RadWaste: A Shadow Without a Body
Radioactive waste (RadWaste) is never disposed of; it is dispositioned—placed out of sight and out of mind. The problems surrounding this issue are shrouded in secrecy. Sci-Art collaborations can visualize this contamination by sharing information and data, raising public awareness, and activating community participation in remediation efforts. Scientific methods combined with visual strategies can render the secrets transparent, thus reducing the opacity of the nuclear military-industrial complex and the hidden interests and agendas of corporations.
With the current political climate and an administration that is dismantling environmental protection laws, there is a special urgency to resist the obfuscation of facts. How better to create that field of engagement than through science-art collaborations? Is there a place for activism within a sci-art convergence?
Having worked with environmental scientists and hydrologists on past projects concerning RadWaste, I am currently working on a project called A Shadow Without a Body, which addresses the West Valley nuclear site (WVNS) near Buffalo, New York, a site of approximately 2.5 million cubic feet of buried high-level RadWaste. The Buffalo News has called this Western New York’s most toxic area, which conceals a groundwater plume of radioactive strontium-90 beneath its surface. The partially-remediated site was repurposed in 1980 with a second nuclear processing plant, called the West Valley Demonstration Project, which is currently operating and receiving shipments of high-level and low-level RadWaste. Shifting climate patterns and regular flooding of the area discharge the radiotoxins into surface water, groundwater, deep aquifer, and lake waters. The project seeks to reveal the history and lineage of corporate and government greenwashing of the site (“Earth-friendly” misinformation disseminated to gloss over environmental degradation) as well as the current harm it poses to Buffalo’s clean water supply, soil, and human health. It also strives to increase visibility of a concealed problem by revealing the greenwashing, remediation problems, and health risks of WVNS.
Responses and outcomes of my work on RadWaste have varied. This particular project on the West Valley site is the direct result of my participation in 2010 as a visiting artist-fieldworker in the Land Arts of the American West program, where I arranged for a group of students to tour the remediated Jackpile-Paguate Uranium Mine on the Laguna Pueblo tribal lands in New Mexico, formerly the largest open pit uranium mine in the world. The native hydrologist/geologist, Curtis Francisco, toured us through the mine area and the village of Paguate, which is actually inside the mine. The group then visited the surreal New Mexico Mining Museum in Grants, New Mexico. This experience had a profound effect on art history student Jennie Lamensdorf, who wrote her master’s thesis on this field work. Jennie went on to become a curator in New York City, and over a year ago decided to co-curate an exhibition at the SUNY Buffalo Art Gallery, entitled Hot Mess, with the artist Joan Linder, who also makes work about nuclear waste issues. Sometimes these projects have a long duration in terms of audience response, and an extended audience in Buffalo will become part of the project.
Another interesting outcome followed my Halfway to Invisible installation at Emory University, which dealt with genetic damage to indigenous uranium miners due to their labor working with radioactive materials, and on the communities adjacent to the large open strip mine. In addition to the regular art audience, I specifically wanted the Centers for Disease Control (affiliated with Emory) to be an essential part of the audience with the intention of speaking truth to power. I engaged the research assistance of PhD students in health and medicine and asked the gallery to invite the CDC. Not only did members of the CDC see the exhibit, but I’m fairly sure there were two FBI agents there as well, with their white shirts, thin black ties, and briefcases, asking a lot of very specific questions. I answered all their questions and explained that I am an artist, educator, and citizen who is concerned about the effect that RadWaste has on human health, the health of other species and the ecologies they inhabit, and the land and water. I made it clear that I am concerned for future generations and desire to present works that speak openly about serious environmental issues in a nonpartisan way. The men seemed attentive to my answers and left. There was no follow-up, but a few years later another mysterious team appeared at the opening of a collaborative installation with the artist Tom Jennings that focused on the Grants Uranium Belt mining operations. If governmental organizations are taking works of sci-art this seriously, perhaps the genre’s potential to effect change is developing.
ContributorEve Andrée Laramée
Eve Andrée Laramée is an artist based in Brooklyn and Santa Fe.