Screen shot from conference, Linara Dovydaityté

Screen shot from conference, Linara Dovydaityté

Conference reports Atomic heritage: Examining materiality, colonialism, and the speculative time of nuclear legacies

At the 4-days conference Atomic Heritage an international group of speakers discussed the legacies and geographies of nuclear cultures in sites ranging from Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Japan, certain Pacific Islands, France, the UK, Sweden, the USA, and Germany -- to name but a few.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2021:4, pp 18-21
Published on on January 24, 2022

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Atomic Heritage, a 4-day conference on June 15–18, 2021 at Linköping University, Sweden. The conference was organized as part of the Atomic Heritage research project. Project partners: Anna Storm, Florence Fröhlig, Tatiana Kasperski, Eglė Rindzevičiūtė and affiliate Andrei Stsiapanau. Funding: Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, grants no F20-0009 and P16-0684:1.

If nuclear matter is not merely a matter of concern for the technical sciences, but one that requires interdisciplinary forms of heritage expertise, how to handle nuclear matter in ways that keep these heritage processes open to future possibilities for thinking-differently? If nuclear materials are the subject of contested forms of techno-political categorization, then what techniques of heritage and memory preservation are best equipped to deal with nuclear waste? In addressing these questions, Atomic Heritage consisted of four organising themes: 1) Bodies, Communities, Heritage; 2) Waste and Radiation; 3) Infrastructural Heritage and Politics; and 4) The Global Atom. An international group of speakers discussed the legacies and geographies of nuclear cultures in sites ranging from Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Japan, certain Pacific Islands, France, the UK, Sweden, the USA, and Germany to name but a few. The conference was wide-reaching in a disciplinary sense, too: the papers presented in Atomic Heritage spanned engagements with nuclear waste storage, nuclear semiotics, artistic and aesthetic practices with nuclear materials, nuclear-contaminated water and food, Soviet history and politics, and the role of slavery and forced labour in nuclear industries. In what follows I will selectively suggest how particular topics gained expression in certain papers across these four days by focussing on: (1) non-human materiality, (2) nuclear colonialism and de-colonialization, (3) speculative thinking and temporalities, and (4) heritage and the archive. I conclude by reflecting on how these themes intervene in the wider critical questions and stakes of social scientific engagements with nuclear heritage processes.

Non-human materiality

The first day of paper sessions reverberated with the keynote address by Kate Brown on “The Great Chernobyl Acceleration” from the evening before. These reverberations were manifold, but perhaps felt most directly with the return of the Soviet train car in Eglė Rindzevičiūtė’s powerful account of the movement of bodies across Soviet Russia in the management of its atomic gulags. As Rindzevičiūtė explained, despite its significance to the histories of nuclear power in the 20th century, the movement of bodies on trains heading to the east of Soviet Russia for the purposes of forced labour is quite often difficult to evidence and is thus too often overlooked. In Brown’s opening address, the mobilities of a refrigerated train cart filled with meat contaminated from the Chernobyl accident was used to tell a story about the logistical confusion surrounding the management of this famous event: here, the train cart shifted around the Soviet state for a number of weeks before it eventually returned, with seemingly nowhere else to go, back to the contaminated Chernobyl zone. For both Rindzevičiūtė and Brown, the technology of the train cart is thus figured as an industrial device for moving those bodies that are no longer deemed to matter. Indeed, as Melanie Arndt acknowledged in discussion of Brown’s keynote paper, to focus on the effects of nuclear power and waste on the movement of bodies is at once a techno-political question of the materiality of matter. In engaging with the materiality of nuclear legacies, a question emerges of how one might become more attentive to the way nuclear matter offers a certain political revaluation of modes of thinking and writing about nuclear histories and environments. Insofar as it might unsettle anthropocentric accounts of nuclear legacies, non-human materiality in this sense offers an important conceptual frame for atomic heritage research since it concerns all manner of material things capable of emitting radiation that stubbornly exceed human temporalities and capacities for sense.

