Nuclear Guardianship

The mission of Youth Arts New York is to provide experiences in the arts and sciences that engage youth in building a peaceful and sustainable future. We hope to impart a long-view with regard to nuclear disarmament and the legacy of radioactive materials that result from nuclear power and nuclear weapons.  Our primary teacher in that long view is Dr. Joanna Macy, Buddhist scholar and Systems Theorist who has been an original inspiration and supporter of Hibakusha Stories.  Nuclear Guardianship is a concept created by Joanna and others to care for the radioactive legacy that we bequeath to future generations.  The following article introduces that concept and includes links to further resources on-line.

Seeing Nuclear Responsibility

Huddling under the stars in the dark, on the edge of a devastatingly bleak military base, guarded constantly by US Army personnel, might have been a daunting experience, but the women were sustained by their convictions, and unified by a fervent desire to forward the cause of peace by resisting the installation of Cruise missiles on our soil. ( ‘A Voice from the Peace Camps:  Greenham Common and Upper Heyford’, by Maggie Lowry in Over Our Dead Bodies:  Women Against the Bomb. London:  Virago, 1983).

The women’s peace camp at Greenham Common, a military base jointly operated by the US and British Air Force, was established in 1982 with a walk from Cardiff to Greenham, where women opposed the presence of US nuclear weapons in the UK.  For thirteen years, women lived outside at the gates of Greenham in order to draw attention to both the site and the proliferation of nuclear technology that the site symbolized.  The thousands of women who took their turn living at Greenham made the presence of nuclear weaponry visible for an international community.  The peace camp at Greenham has been a world-wide inspiration, and in a fundamental way, changed the nature of anti-nuclear protest.  The combination of making the site visible as the symbol of nuclear technology and sustaining that gaze by living at Greenham for over a decade, demonstrated the human will to embody responsibility.  In the end it was the Greenham women and their sustained presence that forced the hand of US and British military.  After thirteen years of women living at the site, the nuclear Cruise Missiles were returned to the US and the base was closed.

In The Classroom

When Joanna Macy visited the women’s peace camp in 1983, she experienced a feeling of déjà vu:

Sitting in the rain at Greenham Common I suddenly realized that this feeling of déjà vu was not about the past so much as the future.  Of course!  For life to go on, this is what would have to happen around the nuclear power and weapons stations. . . .  Even after nuclear disarmament, even after the closing of the last reactor, something like these citizen encampments would be necessary to ensure that the radioactivity was contained. (Widening Circles. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 2000).

Years later, out of Joanna’s vision of a nuclear future came the Nuclear Guardianship Project. Established in Berkeley, California in 1989, Nuclear Guardianship maintains that in order to take care of radioactive materials, those materials must be kept in view.  The project, a citizen initiative, asserts that present proposed ‘solutions’ to the problem of radioactive waste further displace notions of its responsible care.  That is, deep geologic burial, a course of action that is unjust and irresponsible, because deep geologic burial seeks to sever humanity’s connection to future generations.

Nuclear Guardianship advocates the storage of radioactive material above ground, or just below ground in a monitored, retrievable configuration.  When the material is stored where present and future generations can see it, the maintenance required for its continual isolation from the environment is more readily facilitated.  Nuclear Guardianship acknowledges that this form of responsible care will require ongoing monitoring and maintenance.  Because of the uniquely vast temporal nature of radioactive materials, these materials will require routine repackaging in order to ensure their safe accommodation.  Continual monitoring and maintenance is a clear necessity when it is recognized that no human-made containment vessel will ‘outlive’ the radioactive materials they attempt to contain.

Radioactive waste storage is likewise envisioned as decentralized, occurring where possible at the site of generation.  Storing radioactive materials where they have been produced avoids the further risk of contamination that might occur in the transportation of these materials.

Nuclear Guardianship maintains that there is no technological solution to the ‘disposal’ of radioactive materials.  For materials that remain life-threatening beyond any conventional notion of time, ‘disposal’ cannot be achieved.  Wherever the material is placed, it will continue to be both mutagenic and carcinogenic.  Therefore, it is paramount that the materials remain in view in order that their safe containment be achieved.  By watching the radioactive materials, by monitoring and correcting any found problems, it is then that these materials can be continually isolated from the environment.  Moreover, keeping the material visible further serves to develop people’s commitment to its responsible care which could be recognized as humanity’s most enduring artifact for future generations.  Macy asserts that:

No technology by itself can banish [radioactive materials] and 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.  And increasing numbers of citizens and scientists are recognizing today 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  (World As Lover, World As Self. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1992).

Every process involved in the production of nuclear weapons and nuclear power creates further radioactive ‘waste’.  Moreover, the products of nuclear technology and the instruments used to produce them, will eventually require isolation from the environment.  That is, every nuclear bomb, nuclear reactor, glove box, radiation suit, and the production facilities themselves will all require containment.  And in the case of plutonium, this containment needs to be achieved for nearly one quarter of one million years.

Nuclear Guardianship asserts that the only way to take on the colossal task of isolating radioactive materials from the environment for their requisite, immense time-frame is to make that responsibility visible.  It is through this visibility that future generations are called into a responsible relationship with the nuclear legacy present generations bequeath to them. Nuclear Guardian Sites require common folk to perceive radioactive materials as part of a living present, and moreover a living future, a culture of responsibility, in everyday life, that is passed on to future generations.

Seeing our nuclear legacy opens up a dialogue with future generations.  By burying radioactive materials, future people are excluded from a discussion that they are necessarily a part of.  Whilst it is not possible to ‘speak’ with future generations, it is still possible to take their well-being into consideration in relation to the nuclear materials that they will, buried or not, inherit.  There is no other product of nuclear societies that will so fervently stand the test of time.  No work of art, no system of language will outlast the near timeless radioactive monsters of the present.  For this reason alone (although there are others), the containment of radioactive materials must remain visible in order for future generations to take up and eventually pass on the legacy of care and responsibility for nuclear materials that we in the present bequeath to them.


Nuclear guardianship is explained on Joanna Macy’s website:

The Nuclear Guardianship Forum, was an occasional publication focused on guardianship issues and published in the 1990s:

The Nuclear Guardianship Library:

A related nuclear guardianship project regarding the former nuclear weapons plant Rocky Flats near Denver Colorado: