On August 6, 1945, the 350,000 residents of Hiroshima experienced the incomprehensible terror of a 10,000 degree Fahrenheit fireball that seared the ground within seconds before pulling up into a haunting mushroom cloud above their city. Iri Maruki, an artist born in Hiroshima, traveled there from Tokyo a few days after the decimation of his home city. His wife, artist Toshi Maruki, joined him shortly thereafter. Artists, calligraphers, wife and husband, they began the Hiroshima Panels, a series of fifteen folding wood panels that depict the wretchedness of the spectacular moment of detonation and the grim aftermath. The panels carry a combination of realism and traditional Japanese brushwork, contrasted with an abstraction of color evocative of fire, hell, scalding heat, and indescribable pain. Pain that can be observed but never fully described. Painted over thirty-two years, from 1950 to 1982, the panels are the artists’ testament as eyewitnesses. Layered on the shared canvas, the artists overlap and respond to each other, as they might have in words while sharing their stories in the wake of a new kind of catastrophe, the launch of an existential threat that the inventors themselves would never be able to truly contain.
The panels are a throbbing account of our recent history, and serve as a marker to the future, a warning sign left for our descendants. Japanese civilians, POW soldiers, Korean neighbors all suffer in a landscape of tortured human grief spilled across the long panels that can almost be read narratively from left to right or right to left. The Marukis’ story is for everyone, like a cairn in the woods to all that might stumble upon them: Take head of the horrors of war and the terror of pure human ingenuity.
Above the Fukushima nuclear energy facility in Aneyoshi Japan is another such cairn. Left by ancient Japanese villagers to mark a point in the mountains, the stone monument reads,
“High dwellings ensure the happiness of our descendants. A terrible tsunami reached this place. Never build your homes any lower than this.”
We dismiss these messages from the past as archaic. Yet that message was meant for us, for those who built the power plant well beneath that monument. When an earthquake knocked out the power at the Fukushima nuclear energy plant, a monstrous tsunami followed, flooding the basement, disabling the generators. The cooling pools regulating the spent fuel rods began to boil and the water levels dropped. Three of the four reactors melted down and hydrogen gas exploded destroying the buildings—and the containment. As the water levels dropped, there was a panicked scramble to cool the spent fuel rods, which were threatening to catch fire. The prime minister of Japan at the time, Naoto Kan, later said, the disaster that was imminent would have led to a collapse of Japanese society, an aftermath to parallel the most brutal historic wars, followed by decades of upheaval. The magnitude of the narrowly missed full-scale disaster, he predicted, would have ushered an end to the state of Japan. Though narrowly escaping the full expression of harrowing possibility, Fukushima was still the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
Over the thirty-years, Iri and Toshi incorporated these nuclear disasters into the Hiroshima series. Six panels from the Makuri’s masterpiece were brought to Pioneer Works, organized by the founding artistic director, Gabriel Florenz. The exhibition was at the center of a series of programs at Pioneer Works that explored the discourse between art and trauma. As part of that series, the Science Studios hosted Peter Galison, filmmaker, physicist, and historian in conversation with Allison Macfarlane, former Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Part of the Scientific Controversies series, the event borrowed its title from Galison’s film, Containment. The film chronicles not only the Fukushima disaster, but the somewhat shady disaster-in-waiting, the crisis of the containment of nuclear waste (watch the full conversation above).
Nuclear waste in itself poses global threats. A radioactive element is considered dissipated after about ten half-lives—a half-life being the time for half the sample to spontaneously decay to a neutral element. Given this measure, the waste from nuclear energy facilities endures in a highly-lethal state for hundreds of thousands of years. The cold war left behind an abundance of fissile materials, including 100,000 warheads. Nuclear energy facilities considered the problem of waste seemingly as an afterthought, burying 60-year old containers in shallow dirt, or confining radiological material to toxic water pools in unsecured, dilapidated buildings. The rods go into the reactors fairly benign but come out as highly radioactive husks. There are over 60,000 metric tons of spent fuel at power plants across the US alone. Most of which––possibly as much as 80%––are in spent fuel pools vulnerable to accidents or terrorism. Their containers will certainly degrade and we have to hope in a leap of optimism that the societal systems are still in place in hundreds of years to care for and maintain them.
There is a failure to imagine failure. A societal failure to imagine the crevices of unanticipated human failings. We can bury waste in the geologically magnificent salt mines of New Mexico that run thousands of feet deep and form a natural internment capsule for the barrels which are shipped into the experimental facility WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant). Despite precautions, a possible typo in the recipe for ingredients may have involved the wrong type of kitty litter used as a drying agent in the barrels which led to an explosion and a leak of radioactive material from WIPP. Other methods of waste disposal involve pouring the radiological material into molten glass to form very stable rods that are lethal if touched. The process is difficult and expensive. There are 7,500 of these deadly radioactive glass rods in a defunct nuclear power plant along the lush, green-lined banks of the Savannah River. The visually unassuming site has of necessity become a high-level waste storage facility. The containers aligned in daunting rows wait there, demanding patience or irresponsibility or an actual solution. A few signs, with the information content of a typical traffic sign, ward off fishing. The sign tempts those that suspect territorial motivations to fish greedily, if surreptitiously. While others know the fish are contaminated and that contamination goes up the food chain through the friendly species of turtle indigenous to the river and the archetypal alligator. In all, containment of nuclear waste remains a difficult and unsolved political, social, and engineering crisis.
