James Acord is the world's sole nuclear sculptor and the only individual licensed to work with radioactive materials. Kate Worsley reports on the man at Imperial College, London, struggling to turn atomic waste into works of art
Got any spare nuclear waste lying around that you do not know what to do with? Then James Acord is your man. The world's first nuclear sculptor has spent nine and a half years learning how to execute the most modern alchemy: turning radioactive waste into inert matter and then into art. But while his sculpture is chemically safe, guaranteed not to cause cancer, it is also, he hopes, charged with symbolism.
"The line that I walk is a simple and pure and clean one and I feel absolutely unassailable on it," declares Acord. "I am simply a sculptor. I live in the nuclear age, so it is logical, perhaps even inevitable, that a sculptor would work with radioactive materials. I'm not for or against the nuclear age, but we are all in it and we should be dealing with it."
From September Acord will be an artist in residence at the physics department of Imperial College, London, turning years of notes and diagrams into a concrete piece of art to exhibit at the college gallery in November. What can we expect to see?
Acord is working with milligrams of an isotope of technetium, extracted from nuclear waste. It is difficult to work with because it emits penetrating gamma rays that are not easily stopped by shielding - its radioactivity takes 22,000 years to decline by half. But having spent nearly a decade studying nuclear physics at Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the United States, Acord is confident that he can make the material safe. "The classes taught me that with fast neutron capture I could bump technetium up to the next element on the periodic table, ruthenium. Ruthenium is a stable member of the platinum family, non-radioactive and precious. Given enough time I could make one wedding ring, so if you want to be first in lineI" Integrity - of materials and thought - is paramount for Acord. While he has tried to stand aloof from political controversy about how we should dispose of nuclear waste he is not entirely apolitical. "I do genuinely hope that my artwork can make a contribution to resolving some of the problems of what to do with high-level radioactive waste. I get a lot of flak over this from both sides. I'm not proposing this art as an answer to the problem, but it is a symbol and a metaphor for the fact that we do have control over this. We have created these elements, we can uncreate them."
Moving into nuclear sculpture was an organic progression for the 43-year-old artist. He was born and raised in laid-back Seattle in Washington state and followed his muse around the United States, ending up in the 1980s in Vermont learning to carve granite. When the Chernobyl nuclear reactor blew up, it occurred to him that the material he was working with contained uranium.
"Just as the Italian renaissance tore down Roman marble sculpture to get at the lime it contained to make bricks, I realised my granite sculptures could one day be torn down to power a nuclear future," he says.
Imagination fired, he went back to Seattle and set to work on uranium, unaware that a licence was required to work with the stuff. He bought uranium over the counter in second-hand stores, tracked down uranium-bearing tableware from flea markets, found ore samples in rock shops. "My aim was always sculptural, to understand the material in order to work with it."
Before long, however, he was busted by Washington state officials. Nearly two years of wrangling got him an exemption from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowing him to work with a maximum of 15lbs of uranium to hand at any one time.
Soon 15lbs wasn't enough for Acord. To get access to more he moved inland to Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the heart of Washington's desert, which had provided the plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb. "The reservation was founded as part of the Manhattan Project. Because it was a wartime project, they took an awful lot of short-cuts. All the underground waste tanks are now leaking. This is the most contaminated nuclear area in the US."
He intended to work with landforms, to create earthworks shielding visitors and workers from the radioactive waste and to make markers to warn future generations that the land was poisoned. But while taking classes at Hanford's graduate education centre, nuclear physics began to exert its fascination. He "got sucked in". "I realised that the transmutation of elements, although an age-old dream, is a reality since we've entered the nuclear age. The ability to manipulate one elemental substance to another is the cat's pyjamas. This is what artists have dreamed about."
At Hanford, Acord had the help of "a few people in the club", he says. "They thought what I was doing was way cool. I don't know if they were grinding their own axes with officaldom or what, but they would help me with applications, suggest phrases like 'not frivolous use', and so on."
When the regulatory commission told him he needed to take classes in nuclear engineering before it would give him a licence, he found it particularly gratifying to be able to say that he had already taken them for his own interest. He is the only individual to hold a licence to work with radioactive materials, and is likely to remain so since the authorities have now closed the loopholes.
Acord now has enough credits for an MA in nuclear engineering, confounding the expectations of tutors and students at Hanford. "There were betting pools around the drinking fountain on whether the artist would pass the classes," he laughs. "I turned in the best notebook any student ever had in 25 years. I copied it verbatim off the board but I didn't drop a single decimal point." But it has been a long hard haul. "Believe me, it's not the most art-friendly place. I'm totally isolated, and extremely conspicuous in what is a fairly small community."
He has won the respect of scientists and fellow artists. It's a long way from his uranium ore hunting days in Seattle when he was run out of one studio that declared itself a nuclear-free zone. "Now everyone trusts my judgement. They know I'm coming from a pure sculptural point of view."
But pure art does not pay the bills. Since he has been at Hanford, Acord has sold nothing. He spent this summer in Alaska working in construction. While he is in Britain he will be in touch with the art collector Charles Saatchi and he hopes his residence at Imperial College will boost his status in the US.
"I'm extremely pumped and high on doing this. I have good press, all my science is in place and there's no criticism from the scientific community about my goals. But the federal agency in the US (the NRC) is like the twin evil clone sister of the Department of Defense. It has never worked with an artist, and it quite frankly does not give a damn. I'm just totally off their radar screen."
Atomic opens at Imperial College Gallery on November 5.