Caring for Nuclear Waste by Matterlurgy

First Nuclear Bomb Test_USA:New Mexico_1945One of the key spikes in dating anthropogenic change is 1964, which saw a peak in radioactive carbon following two decades of nuclear weapons testing [1]. War and the military-industrial complex have brought earth-changing consequences specifically through nuclear developments. However, it is not only the immediate devastating impacts of such anthropogenic materials that need to be considered. The half-life of Plutonium 239 is 24,100 years. As a substance it remains beyond human orientated timescales. Philosopher Timothy Morton notes: ‘The future of plutonium exerts a causal influence on the present, casting its shadow backward through time’ [2]. Such materials ask profound ethical questions and open up times elastic nature. How then to care for nuclear waste? How do we communicate to future posthuman lifeforms about such matter(s)?

We have discussed these topics with Dr. Rodney Harrison and his team including researchers Dr. Sarah May and Sefryn Penrose. Their current research project, Assembling Alternative Futures for Heritage (AAFH), is based at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. Along with researching the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a fail-safe facility containing the world’s seed deposits, they are working with the SKB nuclear waste facility in Sweden. The AAFH team has provided us with seed pouches from Svalbard and a Bentonite sample from SKB. These materials make up part of the exhibition cabinet Afterlives and Extinctions. Bentonite is inert matter, absorbent clay used as a form of protection for the packaging of nuclear waste. Caring for this toxic material goes beyond the human on a very practical level as pieces of the earth ensure the stability of hazardous waste.


In the exhibition cabinet Media-Natures we also display a piece of Diatomaceous rock from the Geology Collections. This is a soft, siliceous sedimentary rock that consists of the fossilised remains of diatoms. It is used widely in animal nutrition and fertiliser. Chemist Alfred Nobel discovered the substance stabilised nitroglycerin and went onto patent dynamite explosives as a result.

Clearly anthropogenic materials such as nuclear waste or dynamite require a futural ethical commitment. Beyond the immediate devastation of its use, these materials do not really go away. Instead they linger across the present and future as part of an entangled geo-human, co-dependency of care.

By Mark Peter Wright & Helena Hunter of Matterlurgy  (


[1] Lewis, S.L & Maslin, M.A. (2015) Defining the Anthropocene. In: “Nature” 519, 171–180.

[2] Morton, T. (2013) Hyperobjects. P.120. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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