the water source (where radioactivity concentrates). The readings on the counter had increased as we’d got closer to the Red Zone, but not significantly.

View over ruined bridge towards distant hills and electricity pylons

Looking out towards the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant (from 4km)

Geiger counter placed on a crack in the road

Ele’s Geiger counter, Fukushima Prefecture

As we looked out across the landscape, a pair of workers emerged by car from the Red Zone wearing white suits. This was the first sign we had seen of anyone in protective wear.

Men in white overalls and face masks get into a white car

Workers leaving the Red Zone, 4km from Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant

Bizarrely, a Google streetcar passed us as we stood there. Will we be on Google Street View, captured hanging around uncertainly in this uncertain uncanny zone?

We drove to Namie next, a ghost town on the edge of the Red Zone, evacuated after the disaster.

A deserted high street of a small Japanese town

Namie ghost town, Fukushima exclusion zone

In a shop, piles of newspapers left from the day of the evacuation. Kyoko read the headlines for us – they were about the earthquake.

Stack of newspapers in Japanese

Stack of newspapers from the day of the evacuation, shop in Namie, Fukushima exclusion zone

The Geiger counter reading increased and we decided to leave quite quickly to be on the safe side.

We dropped Susan Schuppli off near where our guide’s house was, where she wanted more time to do some filming – I’d offered to drive back later to collect her – and we drove back to Soma. The others headed for Fukushima City from there, while I collected the small car I’d hired and drove the 90 minute journey back into the restricted zone to rendezvous with Susan. I found her filming in the middle of a field near a major seawall rebuilding project. We decide to drive back into Namie for a little more filming and, out of curiosity, we then headed to the edge of the Red Zone on Highway 6. It was the rush hour, and we looked on astonished at the endless stream of traffic emerging from the Red Zone carrying workers. It was almost bumper to bumper driving back through Namie, but no one stops in this town. There are no shops open, yet it looks like a functioning town. It’s just that there’s no one here anymore. And probably never will be.

Bowling hall in the evacuated ghost town of Namie, Fukishima exclusion zone

Bowling hall in the evacuated ghost town of Namie, Fukishima exclusion zone

View of rolling hills at sunset

View inland from the coast, Fukushima exclusion zone

We drove back to Fukushima City over the hills, skirting the edge of the Red Zone and passing through the deserted picturesque village of Iitate, an unfortunate place that was hit badly by the radiation despite being 40km from the power plant and outside the 30km exclusion zone around the plant. A feeling of great sadness and waste hit me, a sense of displaced people, disrupted lives and an invisibly toxic landscape.

Nuclear culture in Japan. Part 1: Actinium programme, Sapporo, Hokkaido

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

I’ve been in Japan for Arts Catalyst’s Actinium exhibition and forum, part of an ongoing partnership between The Arts Catalyst and S-AIR in Sapporo, and part of the collaborative programme for the Sapporo International Art Festival.

The Actinium exhibition, held at Oyoyo in central Sapporo, was a hub for discussion about contemporary nuclear culture in Japan. It hosted film screenings and a forum, as well as being the base for field trips for artists and curators to explore the relationships between culture and nuclear power in northern Japan after 2011, the year in which the fifth most powerful earthquake ever recorded shook the country, causing widespread destruction and triggering powerful tsunami waves that reached heights of up to 40.5 metres (133 ft) in some parts. The disaster killed more than 15,000 people and caused a series of nuclear accidents, primarily the major meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, which led to evacuations affecting hundreds of thousands of residents.

Actinium exhibition, Oyoyo, Sapporo, 2014. Photo: Ele Carpenter

Actinium exhibition, Oyoyo, Sapporo, 2014. Photographs by Shuji Akagi (foreground), Temporary Index by Thomson & Craighead (rear), re-creation of James Acord’s nuclear round table (right). Photo: Ele Carpenter

Before 2011, Japan generated 30 per cent of its electrical power from nuclear reactors, even though Japan is subject to frequent earthquakes, located near a triple fault line between the Eurasian plate, the Pacific plate and the Philippine plate. Since 2011, many of Japan’s nuclear plants were closed or their operations suspended. The last of Japan’s fifty nuclear reactors (at Tomari in Hokkaido) went offline in May 2012.

