Under the cloak of an intellectual aim, the materials have been completely murdered and can no longer speak to us. 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.
— Jiro Yoshihara, “Gutai Manifesto,” 1956
What you do not see is the material itself: the vast quantities of spent nuclear fuel, uranium mine tailings, radioactive medical waste, and contaminated soil, debris, clothing, tools and equipment transported routinely along American streets, highways and railroads. As it crosses jurisdictional lines, this material bends political, economic and environmental realities around itself. It reshapes geologies and reconfigures landscapes now and into deep futures. And it does so almost entirely without notice. For 12 days last fall, we traveled routes taken by transuranic waste headed for burial at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, near Carlsbad, New Mexico, to see what it would take for two humans to acknowledge, and briefly move with, this most abject material.
Seventy years into the Atomic Age, designers, engineers, governments and the public have not been able to adequately imagine or build infrastructures for the long-term containment of materials that are too dynamic to be named, or understood, merely as “waste.” The United States is currently processing, shuffling and storing nuclear byproducts at some 20,000 sites throughout the country. About 70,000 metric tons of spent reactor fuel are held at power production sites in 33 states, an amount that increases annually by 2,000 metric tons. Another 13,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste is left over from weapons production and other military activities. You could say that high-level waste is “sheltering in place,” waiting for the first infrastructure — perhaps a deep geological repository like the cancelled Yucca Mountain project — capable of containing it for the span of time mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency: one million years. No such storage options are expected to be available for at least the next century.
Less potent than high-level nuclear waste, but with a long half-life, transuranic waste is considered dangerous for 24,000 years. Since the 1940s, the U.S. has accumulated one million cubic meters of transuranic waste, mostly materials contaminated during weapons production. After being retrieved from legacy pits, trenches or temporary storage, and then processed, these wastes are queued up for shipment to WIPP, where they will be buried in a 250-million-year-old salt dome. This deep geological repository is expected to reach capacity around 2030.
The nation’s four main routes for transporting transuranic waste — from sites as far apart as Washington, New York, California and South Carolina — converge on Highway 285 in southern New Mexico. We began our field research in Utah, visiting infrastructures and engineered landscapes that facilitate the movements of nuclear waste along interstate highways, including production sites as well as low-level waste storage facilities, uranium tailing piles, and earth and riprap mounds for shallow burial of contaminated tools and objects. We met humans who regularly move with nuclear materials, and interviewed a truck driver, a shipment tracker at the TRANSCOM office, and citizen monitors at the Rocky Flats Site near Denver. We encountered four waste shipment trucks and shared the road with them for short stretches. All told, we shot 20 hours of video on a car-mounted, wide-angle HD video camera, as well as 800 photographs and four rolls of Super 8 film.
The resulting exhibition, Look Only at the Movement, includes a three-hour, two-channel video, as well as photographs, graphic design, map, and written audience responses. Looking only at the movement of nuclear waste, we have tried to avoid the polarized discourses that often “cloak” nuclear materials, hoping to encourage new angles of civic exchange. We invite audiences to engage with contemporary material realities that are simultaneously of us, and far beyond us.