In his essay, “Sites of Memory and the Shadow of War,” Jay Winter (2008) raises questions about what happens to places of memory when the groups sustaining these sites “disperse or disappear.” He suggests that these sites themselves might vanish over time— not only socially forgotten, but also physically hidden, grown over and around by natural life. I could not help but think of vanishing sites on May 6, 2012, trudging along a muddy path in the Red Gate Woods as part of a group of twenty or so scholars, activists, and students. The Atomic Age II Symposium had gathered us for the weekend, and on that Sunday morning we were making a collective visit to see the Chicago Pile, the world’s first nuclear reactor. Or at least, the buried remains of the reactor. Within the park, a few “gravestones” mark the site, summarizing the history of the reactor as well as refuting its current radiation levels. The fear of radiation was one of the thoughts at the forefront of my mind, not surprising after the previous day’s discussion of nuclear risk, disaster, and contamination. Posing as a group for a photograph in front of one of these stones, I noticed several people who, like me, were also hesitating to stand close to the marker. At which point I reminded myself that the stone itself was not a source of radiation, but rather that it was a reminder, signifying the environment around us.
Do sites such as the Chicago Pile lose meaning without such ‘stones’ and does this risk of forgetting similarly apply for catastrophic disasters like Fukushima? The symposium provided an opportunity not only to reflect on the scientific and political problems framing the Fukushima nuclear meltdown and global energy policy, but to also think critically about the ways that scholars and activists can contribute toward public memory of such disasters. Amidst technical details, memory and testimony can serve as salient markers of the communities dispersed and disappeared by nuclear disaster and violence. During his keynote address analyzing the failings of TEPCO and the Japanese government to properly account for the tremendous risks of nuclear energy, Professor Hiroaki Koide, a nuclear scientist at Kyoto University who has long opposed Japan’s use of nuclear energy, provided social context to the destructive force of this technology. Koide’s interspersed photographs throughout his talk, emphasizing a broad range of nuclear harm: in one haunting image, cows and other animals overtook the deserted streets of Fukushima, another set captured the medical before-and-after of a worker’s arm exposed to radiation during a separate plant accident. Ruiko Muto’s talk on her life in Fukushima before March 11, 2011 provided a powerful, autobiographical pairing to Koide’s expert analysis. Talking about her solar-powered café furnished with locally forested ingredients, Muto shared glimpses into a Fukushima that most audience members had likely never encountered. Muto, an anti-nuclear activist, had built this café in the spirit of self-sustainability and in her rejection of Japan’s energy politics. This was the Fukushima lost to her, a place of joyful protest, nature, and community. Muto is now heavily involved in post-disaster community relief and service efforts, in this work paying particular attention to issues of discrimination that exacerbate conditions for people with disabilities as well as ethnic and socioeconomic minorities.
The symposium also provided an opportunity to meditate on what political and social solidarity might look like in our current globalized context. Bobbie Paul, Dean Wilkie, and Nancy Foust's talks offered some insights into the potentials of transnational politics. Paul’s work draws global connections from Hiroshima to Vogtle, Georgia, advocating for poor and racially marginal communities who have suffered disproportionate exposure to nuclear radiation. Wilkie and Foust discussed their web resource, simplyinfo.org, and its emergence as an international, grassroots resource during the unfolding of last year’s triple disaster. Reflecting these talks, the presence of transnationalism was hugely felt in the room itself—with all speeches and questions translated between English and Japanese.
Moreover, due to a scholarship program, the symposium was able to bring in a diverse group of scholars and activists working on a broad range of topics related to nuclear energy and power. Scholars’ research and projects ranged from solar energy and metals exporting, risk geography, web site design, and higher education. Further, among the academic orientations of these scholars included international affairs, sociology, public health, graphic design, and anthropology. In its interdisciplinary approach and inclusion of both experts in the field and young scholars, the symposium was a wonderful venue to regenerate and broaden enthusiasm in the important area of nuclear politics. Returning to Winter’s point, it occurs to me that in the face of threatened disappearances, the space for memory and political action finds itself in these assembled, transnational communities. From this view, groups might not simply fall apart when dispersed, but rather, gain strength in their widening and diversifying reach. Many of us left the symposium excited for these prospects.
Winter, Jay. 2008. "Sites of Memory and the Shadow of War," in Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook. Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG.
photo: The day after the Atomic Age II Symposium on May 5, 2012, panelists and scholarship recipients were invited to visit Red Gate Woods, site of the buried remains of the Chicago Pile--the world's first nuclear reactor. In this photo I appear delighted to hold a "NO NUKES" flag at this historic site.