Today, Japan and its northern island of Hokkaido face critical decisions about whether to re-start their nuclear plants, as well as where to store nuclear waste in a highly nuclear-dependent nation, how to support the Fukushima evacuees and what to do with the contaminated debris and topsoil from the region. The after effects of the Fukushima disaster are complex and highly sensitive.

Japanese artists have responded strongly to this crisis and it has deeply affected many practices. The Actinium exhibition was curated by Arts Catalyst associate curator Ele Carpenter, who has been leading the Nuclear Culture programme, a curatorial research programme based at The Arts Catalyst and Goldsmiths College, which combines artists’ field trips, new commissions, exhibitions, film screenings, interdisciplinary symposia, and public talks. Ele Carpenter spent a month in Sapporo last year, as curator-in-residence at S-AIR, meeting Japanese artists and curators to research the Japanese cultural response to the Fukushima disaster and nuclear power in Japan today.

The Actinium programme emerged from this research, involving the exhibition and forum, and enabling a number of artists from the UK to visit Japan. The Actinium exhibition included works by artists from Japan, the UK, the US and Canada, several of whom also attended the forum. With Japanese curators, artists and other experts, the visiting group also made field trips to the Underground Research Center for radioactive waste storage at Horonobe, and the Nuclear Power Plant at Tomari, before heading south to Fukushima.

Actinium exhibition, 2014. Let Them Believe by Eva and Franco Mattes (right), Photo of James Acord's round table (left), which was re-created for the exhibition

Actinium exhibition, 2014. Let Them Believe by Eva and Franco Mattes (right), Photo of James Acord’s round table (left)

The Actinium Forum

The forum brought together artists with Japanese academics, activists and researchers in the field of nuclear culture. Discussion topics included political, social, material and philosophical concerns, geologic time, the nuclear cycle, radiation, immateriality and invisibility.

In my opening talk, I raised the issue of dependency on expertise and questions around the legitimacy of that expertise in modern technoscientific democratic societies (referencing Sheila Jasanoff’s writings). Through the lens of Langdon Winner’s analysis of the political character of technology, I discussed some of the Arts Catalyst’s work that engages with or critiques centralized systems of technology, such as nuclear energy, and our interest in exploring alternatives to centralised science, such as renewable energy, open source technologies and  citizen (or civic) science projects, exemplified by Arts Catalyst’s role in the Arctic Perspective Initiative, a multidisciplinary project led by artists Marko Peljhan and Matthew Biederman that aims to develop free and open source science and technology tools for citizens of the North, showing in the Sapporo International Art Festival.

Chim↑Pom, KI-AI 100 (100 Cheers) (video still)

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Chim↑Pom, KI-AI 100 (100 Cheers) (video still)

There were then a series of fascinating artists’ presentations by Ryuta Ushiro from artists collective Chim↑Pom, who introduced the group’s work and controversial artistic response to the Fukushima disaster, Jon Thomson & Alison Craighead who discussed their evolving work ‘Temporary Index’ a proposal for a counter representing the decay rate of a number of nuclear waste products to consider our relationship with deep time and our legacy of nuclear weapons and energy, and Shuji Akagi, an artist, high school teacher and resident of Fukushima City who has been photographically documenting the decontamination process around his city over the last three years, and whose photographs – revealing the immense scale of the process of removing and burying contaminated topsoil – formed a compelling part of the exhibition. Further artists’ talks were given by Susan Schuppli, whose work investigates the concept of ‘the material witness’, entities that record evidence of passing events, and Takashi Noguchi, who tried to visually capture the invisible radiation in his photographs from Fukushima by wrapping them in dark bags with radioactive soil.

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Takashi Noguchi at the Actinium Forum

In the afternoon were two fascinating presentations by scientist Dr Yogo Ono and lawyer Norio Sugasawa.

