Abbey Hepner: Light at the End of History

Essay by Kirsten Pai Buick

The Light at the End of History: Reacting to Nuclear Impact is a decade-long examination of nuclear energy, the atomic bomb, and radioactive waste. By capturing distinct marks in time, I make visible the ongoing, often invisible, relationships with nuclear technologies. The book contains seven different parts, woven together to form a narrative and reveal how different facets of the nuclear industry are connected.

I began making work on nuclear issues around 2012. My partner is an engineer, and at the time, he worked on nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines. The ships he worked on were often docked in Japan, and so the events surrounding the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster seemed closer to home. We also lived in Japan in 2013. I imagined that this was what first led me to want to explore issues around nuclear energy, the atomic bomb, and radioactive waste, but the truth is that I have always lived amidst the glow of the nuclear industry. I grew up in Idaho and Utah between the Nevada Test Site (NTS), where the United States tested 1,021 atomic weapons between 1951 and 1992, and Idaho National Labs (INL), an 890-square-mile section of desert in southeast Idaho used for nuclear reactor experimentation and development.

PALINOPSIA

X-Ray Film Images

Map created by Dr. Scott White

TRANSURANIC

uranotypes (uranium prints)

Upon moving to New Mexico from Japan, where I participated in disaster relief work following the 2011 tsunami and nuclear meltdown, I set out to understand the impact of the nuclear industry on my immediate surroundings. I photographed every site in the Western US that transports radioactive waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. Places like WIPP, seemingly transparent in their operations, as indicated by signage, still rest amongst us like scars on the landscape.

Transuranic is a series of uranotypes, an obsolete nineteenth-century photographic process that uses uranium instead of silver to form the image; uranium is an element used to make nuclear bombs and is the basic fuel for nuclear power reactors. The series documents nuclear facilities from an outsider’s perspective. The red and yellow hue of the uranotypes is likened to the color of the sky after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and the material presence negates the unassuming and banal nature of these sites, reminding us of the reality ever-present in the images and in the places we inhabit.

URAVAN

laser-engraved archival pigment prints over clear acrylic (backlit)

In western Montrose county, the town of Uravan, Colorado, can still be located on a map, however it isn’t easy to find because it is buried under layers of clay, soil, and rock. Standard Chemical Company established the town of approximately 1,000 residents in 1912, naming it after uranium and vanadium, two minerals mined in the area. Activities at the local processing mill contaminated the soil and groundwater with radioactive chemicals so much so that by 1986 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) closed the town and relocated residents. Uravan was shredded, burned, and buried by the EPA, creating a 680-acre Superfund site.

For Uravan, I created three-dimensional, laser-engraved pigment prints by photographing the exact locations as those in historical images of buildings that existed before the town was destroyed. Formed by the laser burning into layers of paper at various depths, the historic structures appear against bleak and empty contemporary landscapes.

MONUMENT PLINTH

laser-engraved archival pigment prints over black acrylic

Uranium disposal cells are geometric mounds engineered to isolate radioactive material from the surrounding environment. The mounds sit above the ground and cover surfaces from a few acres to half a mile and consist of an outer shell of riprap rock and a clay soil layer that covers the radioactive material. They are designed to allow for rain runoff and to prevent plant growth from forming on top and penetrating the clay layer. Typically, the cells in the Southwest are made from demolished buildings at uranium mines, and the cells in the Midwest and East are most commonly from uranium metal engineering and processing sites.

Some sites that produced the waste contained in the cells date back to the Manhattan Project and were created to mine and construct nuclear weapons; some of the sites continue to operate today for the nuclear energy industry. The amount of radioactivity in the cells varies, but most radiation comes from Uranium-238 with a half-life as old as the earth or 4.47 billion years. There are over 100 sites like these that exist in the US and the number is growing.

Disposal cells are architecturally fascinating sites. They are often designed to blend in with the landscape, but their shapes form mounds on the earth, and their suture materials seldom remain as invisible as intended. They are otherworldly to see up close, but even more fascinating to see from an aerial view where their odd geometry takes shape. While some sites are constructed away from populated cities, others such as those in Weldon Spring, just outside St. Louis, Missouri, are difficult to ignore and function as recreational destinations. 

Monument Plinth features aerial images from forty uranium disposal cells across the US. The images were collected with the assistance of Dr. Mark Finco and acquired by the National Agriculture Imagery Program. I printed and mounted each image on black acrylic and laser engraved the cell detail into the surface, reflecting an internal space or void.

 

Uranium Disposal Cells and Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Sites Map created by Dr. Scott White

CONTROL ROOM

Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro, Georgia, has been called the site of the nuclear renaissance. Here, commercial nuclear energy reactors have been under construction for the first time in the US since the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. Like the boomtowns that emerged from rapid industrial expansion, Waynesboro’s population increase will be short-lived. Workers come from across the country for temporary jobs such as welding and running power lines from the new cooling towers. While some residents embrace the plant, others have fought against it since the 1980s when the first two reactors were built and they witnessed health and economic decline. Most recently, a community of activists has risen up against what they see as the nuclear industry using health as currency in exchange for temporary jobs. Other groups and individuals view nuclear energy as a solution in the climate change battle. Reactors 3 and 4 are set to go online in 2021 and 2022.

Interested in the town of Waynesboro and plant vogtle, I spent a number of years researching the area. While visiting Waynesboro, I spent time with members of the community as well as plant vogtle workers.  Eventually I gained access to Plant Vogtle and began interviewing town residents about the plant's history and the way it has affected the community.

Abbey Hepner

Abbey Hepner is Assistant Professor of Photography at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She holds a BFA in Art and a BA in Psychology from the University of Utah and an MFA in Photography from the University of New Mexico. Her work examines health, technology, and our relationship with place. She frequently works at the intersection of art and science, examining biopolitics and the use of health as a currency. Her work has been exhibited widely in such venues as the Mt. Rokko International Photography Festival, SITE Santa Fe, Candela Gallery, the University of Buffalo Art Galleries, and the Lianzhou Foto Festival.