by Emily Simmonds, with Max Liboiron
We tend to think that we are familiar with waste because we deal with it every day. Yet, most aspects of waste are entirely hidden from view and understanding, including the wider social, economic, political, cultural, and material systems that shape waste and wasting. For instance, household waste is a tiny fraction of waste generally. The vast majority of waste–around 97%–is industrial waste. Because personal experiences with waste is a limited perspective, the field of discard studies is central to thinking through and countering the initiative and familiar aspects of waste. As more attention in popular, policy, activist, engineering, and research is focused on waste and wasting, it becomes crucial to contextualize the problems, materialities, and systems that are not readily apparent to the invested but casual observer. Our task as discard studies researchers is to trouble the assumptions, premises, and popular mythologies of waste so discussions can address these wider systems, rather than fall to technological or moral fixes (Recycle more! Don’t use plastic straws!) that deal with symptoms rather than origins of problems.
To help defamiliarize and demythologize aspects of waste, Discard Studies hosts a series of interviews with researchers who are working to show some of the more invisible, less well-known aspects of waste and wasting, collectively called demythologizing waste. This interview with Emily Simmonds by Discard Studies editor Max Liboiron is part of our series.
Nuclear State, Nuclear Waste
Everyday exposure disasters
Liboiron: Let’s start simply. What do you work on?
Simmonds: I am an anthropologist that looks at the way in which people understand, navigate, and challenge what counts as “harmful exposure” in relation to the production and circulation of nuclear energy.
When it comes to nuclear matters, we tend to think about harmful exposure in spectacular, catastrophic, large-scale, single-event scenarios, like a nuclear reactor melting down, or a dangerous technology like nuclear weapons or aging reactors. As a result, other forms of harm produced through mining, processing, and storing nuclear fuel and waste often get missed.
So a large part of my research challenges how the relationship between disaster and exposure is represented, and scaling and locating it differently. I look at exposure as something that is mundane and everyday. In particular, I study how exposure is made possible through environmental regulations and other systems that regulate how “natural resources” are extracted, used and distributed. In general, people tend to think about environmental regulations as something that protects us, but they are really permissions to pollute. Regulations establish acceptable thresholds of pollution. An example of this all the abandoned and decommissioned uranium mines in Northern Saskatchewan, Canada, which are home to millions of tonnes of radioactive tailings that must be isolated from the surrounding environment for millennia. There is a legacy, I was told by different community members, of severe and widespread watershed contamination from these tailings in this region. Another way that this “radioactive dust” might enter the food system and potentially adversely impact community health is through moose and other animals that graze on wild blueberries and lichen in the area surrounded abandoned and active mines. All of this meets regulation.
This aspect of exposure is really not spoken about or represented widely, and I am really interested in this. How do we think about what comes to count as harmful or injurious forms of exposure? Why we are concerned about some forms of pollution, exposure, and environmental harms and not others?
Canada is a nuclear nation
A second myth my research debunks is that Canada is not a nuclear nation. After all, we don’t have a bunch of nuclear weapons, and none of the reactors in Canada have melted down in spectacular ways. So we have a notion of Canada as a safe, peaceful and progressive non-nuclear nation. But Canada is a place invested in the production of nuclear energy, connected to the lethal legacies of nuclear technologies in any way.
Very few people in Canada think about ourselves as nuclear citizens, or as a nuclear nation, even though Canada historically and presently provides the uranium used to supply a large portion of the global nuclear supply chain. This includes the material that was used for the Manhattan project, and the first atomic bombs dropped by the US military in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. That was Canadian uranium.
Some of that pitchblende (which is a naturally occurring uranium-rich mineral) came from Great Bear Lake region, in Délįne, Northwest Territories. The mining company, which for a brief period lost control of the mines to the Canadian government as part of the war effort to support the US, hired Sahtu Dene men as prospectors to find new ore deposits and work the mines and transport the material. Many of these men developed horrible terminal diseases as a result. The toxic legacy of the historical pitchblende mining operations on Great Bear Lake remains an environmental health concern today.
