Deep inside the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico on U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Environmental Management, "Accident Investigation Report, Phase I," April 24, 2014, https://wipp.energy.gov/Special/AIB_Final_WIPP_Rad_Release_Phase1_04_22_2014.pdf; U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Environmental Management, "Accident Investigation Report, Phase II," April 2015, https://wipp.energy.gov/Special/AIB_WIPP%20Rad_Event%20Report_Phase%20II.pdf.February 14, 2014, Drum 68660 exploded
. Heat had been building since the drum had been packed a few weeks earlier with radioactive nitrate salts left over from the reprocessing of plutonium at Los Alamos National Labs. The accumulated heat and gases ripped the lid off the drum, starting a fire and spewing transuranic radioactive waste across the Panel 7 storage bay. A radiation alarm went off at 11:14 PM, triggering HEPA filtration of the WIPP’s underground airflow, but leaks in the ventilation system allowed some radioactive particles to escape directly into the atmosphere. Thirteen workers who were on site at the time of the accident were exposed to radiation. Twenty-two of the 140 who showed up for work the next day also tested positive for low levels of contamination. The cause? Due to a typo in a procedural manual, subcontractors at Los Alamos switched from packing radioactive waste in clay kitty litter to using Swheat Scoop-brand organic cat litter, which reacted with the nitrate salts rather than neutralizing them.
While shipments to WIPP were suspended for over three years, the Department of Energy (DOE) swiftly moved to contain the physical and reputational fallout of the incident by Ralph Vartabedian, "Nuclear Accident in New Mexico Ranks Among the Costliest in U.S. History," Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2016, https://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-new-mexico-nuclear-dump-20160819-snap-story.html.downplaying both the extent of the damage and the cost of the cleanup.
However, the revelation that the country’s only functioning national radioactive waste repository was shut down by what the popular press dubbed a Dave Mosher, "A Typo and a Bag of Kitty Litter Might Cost U.S. Taxpayers Billions in Nuclear Waste Cleanup," Business Insider, August 26, 2016, https://www.businessinsider.com/kitty-litter-nuclear-waste-accident-2016-8.“kitty litter bomb”
suggested that what had been heralded as a sophisticated technological solution was in fact both highly fragile and far more mundane than most people imagined. The DOE’s own U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Environmental Management, "Accident Investigation Report, Phase I," April 24, 2014, https://wipp.energy.gov/Special/AIB_Final_WIPP_Rad_Release_Phase1_04_22_2014.pdf; U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Environmental Management, "Accident Investigation Report, Phase II," April 2015, https://wipp.energy.gov/Special/AIB_WIPP%20Rad_Event%20Report_Phase%20II.pdf.accident reports
identified scores of direct and contributing causes that centered around inadequate testing, poor procedural oversight, improper maintenance, and a “chilled work environment” at all levels of the organization that left employees reluctant to raise issues with management. For those who remembered the FBI raid on Rocky Flats
in 1989, it seemed that little had changed in the organizational culture at the DOE and its subcontractors in 25 years.
The United States Energy Information Service calls the processing and storage of radioactive waste the U.S. Energy Information System, "Nuclear Explained: The Nuclear Fuel Cycle," May 27, 2020 [last updated], https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/nuclear/the-nuclear-fuel-cycle.php.“back end” of the nuclear fuel cycle
. The term suggests an out-of-sight afterthought, and in too many ways, it is. It wasn’t until the 1969 fire at Rocky Flats that long-term storage of defense-related wastes
was even on the radar of the federal government. WIPP didn’t open for another 30 years, and it is expected to be full by 2033. There is still no long-term geologic repository in the United States for the highly radioactive wastes from commercial nuclear power plants. Reprocessing spent plutonium fuel—which reduces the level of radioactivity more than the volume of waste—has been illegal in the U.S. since the 1970s due to concerns over proliferation. The problem of radioactive waste still hasn’t been solved more than 75 years after the dawn of the atomic age. With a half-life of 24,100 years (Pu-239), plutonium waste is the most enduring legacy of the nuclear era.
Visitors to the nuclear museums and public information centers may well reach a different conclusion. Designed to impress, entertain, and reassure the public, these exhibitions generally present patriotic historical or progress-focused scientific narratives, with nuclear legacy issues tacked on as an afterthought. In many cases, concerns about waste are acknowledged but explained away through elaborate descriptions of the ways radiation is “tracked, monitored, and measured” (National Atomic Testing Museum
in Las Vegas, NV); of costly cleanup processes (Weldon Spring Site Interpretive Center
near St. Louis, MO); and of safety protocols for nuclear waste packing and storage (National Museum of Nuclear Science and History
in Albuquerque, NM). Other sites wax eloquent on the return of nature to a former military site (ex. Fernald Preserve
in Ohio), or celebrate how nuclear research has contributed to medical and other scientific breakthroughs (see, especially, the Bradbury Science Museum
in Los Alamos, NM). These museums tend to portray both the waste and the “excess knowledge” produced by nuclear science as a resource yet to be harnessed (whether by future fuel reprocessing or civilian application) or as a regrettable but completely containable by-product of a necessary, even inevitable technology.
This path questions nuclear legacies and their public face. It captures uncertainty by flipping the moral valence of the entire Atlas, so that those products conventionally labeled as "waste" are visually styled as part of the empiricist, positivist tradition, while the typically celebrated legacies are styled as the “shadow” byproducts to that tradition. Flipping the script enables scrutiny of waste containment as a simple endpoint in the nuclear fuel cycle, and destabilizes assumptions about the nuclear fuel cycle itself that legitimate its continuance. We conclude this Atlas then, in the only way we can: with uncertainty, categorical instability, and a refusal of the binary opposition around which it is structured.