Can Nuclear Power Plants Generate Artistic Inspiration?

Feb 27, 2018

Vincent Ialenti is a MacArthur Nuclear Waste Solutions Fellow at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. He holds a PhD in anthropology from Cornell University and an MSc in Law, Anthropology & Society from the London School of Economics.

Doing anthropological fieldwork among Finland's nuclear professionals, I often wondered: How can one find inspiring beauty in what, from afar, seem like such austere, soulless industrial facilities?

Yet in the past few years, artists across the globe have been taking nuclear power — its promises and its perils — as their creative muse.

One such couple, Ken and Julia Yonetani, light up dark rooms — from Singapore to Sweden — with green-glowing chandeliers made of uranium glass. Each hanging fixture represents one of the 31 nuclear nations, with its relative size corresponding to the number of nuclear power plants in each. The title, Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nuclear Nations, recalls the grandiosity of London's 1851 Great Exhibition. A critical response to Japan's 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, the artists evoke the "tension between human ambition, technological development, and its costs and consequences."

Meanwhile, Suzy Baker's pro-nuclear public service announcements have featured a bright orange "Radiation: Its Organic!" poster describing how eating one potassium-rich banana per week can expose a person to the same amount of radiation as can living near a nuclear power plant. Another colorful nuclear PSA, titled "Sometimes Being Dense is a Virtue," explains that a pound of uranium can generate 16,000 times more electricity than a pound of coal. Baker is the artist daughter of an American nuclear engineer.

In another feat of art, Erich Berger and Mari Keto have made radioactive jewels — including a radiation-emitting necklace, earrings, and a broche — that will remain unwearable by humans for generations. Locking the jewelry in a concrete vault equipped with radiation measurement devices, their Inheritance Project highlights the risks that nuclear waste can pose to our descendants for millennia. Their jewels were displayed at Umeå University's Perpetual Uncertainty: Contemporary Art in the Nuclear Anthropocene exhibit in Sweden last year, which sought to "visualise the ungraspable timeframe of radioactive half-life."

These nuclear critics' and advocates' motivations may seem worlds apart. But what inspires me, as an anthropologist, is their common humanity. They have each, in their own ways, found inspiration in the most unlikely of places — challenging us to approach familiar nuclear energy technologies from fresh, outside-the-box angles.

Cognitive scientists have shown how taking a step back from what is familiar — departing from normalized thinking-patterns about our daily surroundings — can help us experience the "world in brand new ways" that foster creativity. They have shown how inspiration can enhance wellbeing and life satisfaction. Yet achieving this, as psychologist Scott Kaufman has put it, often requires "perceiving something one has not seen before (but that was probably always there)."

These nuclear artists provoke powerful shifts in perspective — inviting us to see power plants not only as sources of electrical energy, but of artistic inspiration, too. They see motivating muses where others see only grey buildings, drab fences, and white steam piping out of concrete cooling towers.

Adopting a spirit of awed-inspiration can enhance day-to-day life dramatically. Anthropologist Barbara J. King has explained how awe can be "mind- and heart-expanding." A Stanford University study has shown how awe can expand a person's sense of time.

So, today, I propose we take cues from these quirky nuclear artists and experts — following their leads by seeking out inspiration in the beautiful magnificence and, or, vast consequences of common technologies.

Simple thought experiments can help us achieve this. When driving by a car factory, we can allow ourselves to feel taken aback by the production process's fascinating intricacies. When at a landfill, we can bask in the dreary uneasiness one can feel knowing that plastic waste products persist across many human generations. When encountering a coal power plant, we can contemplate how its carbon emissions contribute to the sheer enormity of climate change's planetary impacts.

Playfully exploring big-picture or counterintuitive perspectives on everyday technologies can inspire motivating feelings of awe, outrage, or appreciation. For nuclear experts, this can foster deeper senses of professional purpose. For nuclear artists, it can inspire creative new exhibits. For all of us, it can inspire fresh ways of acting, thinking, and dwelling in a complex, technologized world.

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