Dr Yugo Ono is a geographer, geo-ecologist and environmental scientist, a professor emeritus at Hokkaido University and professor at Hokusei Gakuen University, Sapporo. Ono says he has been deeply influenced by the late Jinzaburo Takagi’s ideas about citizen science. Ono discussed his estimates of radiation contamination if an accident occurred at the Tomari nuclear power plant on Hokkaido. Unlike at Fukushima, where 80 per cent of the radiation was blown out to sea, at Tomari, where winds blow from the west, almost all the radioactivity would be blown inland, devastating large areas of Hokkaido. Ono established the Group for Decommissioning the Tomari NPP, and has filed a lawsuit aimed at the decommissioning of the plant. As a side note, Ono also participates in the movement to restore the rights of indigenous Ainu people and the movement against the Sanru Dam construction.

Predicted dispersal of radiation from meltdown at Tomari nuclear power plant, from leaflet distributed by Dr Yogo Ono

Predicted dispersal of radiation from meltdown at Tomari nuclear power plant, from leaflet distributed by Dr Yogo Ono

Norio Sugasawa spoke about his work with the Decommission Tomari Campaign, on a civil suit against Hokkaido Electric Power Company (HEPCO) that owns Tomari Nuclear power station, as well as legal cases being taken against nuclear power across Japan since March 11, 2011, with some recent success, although Sugasawa pointed out the ultimate decisions about nuclear power will not be legal but political.

The forum ended with a series of extremely animated ‘break out’ roundtable discussions. In the one I attended, there was discussion about Japanese people’s response to the disaster and some concern expressed that people aboard may feel their response too passive (although there have been many protests and legal cases against nuclear power) – would people from other countries have protested more loudly? In a group that was a mix of Japanese and Western people, we agreed that the 3.11 disaster was so profound and traumatic that it was difficult to say that in another country people would have responded differently. Although the Japanese in the group explained that in their culture people tend not to state their opposition or objections out loud, the group realized that this did not mean that there had not been deep questioning, protest and activism, nor could it be said that a more outspoken culture would have reacted very differently under similarly overwhelming circumstances. The Japanese situation was uniquely devastating, but there were lessons to be learned from it for the world.

The Actinium programme (exhibition, forum, exchange & research trips) was supported by the Daiwa Foundation, Goldsmiths College, University of London, SIAF, the Pola Art Foundation, Arts Council England, Agency for Cultural Affairs, City of Sapporo, S-AIR and The Arts Catalyst.

In my next Japan installment, I will report on our road trip to the Fukushima exclusion zone.

Nuclear landscapes: exploring New Mexico’s atomic legacy

View out over a desert landscapes
Looking out towards Trinity Ground Zero (20 miles away), New Mexico

My first trip to the States, in 1997, was to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, 560 square miles of beautiful, polluted desert landscape in the Columbian Basin, Washington State. This is where the first reactors were built for the Manhattan project to produce plutonium: fuel for the atomic bomb. During the Cold War, Hanford was home to nine nuclear reactors and five massive plutonium-processing complexes, a vast complex technological landscape. I travelled there to meet with the artist James Acord, the “nuclear sculptor”, who took us around and told us numerous tales about the history and contested landscape of Hanford.

The nuclear landscape of Hanford – contested, isolated, resonant with history, paradoxically visually beautiful and highly polluted, dense with security – fascinated me. Visiting New Mexico for ISEA 2012 (International Symposium of Electronic Arts): Machine Wilderness, I was keen therefore to explore this other significant landscape of nuclear history. The world’s first atomic bomb Trinity exploded in the deserts of southern New Mexico, using plutonium made in Hanford, while to the north of the state, the volcano-perching small town of Los Alamos was the heart and brain of the wartime atomic bomb programme. Both Hanford and Los Alamos remain home to significant scientific laboratories, closely associated with the military’s nuclear programme.

At ISEA, I met Matt Coolidge, the director of CLUI(Centre for Land Use Interpretation), an expert on the constructed landscapes of the States. Coolidge gave a brief presentation on the technological landscape of New Mexico, particularly Los Alamos, as part of the ISEA ‘Radical Cosmologies’ panel, but almost more interesting was when, afterwards, he showed us the large amount of Los Alamos laboratory surplus equipment in the back of his transit van, that he had bought from a place called the Black Hole in Los Alamos. Two artists on the same panel were Tom Jennings and Eve-André Laramee, who had a collaborative installation ‘Invisible Landscapes’ in the ISEA exhibition, referencing the Cold War atomic legacy of uranium mining and radioactive waste. Their installation included video projections and sculptures, digital photos and light box and sound sculptures (click here for iPhone video clip of the piece).