Liboiron: When you are talking about this work with public audiences, what are some the assumptions that people have that you have that might run counter to what you find out in your research?
Simmonds: I’ve noticed that few things that happen. One is that people tend to think that the dangers of nuclear production are something that happened in the Cold War. But it’s still happening today. Canada is still a nuclear nation, and exposures continue. Secondly, and probably related to the Cold War framing, there really seems to be a desire that my research is going to reveal a secret! But all of my sources are public, and my main concern is how we live with toxic legacies in the present. I want to know: how do we think or not think about radioactive pollution and nuclear energy in the present?
For example, I live in Toronto, Ontario, which is the second largest nuclear jurisdiction in North America. A large portion of how my home is powered is nuclear energy. Ontario, in the context of North America, is one of the largest electrical grids powered by nuclear energy. People, myself included before I started my research, don’t think about that. Perhaps it is because electricity and energy are invisible, yet are produced through real material raw, concrete relationships that draw together people and places and things into particular configurations. People tend to not realize that they are surrounded by and live in a nuclear landscape and are sustained by these infrastructures every day.
I think part of the reason people expect me to reveal a secret is that we imagine that we don’t live with and aren’t sustained by nuclear power– that nuclear relationships must be secret, rather than mundane. In some ways I think the ways “we” don’t have think about it speaks to the way that some of us are collectively culturally allowed to take for granted the structures that sustain us.
Waste and the colonial state
Liboiron: What do you think some of the hardest or most successful parts of retelling the nuclear pollution story are?
Simmonds: I work with other thinkers like anthropologists, historians, sociologists, scientists, environmental activists, water protectors, and land defenders, and we’ve agreed that pollution and the distribution of industrial harms that are made permissible through environmental regulations and deregulations are done so in asymmetrical ways. Not everyone is exposed to pollution evenly. It is the same with the toxicants, heavy metals, and other chemicals produced from mining, as well as from storing nuclear waste and spent rods.
One of the things that is often not addressed and can be hard for some audiences to understand is the ways in which the distribution of environmental harms are connected to the colonial settler foundations of the state of Canada. People don’t tend to make those associations, or perhaps they find it difficult to. Instead, people tend to think of the Cold War. They think about those kinds of Cold War, antagonistic state relationships, but they don’t think about the kinds of antagonisms and the forms of dispossession that are right at home and allow for the uneven distributions of injurious types of exposure from colonialism. And how the distribution of injurious effects are linked to race and class.
It goes beyond the idea of just mining or storing waste on stolen land. The Canadian state is invested in controlling “natural resources” including mineral shelves located below the earth’s surface, and the way this is done is very tied to the colonial tenure land system and the treaty territories.
In the national mythologies of Canada, “the north” has always been represented in certain ways. It’s a place marked by fantasies… The lands historically, and in some cases continue to be talked about and represented as empty and not occupied (called terra nullius). When Indigenous nations were and are acknowledged on their traditional territory they were seen as not able to make “good” use of those resources. But mining and storing uranium was a “good and proper” use of the land as a resource. My research works to understand how land and place-based pollution is tied into broader structures, including the way the Canadian state is founded upon and perpetuates those structures through the management and development of “natural resources”.
Liboiron: What’s an example of that?
Simmonds: In Northern Saskatchewan, like other places in Canada and the United States, used residential schools to accomplish cultural genocide, which is the core of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings in Canada. They were often referred to as “industrial schools,” as if Indigenous people were learning a vocational trade or a skill. A few years after they were closed in the 1980’s in northern Saskatchewan, two large multinational mining companies moved in. Uranium mining, which is very, very, toxic, was economically positioned as the solution to past colonial violence and the forced assimilation and genocide of Indigenous populations. The idea was that mining would allow “these people” to participate in the Canadian economy, but only in very toxic ways.