And what about the imagination and ideas that lead to the creation of nuclear weapons, can they be contained? Scientists pursue blue-sky ideas usually without a single other motivation other than a gnawing curiosity. When Einstein dreamt of the speed of light, he imagined motion through time as well as through space. He realized observers that move relative to each other would argue about who moved through whose space. But every observer is fated to move through time. Einstein fantasized about the energy we must have from our motion through time, just as we have kinetic energy from our motion in space. Through these dreams of light and clocks and measures of spacetime, he came to propose his most famous equation E=mc2, the energy of our motion through time. Our rest energy. Amid these 1905 daydreams, he did not foresee relativity’s implications for nuclear power.
When Niels Bohr struggled with the invention of the new quantum theory, he never imagined its application to nuclear weaponry. In the play, Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn, Niels is given the line, which he delivers to his wife, Margrethe, “I don’t think anyone has yet discovered a way you can use theoretical physics to kill people." This innocent remark he delivers on the eve of the Manhattan project, the construction of a nuclear weapon, and the unleashing of that manner in which people discovered a way to use theoretical physics to kill people.
After Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Robert Frisch discovered nuclear fission in 1938, she was elated by the discovery. An element had split into two and remarkably the mass of the daughter particles summed to less than the mass of the parent. Energy had been released through the process of nuclear fission and the energy amounted to the missing mass that is accounted for by E=mc2. She had not foreseen in those first moments of joy and pride that she had also conceived of a way for humans to induce the release of vast amounts of energy sealed in the potential of the nucleus. The energy released in run-away nuclear fission is unbounded, paralleled only in the wildest nuclear reactions ignited when stars explode in supernovae. When the human implications for warfare came to Meitner and cast a shadow on the innocent exploration of her own work, she declared with vehemence, “I will have nothing to do with a bomb!”
Leo Szilard, unlike the many other scientists, understood that nuclear power could be weaponized. A displaced Hungarian Jew who fled Germany, he felt the urgency to race against the Nazi regime to save the world. It was Szilard who first conceived of the cataclysmic series wherein a proton initiates the fission of an unstable element which in turn produces more protons which in turn induce further fission until a chain reaction releases potentially unlimited power. Yet when the bomb was built and Oppenheimer, with foreboding, declared himself “destroyer of worlds,” Szilard fought equally hard to halt the actual implementation of the bomb. Each of these great scientists, individuals of much documented ethics, elevated with the deserved admiration of their peers, had something to do with the bomb.
Please don’t mistake me for a luddite. We are fully plunged in an energy crisis and nuclear energy is proposed as a potentially safe alternative to coal, fracking, and oil in an attempt to avoid the climate destruction these other supply chains guarantee. As individuals in democratic societies, we have a responsibility to consider alternative forms of energy and weigh seriously the hazards and rewards. Just last week, an international collaboration began construction of the Iter Project in France, the largest nuclear fusion facility aiming for commercial scale. Fusion is the process exploited by our own sun to shine and involves the release of energy when two smaller atoms are merged into another heavier element whose mass is less than the sum of its parts. Iter will be one of the most elaborate and expensive engineering feats ever undertaken in a bid for a clean and sustainable energy source. The fusion reactor does not produce harmful carbon emissions and has significantly less radiological waste than its fission reactor counterparts, which are also subject to the infamous meltdown. Regardless of the stance on the efficacy and risk calculus of nuclear energy, the need to contain stockpiles of nuclear weapons, chemical and radiological waste, is indisputable. It’s too late to take it back.
How do we mark the site of nuclear burial facilities for our descendants in tens or hundreds of thousands of years? How do we warn them to beware: Do not dig here. Do not build your home below this monument on the mountain. What signs can we leave behind us that could last thousands of years? No nation state has survived a thousand years. Even languages only have about a thousand year lifespan. We need to send that message viscerally or visually or through stories. In the film Containment, a team of futurists, geologists, cognitive psychologists, astrophysicists, linguists, and technologists try to imagine a story to share with our descendants. One of the scientists describes the message we urgently need to convey: “Nothing good has ever happened here and nothing good can happen here.” Even if we do infuse our culture with parables and mark the deranged facilities, will the same curiosity that drove E=mc2, invite archeologists, treasure hunters, conspiracy theorists, looters to investigate mysteriously marked structures or mines or caves that attempt to contain the toxic debris?
The Hiroshima panels tell a part of that story. When Gabriel Florenz first saw the panels, a new dimension of the history lodged in his spirit. Gabe became the vector for transmission to pass the message forward into this moment, seventy-five years after the bomb devastated Japan. Working with the Hibakusha Stories, survivors of the blast recounted their personal experiences to students immersed in the exhibition at Pioneer Works. This communication to you the reader is a small effort to continue to propagate the story into the future. We view the panels and absorb their tales to pass on to others as a link in that legacy, upholding the obligation of the witness. The Hiroshima panels are one of the markings left behind as a warning to others who tread this way.
The deserts of Carlsbad, New Mexico, above WIPP may become a landscape of colossal thorny spikes, or intentionally scarred terrain, menacing cairns to ward off explorers. The signs have to be visible from space and land, maybe even somehow underground. We have to conceive of a warning so intimidating and glowering that fear will win over hubris. We will have to tell future generations of our short-sightedness and “societal failures of imagination,” admit our individual greed for energy and resources, and confess the staggering avarice emboldened in our monetary systems and political power. We will warn them about who we were. We have to tell those that come in a thousand years or more, that here in these salt mines, in these decrepit pools and glass rods, lies the product of something so truly terrible, so irredimible, that we implore you to abandon this place for a hundred-thousand years or more. Do not dig here. Do not build here. Nothing good can happen here.
This event was supported by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science. The Broadcast is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
For more reading about the legacy of the atomic bomb, see Eric Schlosser's essay ATOMIC FIREBALLS: ARTISTS, ACTIVISTS, AND THE BOMB AT 75