Installation with equipment and photographs

Tom Jennings & Eve-André Laramee, Invisible Landscapes, 2012

I visited the Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, a fascinating place, made more interesting by chatting with a guide and educator there, John Anderson, who worked for over 50 years in the nuclear world. I commented on his English/Russian name badge, and he explained that he had been part of a programme in which the US provided technical advice to the Russians on safety and decommissioning. He pointed out some of the most interesting exhibits, including a neutron bomb, mythologized as being able to leave infrastructure intact, destroying only living things, in fact their detonation, Anderson told me, would cause considerable destruction through blast and heat effects. He also talked about some ‘Broken Arrow’ incidents – US military terminology for accidental event that involves nuclear weapons, including accidental nuclear detonation or, astonishingly, the loss in transit of a nuclear weapon or material, primarily due to aircraft accidents. The Museum houses many fascinating exhibits and a magnificent large-scale outdoor display in development, which includes a B52 bomber plane, an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile, and a nuclear cannon.

Snark missile, Museum of Nuclear Science & History, Albuquerque

Titan Inter Continental Ballistic Missile, Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Watch from Hiroshima (photograph), Museum of Nuclear Science & History, Albuquerque

My road trip to Los Alamos started out from Albuquerque, heading northbound along the Interstate 25, but I soon turned off to take the looping, scenic back route, which took me through ancient sacred grounds of Native Americans, winding along one of the steep canyons of the mesa, and around the crater of the Valles Caldera. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific head of the Manhattan Project, chose the site. He knew Los Alamos, the site of a small private school, from his youth, when he rode in the New Mexico landscape. Los Alamos suited the brief for the site: remote, far from the sea, and sparsely populated. By autumn 1943, a few thousand people were living in Los Alamos, working in the lab in the hills. They worked six days a week for two years, their work culminating in the atomic bomb explosions in 1945: the Trinity test, and the bombing of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, the work at Los Alamos continued as the Cold War darkened, making bigger and “better” nuclear weapons.

View from Los Alamos mesa

Main entrance to the Los Alamos National Laboratory

I drove around the fenced lands of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The area is divided into seventy-four Technical Areas. The lab is now engaged in a range of programs related to security, environmental technology, renewable energy, health sciences, and son on. But nuclear weapons are still the main activity and responsibility of the lab. I passed the main gates of the lab, and rejoined the main road into town from the other side. Entering town, the former gates of the lab are recognizable by an unused guard tower on one side, and a guardhouse on the other, now a restaurant. Beyond the gate, Technical Area 21 on the left, is one of the most contaminated sites. Facilities here were used for early research with plutonium and uranium. It’s the site where chemical operator Cecil Kelley died in a plutonium criticality accident in 1958.

Technical Area 21, Los Alamos

Los Alamos has the clean, planned look of an affluent middle class suburb. I stopped off at the Bradbury Museum, predominantly a science museum, with a specific emphasis on nuclear science. It has an excellent large-scale annotated map of the area, some interesting exhibits, including replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man – the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs – and a cinema, which showed a very interesting film on the history of Los Alamos and the Manhattan project.I visited the tiny Los Alamos Historical Museum, which – unlike the Bradbury Museum – includes panoramic photographs of destroyed city of Hiroshima. Behind this small interesting museum is Bathtub Row, the remaining teachers’ cottages from the former school, which became the housing for the main lab scientists. These bungalows were considered luxurious for having bathtubs. Oppenheimer’s house is at the far end of the row.

Oppenheimer’s House, Los Alamos

I drove up the valley, along “Acid Canyon”, where untreated waste was dumped between 1943 and 1953. It is next to the town’s high school. I was heading for the “Black Hole” of Los Alamos, a vast collection of surplus Los Alamos laboratory equipment, bought at auctions and acquired by other means, over decades, by the late owner of the Hole, Ed Grothus. Grothus once worked at the lab, but resigned due to his ethical concerns, staying in Los Alamos as an outspoken critic. The Black Hole has been selling off the collection for years, and the weekend I was there, Grothus’ adult children were having a big sale at the Hole. Several artists – to whom Matt, I or my colleague Rob had mentioned this – also turned up, overjoyed at the opportunity to buy extraordinary items of fascinating old nuclear lab equipment.