Uranium mining, like other forms of resource extraction, is presented as a mode of development that can help alleviate poverty and reverse colonialism, but it requires magical thinking that asks us to constantly ignore the patterns of land accumulation and dispossession where land was lost to mining, where and how toxicity is being distributed in Indigenous lands and bodies, and the very conditions and relationships that the Canadian settler state was founded upon and is sustained by. The idea of development requires us to think about environmental harm, community health, and land dispossession as something that is external to the cost of doing business, rather than central to it.
Thinking for the future
Radioactive pollution is a powerful material to think about, but it’s also very hard. As a lively material that is unstable, radioactive pollution asks us to really start to talk about, and think together about, what kind of future we want leave. We have to think about what kind of future are we building now, and what types of structures we need to reshape for a more livable present and future.
Nuclear pollution offers real potential to think about different ways of being together and living together, and thinking about forms of collectivity that doesn’t require a state-based model, or are rooted a nuclear family-based model to think about how we live together and what we want to leave for our future ancestors. Radioactive pollution, like other forms of industrial pollution, really asks us to consider and navigate our relationships with each other, and to the land, waters and atmospheres.
Liboiron: Thank you for that. I think you’ve outlined the stakes of this kind of work really well. What sources would you recommend to people if they want to learn more about this?
Simmonds: There is no shortage of great work to read! In terms of books, there’s Unsettling Canada: A National Wake Up Call, written by the late land defender and political philosopher Arthur Manual and Robert Derrickson; and Indigenous Writes: A Guide To First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada, by legal scholar, and all around kick-ass, generous educator Chelsea Vowel. Both are gifts for anyone who is interested in understanding a range of issues connected to the settler-colonial tenure land system in the Canadian context.
Also, there are many amazing collectives and grassroots organizations that are doing a lot of this work on the front lines. In fact, these are the people that I have spent the most time learning from, so in many ways I am just amplifying what I have been taught by different activist, land defenders, and water protectors.
One resource for the readers that is specific to uranium mining in Northern Saskatchewan would be the Committee for Future Generations, which is a grassroots Indigenous-lead group of water protectors and land defenders that have been actively engaging with questions about mining in their territory in North Saskatchewan since 2011. Another is Greenspiration, a Toronto based organization that has done a lot of work around raising awareness about the dangers and risks associated with the different nuclear power generating plants in Ontario. Also, Mining Injustice Solidarity Network and Mining Watch Canada, two organizations that focus on environmental and community injustices produced by mining companies internationally, are hugely informative. And, of course the Indigenous Environmental Network, which is an amazing coalition of activists that came out of work in the sixties and seventies on questions of land governance around uranium mining in Navajo territory.
I took the above photo during my stay as an invited guest in a small community located downstream from the large uranium mining complex in Northern Saskatchewan. I like it. It’s ordinary, yet incredibly powerful. It speaks to just some of the ways that people challenge and navigate the production and circulation of nuclear energy, and the materiality of colonialism in the everyday. The hand-painted sign centered in the photo hangs on the door of an artist’s carving workshop for all to see. In a region where the mines employ most of the community, provide and maintain essential infrastructures, including roads, recreational facilities, post-secondary educational opportunities, and health care services like a mobile cancer screening unit, the sign is a deeply political statement. My home is not your wasteland!
Emily Astra-Jean Simmonds is a PhD candidate in the department of Science and Technology Studies at York University. Her activist research practice is primarily energized by questions about consent, exposure and colonial infrastructures, toxic sovereignties and the biopolitics of settler colonialism. Currently, her work focuses on how uranium economies and ecologies amplify and produce colonial geographies, and the various ways in which asymmetrical exposures to toxins and radiological hazards are rendered permissible. As a Métis feminist scholar she is committed to actions that support just and mutually considered livable futures. She is a member of the: Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) based in St. John’s NFLD; and the Digital Research Ethics Collaboratory (DREC); The Politics of Evidence Working Group (PEWG); and the Technoscience Research Unit (TRU) in Toronto, Ontario.