A face floats hauntingly in the upper corner of the canvas. Darkened features blur into a smoky vortex of toxic oranges and reds, a myriad of opaque visages with hollow-looking eyes and grim expressions. The painting sits on an easel placed front and center of a discussion circle. It’s an art piece, untitled, by Helen Stanton of Idaho Falls, inspired by her son, one of 16 victims of radioactive contamination in an under-publicized Idaho National Laboratory accident that occurred in 2011.

HOLDING WHAT CAN’T BE HELD

Stanton’s painting is one of over a dozen pieces rendered by Idaho artists following an eye-opening tour of the Idaho National Laboratory’s storage and cleanup facilities last fall. After the tour, the Snake River Alliance (SRA), a nuclear watchdog group, invited the artists to capture what they saw and felt in any medium of their choice. Some turned to traditional paint and canvas; others, corroded bits of metal and cigarettes. The INL has been the site of a number of incidents which are documented on the Snake River Alliance’s website; however, a Post Register story published in the Idaho Statesman earlier this year reported that the facility is behind in publishing its cases. The results are poignant and visceral depictions of the harsh environmental and safety threats posed by INL’s nuclear research and of what continues to be a hard-fought battle between the Department of Energy/INL and SRA.

In a unique partnership between MING Studios — an art gallery located in downtown Boise — and the Snake River Alliance, the two organizations came together to host a public art exhibition and open mic night earlier this month. With final public comments on proposed nuclear waste shipments due to the DOE this past Monday, July 14, the “Holding What Can’t be Held” exhibition presented an opportunity to reach new audiences and open doors to communication about Idaho’s nuclear future, according to Snake River Alliance director Kelsey Nunez.

MING Exhibit

The “Holding What Can’t be Held” art exhibit is on display and open to the public until Saturday, July 18, culminating on Friday and Saturday with screenings of the local short film Mercury at 7 p.m. MING Studios is located at 420 S. 6th St., in Boise

A small but passionate group of observers and speakers attended the discussion. Nunez and the Snake River Alliance hope to take the exhibit across Idaho, with plans to reach Blackfoot in August and Idaho State University in the Spring.

ENERGY “TOO CHEAP TO METER”

Highly apparent in the open forum discussion were threads of concern for Idaho’s public safety, water health and air quality due to the renewed interest in nuclear waste shipments to the Lab, supported by Idaho Governor C. L. “Butch” Otter and Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, despite public opposition from two former state governors and activism against the facility’s environmental impacts to the Snake River Aquifer.

The Snake River Aquifer was named to the Superfund list of most polluted areas in Idaho in 1989.

“It’s a very successful cleanup program, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves. Idaho’s land and water will be contaminated until the end of time.” — Jeriann Sabin, contributing artist

Lou Landry, an SRA board member who joined the INL tour last fall, spoke at the exhibit opening, and was one of the five or so members interviewed in a short video presented as part of the exhibit. Landry expressed his first impressions about the INL site and his concerns openly: “The INL staff looks at it all and says ‘this is normal.’ But I’m looking at this like some futuristic horror movie.”

Landry says the INL touts an “illusion of control” over Idaho’s growing nuclear waste problem, which is a haunting reminder of Idaho’s past as a nuclear weapons testing site and guinea pig for the then-new fossil fuel alternative. He continued:

Just like Fukushima had a wall that wasn’t high enough, the INL is an old structure not fortified to modern regulations… We don’t need to have fancy conversations with the folks at the INL who are trying to sell themselves and their work because when great undisputed quantities of waste are accumulated, it’s a tragic mistake, and we simply cannot develop a political-scientific organization powerful enough to combat it.

Additional concerns were raised about the limited liability Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act, which was passed in 1957 to provide the then-fledgling nuclear industry with immunity from public lawsuits in the event of a large-scale nuclear accident, a benefit no other U.S. industry ever has received. The act is up for renewal in 2017. The PANIIA was an amendment to the federal Atomic Energy Act of 1954, invoked to counteract the nuclear industry’s catastrophic loss potential.

Woven into the July 10 environmental discussion were personal stories of those directly affected by the INL’s research, including Helen Stanton and other local residents. But even amidst her son’s legal battle with the Lab and Battelle Energy Alliance, Stanton stated that one of her goals is to launch a local support group for families and individuals affected by radioactive contamination and its side effects; ideally, a place where individuals can additionally learn about radiation treatment options and be safely showered without contaminating drinking water.

“In Idaho and the U.N., no place that I have found so far has a facility to treat radiation poisoning… they get referred back to nuclear sites,” Stanton said in an interview. “There are many people in the same boat as my son with nowhere to go.”

By educating workers and families about their treatment rights and options, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control [pdf], Stanton hopes to prevent other families from having to go through the same hardships as she has. “People should know there is a choice.”

Check out our gallery of a few of the incredible pieces featured at MING’s exhibit.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.