Black Hole, Los Alamos

Black Hole, Los Alamos, interior

On the way back to Albuquerque, I took the Turquoise Trail, Highway 14, called after the several turquoise mines that were once here. The road passes through former mining towns, some now deserted. Gold, silver, lead, zinc and coal were all mined around here. I stop for a beer before sunset in the town of Madrid, now a community of artists and creative types, with a main street lined with cafes, bars and craft shops catering for tourists.

White Sands National Memorial, in the heart of White Sands Missile Range

A few days later, I set off South, taking Interstate 25 in the other direction. An hour’s drive, and I turned left onto Highway 380, and headed out along the Northern perimeter of the White Sands Missile Range. White Sands is the largest military installation in the United States, covering is almost 3,200 square miles. This was the site of the first atomic explosion. Ground Zero at Trinity is now only open to the public on two days a year, but I pulled over on the stretch of road that I calculated was closest to the site.

I stepped out of the car into the heavy heat of the desert, and looked south across the dry lands towards the mountains. From where I stood, about 20 miles from Ground Zero, I would have felt the heat and shock wave of the explosion, and the mushroom cloud would have been clear to see, reaching 7.5 miles in height.

“The lighting effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range …” – General Farrell

Trinity Ground Zero, White Sands Missile Range, on GoogleMaps

Ground Zero, Trinity, 48 hours after the explosion, 1945

If you’re interested in this topic, here are a couple of great books:

The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes – an astonishing epic book interweaving science, politics and human psyches to tell the story of the first atomic bomb

Atomic Culture: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Scott C Zeman – interesting collection of essays covering a range of cultural expressions of atomic energy

A history of forgetting

Pavel Medvedev, On the Third Planet from the Sun (still)

Harvard scholar Sheila Jasanoff is regarded as a leading light in the field of science and technology studies. Her calls for ‘technologies of humility’ in policy-making in science and her careful analyses of the role of political culture in policy-making in the field of biotechnology are hugely important, yet have not had the impact they should. Yesterday, in her keynote lecture at Transmediale, she gently challenged the festival’s rhetoric of the need for a paradigm shift of thinking in relation to climate change and more general talk of discontinuities in this respect, and outlined her skepticism of claims that the world has been changed forever. In an eloquent, clear and engaging talk, structured around a number of stories and images to highlight the role of social and cultural imagination in how our present understanding has been shaped, Jasanoff made a powerful plea for history. How we deal with our current situation depends on our ability to learn, not from disaster, but by building on what is to what is to come. We must not forget all we have learned before. She suggested that the resources that can help us to learn are the scientific spirit itself, common law and human history. All provide incremental approaches to learning, rather than radical paradigm shifts or discontinuities. The heart of science, Jasanoff reminded us – if left to its own devices – is incremental, provisional and skeptical.

Media artist Atteqa Malik from the Karachi collective Mauj had, the day before, pointed out that most people in Pakistan will not respond to calls for action for a notion of ‘climate change’ when what they are experiencing are more immediate problems of water shortages. Whether these are partly linked or not  – and in many parts of the world water shortages are as much to do with political and commercial structures and misguided decisions around technological systems – the point she was making is that we have to look at what people’s life concerns are. The way to engage people, as Jasanoff said, is not by talk about survival but by talking about life and living.

Other highlights of my visit to Transmediale were Petko Dourmana‘s Post Global Warming Survival Kit, which entailed entering a pitch-black room with a handheld night vision device, at first thinking the room is occupied only by an old caravan and then gradually discovering the landscape around, in fact a rather optimistic take on a post-apocalyptic vision, because clearly we are still living; and the film On the Third Planet from the Sun by Russian film-maker Pavel Medvedev, which followed people living in the Arkhangelsk region of Northern Russia 45 years after the test of the hydrogen bomb there, who live hard but cheerful lives, recycling the remains of fallen space rockets that were launched from a nearby base. Middle-aged men scavenge for space junk in the swamps, and teenagers gather debris and turn it into disco balls and strobe lights for their parties. Third Planet is a striking visual exploration of environmental destruction and the rebirth of a community.