Attention to the non-human qualities of nuclear matter also appeared through the discussion of so-called “legacy waste”. Legacy waste is a term popularised by certain nation states in the mid to late 20th century to distinguish (1) nuclear waste produced during early weapons testing from (2) initial developments of nuclear energy production whose method of disposal is either unknown or unplanned. As Paul Josephson’s paper observed, legacy waste is notable in discourses around waste management because it is often ignored or treated as categorically different to other kinds of nuclear waste produced today. As Petra Tjitske Kalshoven noted in the context of Cumbria, UK, legacy waste also directs thought to the social and cultural legacies produced by the enduring life of nuclear matter in certain communities. In both cases, attending to legacy waste might be understood as a process of what Bruno Latour refers to as the way that the categorisation of matter, and therefore the mobility and possibilities of what matter can do, is produced as a political “matter of concern”.

Clearly, however, not all that remains of atomic heritages revolves around the techno-political categories of waste and legacy waste. As Andrei Stsiapanau argued in thinking with the relationship between nuclear matter and categorisation, it also concerns the materiality of clay as a “geomedium” through which certain Soviet practices of nuclear waste disposal became actionable and justifiable.

Nuclear colonialism and de-colonialization

Intersecting notions of materiality and the non-human, a number of papers drew attention to the politics of nuclear colonialism and processes of de-colonisation. Specifically, certain contributors drew attention to the role of colonial and de-colonialising power relations in structuring material realities for those living around nuclear power plants and in the aftermath of nuclear weapons testing (for example Virginija Januškevičiūtė; Linara Dovydaitytė; Eglė Rindzevičiūtė). Lis Kayser, for instance, focussed on nuclear colonialism in the French Polynesian Tahiti and Hao wherein the contemporary presence of colonial power is detectable through the material traces of certain infrastructures and household artefacts. llona Jurkonyte, likewise, contributed to de-colonisation debates by calling for renewed practices of “unlearning” colonial power through a critical reading of the way nuclear cultures are today produced through popular images and semiotics representing the Marshall Islands. This line of decolonialising critique was also detectable in Robert Jacobs’ reminder that, despite a recent enthusiasm for nuclear power from certain environmental activists, nuclear energy infrastructures must be understood foremost as a “redemptive technology” of continuing geopolitical and colonial importance to the US in the aftermath of second world war.

Speculative thinking and temporalities

A number of contributors drew attention, both directly and indirectly, to the speculative aesthetics and modes of thinking nuclear environments (for example, Valentinas Klimašauskas). Speculative thinking, understood briefly as an attention to pluriversal forms of experience besides the human subject, was directly developed by Aleksandra Brylska’s discussion of the need to pay attention to differing forms of nuclear temporality. Using the uncanny aesthetics of Chernobyl’s “Red” Forest, which appears frozen in time to the human observer due to radioactivity killing-off much of the insect and microbial life, speculative thinking appears here through the way alternative non-human durations of temporality are required to think the “deep time” (100,000 years+) after which nuclear matter might become safe to organic life. Speculative thinking of this sort was also detectable, albeit indirectly, in terms of speculative propositions including the way Per Högselius anticipated a future fifth stage of “nuclear power phase-out” driven and accelerated by climate change. Intersecting this line of thinking about the future of nuclear power, speculations were also notable in Elise Alloin’s arts practice, which confronts the way bodily gestures can help dramatize the performative spaces of nuclear decommissioning. Whilst diverse in scope, these speculative approaches to atomic heritage highlighted the need to expand how the social sciences recollect and take notice of nuclear legacies across temporalities and environmental durations that are often irreducible to the phenomenal experience of the human subject.

Heritage & the archive

A number of papers attended to critical debates between history, heritage and the archive. Susanne Bauer argued for a “less purified” sense of the nuclear archive by drawing on her research investigating often incomplete Soviet medical records documenting radiation exposure. Elsewhere, and linking to Achim Klüppelberg’s discussion of the enduring geopolitical importance of infrastructural heritage emanating from Soviet Russia, Marcos Buser surveyed how recent nuclear infrastructure projects in Switzerland draw on a mixture of biodesigned landscapes, nuclear semiotics, and education practices as method for long-term memory communication of geological repositories for nuclear waste. Jacob Darwin, meanwhile, focussed on the scale of the body as an archive to understand and reconstruct understandings of radiation exposure through the manifestation of thyroid cancers. What became notable through this theme is how atomic heritage process not only concern the preservation of memory and archives but also the political process through which certain records might become lost or purposely left out. Florence Fröhlig, for example, used the decommissioning of the Fessenheim nuclear plant in the Alsace region to explore what might be lost of this Franco-German cultural and political relationship when the plant closes.


