Dismantling Time

Submarine, Loch Long, Tuesday 5th March, 2013
Submarine, Loch Long, Tuesday 5th March, 2013

By way of an introduction...

The invention of the nuclear age in the 20th Century emerged from a belief in modernity, that new technologies could solve world problems. In the 1940s splitting the atom seemed to be a solution to world conflict and global energy resources. It is nearly seventy years since the first experiments in so called ‘peace’ were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; during this time hundreds of wars have ravaged populations, and so many countries now have nuclear weapons.

Far from ‘keeping the peace’ through Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the nuclear age in the 21st Century has created a new scenario of Singularly Assured Destruction (SAD). Today the risk of self-harm through accident or environmental disaster, the challenges of nuclear decommissioning and dismantling, and the nuclear site as target, present new hazards at home.

The utopian belief in harnessing the mysteries of the atom for nuclear weapons and nuclear power has seen unlimited financial expenditure unprecedented in any other field; enabling it to expand faster than the time it takes work out how to dispose of its waste products.

Whilst radiation occurs naturally in the environment, the enrichment of uranium and the production of plutonium are human creations. So where is the process of entropy in the nuclear age? At the moment humans are attempting to store radioactive waste deep in the ground for hundreds of thousands of years, hoping that a disposal process will be invented in the meantime (see chapter on time).

The nuclear industry is a network of actors and reactors fuelling power stations and submarines, producing weapons grade plutonium (and uranium). This relationship between civilian and military industry through a network of private companies, military and government is what Roosevelt referred to as the ‘military-industrial complex’ (Pringle & Spigelman).

The modernist belief in a shiny clean future had a blindspot to the energies of the past (what we now call renewable or sustainable energy), and an even bigger blindspot to ageing and decay in the future. Nuclear reactors, submarines, power stations and weapons were built as if they would last forever. And when things went wrong they were shoved out of sight and out of mind. In the UK, at Dounreay waste was literally shoved down old mine shafts, out of sight until one exploded covering the coastline with radioactive debris. Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment let Tritium polluted water discharge into the surrounding streams, and nuclear submarines were to be dumped at sea. Today the Nuclear Industry has been forced to clean up its emissions into the environment, and tighten up its health and safety procedures. It prides itself on health & safety campaigns,  strategic environmental exercises, and has developed sophisticated forms of public consultation.

The peace movement has campaigned for these changes through a combination of political lobbying and direct action. Highlighting issues in the media, raising questions in the house of commons, and preventing certain military exercises from taking place. Taking legal cases to courts, working in the UN and trying out other ways of living. The Peace Camps are attempts at communal living and consensus decision making, models for another way of thinking about transforming conflict adjacent to the site and objects of concern. A non-violent direct action which takes place at the moment of the transaction of power, revealing its agendas and processes, forcing a kind of identity correction to be displayed. Peace camps can feel like utopian islands but their proximity to nuclear weapons roots them frighteningly in the present, imagining the future is suspended by the weapons that point towards it. This maybe why the notion of the peace camp feels nostalgic, like the nuclear weapons industry itself, as they both long for the cold war past, where politics were binary and the solutions were more obvious and possible.  The Greenham Common Womens Peace Camp was successful – they made the deployment of American Cruise Missiles untenable in the UK, and after ten years they left in 1991. And in 1992 the first Trident Submarine sailed into Faslane in Scotland as Britain’s very own nuclear deterrent. But the 21st Century is more complicated, nuclear proliferation and weak democracies are fuelled by private capital. The weapons have been declared illegal, have no clear strategic function, and political support is waning fast. But the objects now seem to have a momentum of their own: they are here now.

Today design in the nuclear industry has to plan for decommissioning. Here sustainable design is about how to dismantle nuclear products, objects, craft and facilities as safely and neatly as possible, reducing the radiation dosage to those involved, and providing sealed units of waste for storage. At the same time there is a new culture of openness and transparency, and the MOD has taken on a commitment to consulting stakeholders on its dismantlement of nuclear submarines.

The Submarine Dismantlement Project and its Advisory Group is hosting the first Ministry of Defence public consultation process. This culture of openness about our collective responsibility for nuclear production and dismantlement creates a unique opportunity for artists to engage with the nuclear field. The complexity of dismantling nuclear submarines is a cultural as well as technological and political challenge that needs critique within a more conceptually nuanced understanding of materiality, ethics and aesthetics. What is the impact of the dismantlement process on nuclear culture?
To dismantle something – to take it apart is not simply an admission of decay, a failure of modernism, that the nuclear future isn’t shiny, its also a process of coming to terms with the materiality of the nuclear infrastructure: metal fatigues, it rusts, shortcuts are revealed, foundations are rocked, water seeps, cracks appear. The process of nuclear dismantling is part of the nuclear experiment: it was unplanned and unknown. But once you’ve learned how to take something apart, you can do it again, and again. The aesthetics of dismantlement are the new form of modernity – clean design solutions for packaging waste, but the blind spots are still there. The reactors are removed and taken to Sellafield for storage, then large hulks of steel need to be broken up in wreckers yards. Communities who have been sold a vision of a clean safe future and who take pride in their industry fear their towns being transformed into nuclear scrap yards. Others simply need the jobs. The dismantlement project focuses on just one isolated task: how to dispose of old submarines. It does not stray into the wider discussion of wether new one's will be built, or where they will be dismantled. The SDP takes responsibility for clearing up the past, but doesn't engage with the future.

Here the ethics are simplified by isolating a single technical problem. The round table discussion brings together people from different parts of the nuclear process: planning, procurement, safety, public consultation, environmental assessment, community stakeholders and activism. There’s a fundamental problem of the ethics of nuclear weapons which has had to be put to one side in order to get on with clearing up the old submarines. The SDP-AG is clear that by taking part in the consultation process, people are not agreeing to the principle of nuclear weapons, or to new submarines being built. But the fact remains: by clearing out the old you make way for the new; and little by little the complexities of the problem unravel, nuances of language are discussed, the physical properties of materials are analysed, perceptions of risk are calibrated. And the solutions for nuclear waste storage become increasingly mythical.

The blindpots are everywhere: in the knowledge of the past (when will their be more investment in renewables than nuclear?), and in the future folklore of forbidden underground caverns of waste (Marsden, Sebeok), of unlearning knowledge we no longer need (McKenzie). If we are to imagine a future, counterfactual fictions are all we have.

Perhaps one of the ethical blind-spots we have is the tendency to focus on people and not things. To analyse political and military responsibility as the agency of people, whilst acknowledging that things themselves are neutral. But are weapons, like tools, benign objects? Does the value of use lie in the value of the user? Can we revisit the agency of the object to change the way in which we understand nuclear weapons and nuclear submarines? Can we learn something from an analysis of the nuclear which will change the way in which we look at objects?  And what are repercussions for art?

Today a nuclear submarine sailed up the loch to Coulport, a dark shadow creeping through the landscape. I thought it would function as an index of cold-war fear, but all I could feel was shock and shame in the present.


With thanks to Liam Sprod's book Nuclear Futurism for helping to position the discussion in time.

Footnotes to follow.