Handy tips for the new nuclear age (3)

James Acord, Tattoo

Make your own plutonium

Our Nuclear Forum at the RSA, part of our final weekend for the Nuclear: art & radioactivity exhibition, saw the return of the inimitable James Acord, the “nuclear sculptor”, to the UK after 10 years and, as always, winning everyone over with his extraordinary storytelling – and his astonishing story. Acord is the world’s only known individual to possess a radioactive materials license. And among his peer corporate license holders, he is probably the only Radiation Safety Officer to have the license number tattooed on the back of his neck (Washington State Radioactive Materials License # WN-10407-1). For 15 years, Acord lived on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, where he tried to persuade the authorities to allow him access to the Fast Flux Test Facility to transmute radioactive technesium into shiny non-radioactive ruthenium, and pursued his ambition to build a vast warning marker sculpture on the most contaminated part of Hanford. Acord left Hanford in 1998, after his residency at Imperial College London, which was organised by The Arts Catalyst, and his part in the Atomic exhibition.  Since then he has been living in Seattle.  We were all fascinated to hear that far from shelving his his alchemist’s dreams, he is making plutonium in his studio.We are planning to podcast recordings of the forum, at which artists, writers and experts discuss their work and engagement with the issues around nuclear energy. The day ended with a moving talk by Gustav Metzger, who called for an end to our pursuit of extremes.

James Acord, Home Plutonium Progenitor

Handy tips for the new nuclear age (2)

Hyperion backyard nuclear reactor

“Mini nuclear plants to power 20,000 homes”, The Guardian

Crisis over. Our energy problems are solved. Now we can have a mini-nuclear reactor in our neighbourhood, powering our homes come oil crisis, cloudy days or lack of wind. According to Hyperion Power Generation, their reactors are clean, safe, affordable and reliable – and the solution to global warming, dependence on foreign oil, undrinkable water, poverty, disease and social unrest. Let’s just assume no waste, security, supply, radioactivity risk or design problems then? Good-oh. Here’s the order line:www.hyperionpowergeneration.com

The opening of our Nuclear: art & radioactivity exhibition was great fun, and the Nuclear Talkaoke, hosted by The People Speak, kicked off a month of active discussion around the themes of the exhibition.  Online forum kicks off this week and the Nuclear Forum at the RSA takes place on the 28th.  Exhibition on until the end of the month.

Handy tips for the new nuclear age (1)

Chris Oakley, Half Life (still), 2008. Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst

With the UK government’s new commitment to nuclear energy, let’s re-visit some of those old recurring debates around clean energy, safety, costs, proliferation and waste in today’s world of climate change … Then again, do we really want to involve ourselves in polarised shouting matches, where facts seem as elusive as consensus? Perhaps there are ways of approaching this from fresh perspectives. Or we could just go to an East London art opening instead and have a nice glass of wine.

Ten years after our Atomic exhibition, The Arts Catalyst returns to the theme of nuclear power with an exhibition of new commissions by Simon Hollington & Kypros Kyprianou, and Chris Oakley. Chris Oakley’s new film ‘Half-life’ looks at the histories of Harwell, birthplace of the UK nuclear industry, and the new development of fusion energy technology. The film examines nuclear science research through a historical and cultural filter. Simon Hollington & Kypros Kyprianou’s installation, ‘The Nightwatchman’, is the outcome of their residency with the British Atomic Nuclear Group (BANG). It merges changing perceptions of the nuclear power industry over its 50 year history into a single immersive narrative environment.

The exhibition is commissioned and produced by The Arts Catalyst with SCAN, and will be at the Nicholls and Clarke Building in Shoreditch High Street, East London (opening Thu 13 November and then open 14 – 16, 20 – 23, 27 – 30 November 2008.

Two discussion events will accompany the exhibition – a ‘Nuclear Talkaoke’ with The People Speak on Friday 14 November and a Nuclear Forum with the RSA Art & Ecology on Friday 28 November. A

So, in the spirit of Nuclear, here is the first of our ‘Handy Tips for the New Nuclear Age’: How to Survive a Terrorist Nuclear Attack:

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