Reflecting across the diversity of the different papers making up Atomic Heritage, and certainly by no means attempting to provide a simple summary of synopsis of all the different ideas populating the event, there are various critical questions that emerged both during and in the aftermath of these presentations. Here I indicate several points of critical concern.

First includes whether there tends to be a slippage in referring to the historical events of making nuclear “weapons” and of nuclear “power”. Indeed, what dangers are there, that the social and technological legacies of these differing projects become flattened? At the level of colonial and de-colonisation studies, what differences are worth attending to in thinking how colonialism continues to shape different nuclear power and weapon technologies and nuclear cultures?

Second concerns the need to generate scholarly attention to both the presence and absence of legacy waste and the associated deferral of waste management responsibility to the future. How might one draw attention not only to the category of legacy waste in nuclear waste management literature and policy documents, but also to the way legacy waste is wilfully made absent in literature and documents concerning how nuclear waste repositories that are currently envisaged, managed, and designed?

Third concerns the notion of reflexivity and positionality in researching nuclear colonialism. Indeed, there is a danger that questions of researcher reflexivity and positionality become backgrounded when, instead, they might be at the forefront of research concerning nuclear colonialism. How do differing ontologies and epistemologies between researcher and researched inform the way that different stories about former nuclear colonial territories take shape? And how might marginalised voices in research gain expression and authority in these accounts of atomic heritage?

Forth, and finally, concerns the separation between the “technical” and “historical and cultural” developed by the conference. What is implied in the bifurcation of the “technical” from the “historical and cultural”? If the technical becomes associated with the scientific, to what extent does this reproduce certain kinds of orderings of knowledge and the subordination of arts and humanities expertise to the scientific in nuclear waste discourses? One response to these questions, noted at the end of the conference by Jonas Žukauskas, is to think the cultural-technical: to reject the implied separation of the technical as merely scientific, and of heritage processes as “non-technical” that risks creating certain kinds of reductive value of heritage expertise vis-à-vis the scientific.

In sum, and as Anna Storm acknowledged in the final address of the conference, nuclear heritage processes often concern subjects and bodies at the periphery of society — be this those forced to construct nuclear power plants for the Soviet state in the 20th century, to the Pacific Island communities living in the aftermath of weapons testing, or communities such as the Sami who live with the fallout of nuclear weapons following the cold war weapons rush. There is a politics, therefore, in paying attention to how the legacies of nuclear materials have differing effects on bodies across space and time. As an outcome of differing spatio-temporal durations, and as Brown argues, understanding nuclear heritage might not only be about attending to a single incident of nuclear contamination, but of a continuing acceleration of radioactivity in certain environments. Such accelerations include those environmental and bodily health effects that are not only very much part of present-day politics, but also include those effects that will only be acknowledged and discernible in the coming decades. There is thus a certain humility to be gained in attending to the politics of atomic heritage, which tends to appear as an impossible yet resolutely necessary task of accounting for all manner of nuclear effects both human and non-human.


  1. “Atomic Heritage Project description.” Atomic Heritage (2018). Available at: Accessed November 8, 2021.
  2. S. Whatmore, “Materialist returns: practising cultural geography in and for a more-than-human world.” Cultural geographies, Vol. 13, no. 4 (2006): 600—609.
  3. See also A. Storm, “When We Have Left the Nuclear Territories” In: Deterritorializing the Future Harrison, eds., R., & C. Sterling (Chicago: Open Humanities Press, 2019), 318—343.
  4. T. Kasperski, “From Legacy to Heritage: The Changing Political and Symbolic Status of Military Nuclear Waste in Russia”, Cahiers du Monde Russe, Vol. 60 no. 2—3 (2019): 517—538.
  5. B. Latour, Politics of Nature. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).
  6. See D. Debaise, Speculative Empiricism: Revisiting Whitehead, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017).
  7. See also K. Brown, Manual for survival: A Chernobyl guide to the future. (London: Penguin UK, 2019).
  8. Atomic Heritage, 2018.
  9. Brown, 2019.

  • by Thomas Keating

    Postdoctoral researcher at Tema Technology and Social Change at Linköping University. Investigates problems that arise in the relationship between man and technology such as how to preserve the memory of sites for final disposal of nuclear waste in Sweden in the distant future.

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