Nuclear Guardianship

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by Linda Seeley and Kathleen Sullivan

Linda Seeley (Seelie) and Kathleen Sullivan, long-time nuclear abolitionists, offered a workshop on Nuclear Guardianship and the Work that Reconnects at the Gaian Gathering. 

Nuclear Guardianship is a philosophy and action idea that entails the responsible care of radioactive materials produced in the manufacture of the twin technologies of nuclear weapons and nuclear power. The Nuclear Guardianship Project was first developed in the 1980’s by Joanna, her husband Fran Macy, and friends. It has been established as a community-based concept that works at the nexus of art, science, and spirituality to protect people and the environment from further radioactive poisoning and to educate present and future generations about the nuclear legacy bequeathed to them.

Nuclear Guardianship advocates storing radioactive materials in a monitored, retrievable configuration.

Nuclear Guardianship advocates storing radioactive materials in a monitored, retrievable configuration.  When the materials are stored where present and future generations can see them, the maintenance required for on-going isolation from the environment is more readily facilitated.  

As Joanna Macy explains: “No technology by itself can banish radioactive material. When we attempt to hide it (or hide from it), the radioactivity spreads beyond our control. . . We can contain the radioactivity if we pay attention to it.  The act of paying attention may be the last thing we want to do, but it is the one act that is required.  An increasing number of citizens and scientists are now recognizing that the only realistic, viable response to nuclear waste is on-going, on-site, monitored storage — keeping waste containment visible and accessible for monitoring and repair by present and future generations.” 

Persistent monitoring and maintenance are a clear necessity

Because of the uniquely vast temporal nature of many radioactive materials, radioactive wastes will require routine repackaging in order to ensure safe accommodation.  Persistent monitoring and maintenance are a clear necessity when it is recognized that no human-made containment vessel will ‘outlive’ the radioactive materials they attempt to contain. Put simply, Nuclear Guardianship acknowledges that there is no “solution” or safe “disposal” for the mountains of radioactive wastes that have been and continue to be produced in the development of nuclear weapons and nuclear power. 

When we see the earth as a living system…we know that there is no such thing as “away.”

The pursuit of a “solution” gives the nuclear industry — power and weapons — a reason to continue because someday there will be a declared end to the  long sought after solving of the radioactive riddle (what is contaminated is also contaminating). “Disposal” presupposes that there is a place we can put something and it will stay in that benign state forever. It will forever be away, out there, separate from us. When we see the earth as a living system, as Gaians do, we know that there is no such thing as “away.” There are only differing levels of what is above and below and around us, and how the whole mix interacts to make our–for now–habitable home on our one precious planet.

The legacy of nuclear power is the plutonium …that will have to be separated from the biosphere for at least one million years.

  As Seelie noted: “It is very important for people to know that the nuclear power industry has successfully brainwashed a whole generation of young people into believing that nuclear power can somehow address climate change. There’s nothing that could be further from the truth. The legacy of nuclear power is the plutonium and the other long lived nuclear wastes that will have to be separated from the biosphere for at least one million years. We need to recognize the intersection between nuclear waste and nuclear war. That is why this disinformation campaign is so important to the pro-nuclear people. They want young people to believe that the problem with the anti-nuclear power movement is that it’s populated mostly by old people like me (who don’t “understand” the promise of nuclear technology). We need our young people to step forward to join this movement, to help eradicate all nuclear power now, and to help stop making any more of the waste that is going to be with us virtually forever. The Biden Administration is providing billions and billions of dollars to keep old nuclear power plants going. And we have a nuclear power plant right here (Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo, CA) that’s built on 13 earthquake faults. Its reactor vessel is in danger of exploding if they have to shut it down quickly.”

We’re talking about deep time.

Kathleen remarked: “As Seelie says, this stuff can last for hundreds of thousands of years. Just the one element of plutonium, which is the raw material for nuclear weapons and the byproduct of nuclear power, has a carcinogenic and mutagenic lifetime of 240,000 years. So as Joanna says, we’re talking about deep time. Another thing that Seelie and I have learned about Nuclear Guardianship from our beloved teacher is how we need to press ourselves into service for Earth and for all life, to guard the biosphere from the radioactive materials, not dump it in a deep geologic burial ground. Not to dump it and forget it, but to store it in a way that involves reverence for life by monitoring and retrieving this material and packing it again and again and again, to isolate it from the biosphere. 

The “Poison Fire”…teaches us about our radical interconnectedness with all life.

The “Poison Fire,” as Joanna Macy mythically refers to radioactive materials, teaches us about our radical interconnectedness with all life. If plutonium gets into the air, gets into the water, gets into human bodies, it continues on for all those hundreds of thousands of years. We have to stop producing radioactive materials, and do the best that we can to guard them safely from the biosphere.”

Kathleen and Seelie urge all Gaians to learn the dreadful truth about radioactive violence and use that knowledge to further our collective work to protect our beloved, beautiful, fragile, resilient world. For more information about the dangers of nuclear power visit Mothers for Peace  

For more information about nuclear weapons abolition, please check out the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons 

This article is an edited transcription of a talk given at the Gaian Gathering of the Work That Reconnects Network in November 2023.  A video of the full talk is available on the WTR Network website here.

Linda Seeley has served as Vice-President and spokesperson for San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace since 2009 and has been a member of the Diablo Canyon Decommissioning Engagement Panel since its inception in 2018. She retired from a 32-year career as a certified nurse-midwife. Mother of 3, grandmother of 3, and great-grandmother of one baby boy, she understands the existential threat of climate change effects on the aging fleet of nuclear reactors. She is very concerned about the triple threat of sea level rise, vulnerable radioactive waste storage and the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Linda lives in Los Osos, California.

Kathleen Sullivan, PhD is the Director of Hibakusha Stories (a partner of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons), an arts-based initiative which has brought atomic bomb survivor testimony to more than 50,000 young people. She has supported the facilitation of hibakusha voices in conferences and UN forums on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, and is co-chair of the Nuclear Truth Project. Kathleen lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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