Sociotechnical Imaginaries, Intergenerational Justice, and the Wicked Problem of Nuclear Waste

Jennifer Richter

The modern nuclear age began with a blast of light in the central New Mexican desert in 1945. Since that moment, the thorny problem of what to do with the waste from nuclear weapons and energy development has been a defining aspect of human existence, and in the ensuing seventy years, little action has been taken to deal with this seemingly intractable issue. This paper examines the social, political and environmental context of nuclear waste storage by focusing on the only permanent nuclear waste repository in the world: The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Established in 1999, WIPP has been used as a potential model for commercial nuclear waste storage, yet intergenerational issues of nuclear waste disposal contradict imaginaries of energy security and sustainability. Using concepts related to sociotechnical imaginaries and justice theories, I examine discourses produced at public meetings for nuclear projects, as well as interviews with scientists, community members, and anti-nuclear grassroots organizations in New Mexico, who are negotiating categories of risks of nuclear contamination from projects like WIPP. These contestations revolve around differing social values related to the production and disposal of nuclear waste, as well as contestations over whether nuclear waste should be viewed merely as a technological artifact, or a moral imperative for engaging with public views on nuclear technologies, especially in places where historically marginalized communities exist. These discourses expose new imaginaries where the centrality of justice, equity, and sustainability for energy practices could shift focus from energy security to energy justice.