The Idaho National Laboratory (INL) was established in 1949 and covers 890 square miles of eastern Idaho’s high desert plain, one of the most beautiful parts of our state. Beneath it, sixty years of nuclear contamination threatens the sole source of drinking water for 300,000 Idahoans downstream. Hazards have been created and accumulated and are now being cleaned up. It’s a story, filled with juxtapositions, that can be told in many different ways and from many different perspectives.

In the fall of 2014, the Snake River Alliance invited visual artists to join our tour of the environmental cleanup projects at INL. The artists came from across southern Idaho. Some were fairly familiar with the US nuclear weapons complex – the mother of one worked at the Rocky Flats plutonium factory, the father of another worked at INL. Others learned they lived near an almost alien place. None left untouched. Out of that long, challenging day, they have produced works of art probing the beauty and the peril of what they saw.

Holding What Can’t Be Held: Our Radioactive Backyard, the first exhibition of their work, will open on Thursday, July 2, and run through Saturday, July 18, at Ming Studios, 420 South 6th Street, Boise. There will be a number of special events during the exhibition.

Participating artists include Laura Ahola-Young, Jonathan Sadler, Thea Belecz, Catherine Reinhardt, Jeri Ann Sabin, Alissa Salmore, John McMahon, Elijah Jensen, and April Van De Grift. Their work includes photography, printmaking, painting, sculpture, and fabric art.

Holding What Can't Be Held

Burying plutonium-contaminated waste in an unlined pit above the Snake River Aquifer in the 1950s

Schedule of events 

  • July 2 at 6pm: Opening reception.
  • July 10 at 7pm: a panel discussion, “Personal Journeys Through the Nuclear Complex: A Chance to Share.” Artists and community members are invited to share anything about their experience or process.
  • July 17 at 7pm: Beatrice Brailsford (head of the nuclear program at Snake River Alliance) will give a PowerPoint presentation, “Our Radioactive Backyard,” on the environmental issues at INL, followed by a screening of Mercury, a 13-minute film by local filmmaker Zach Voss (Retroscope Media).
  • July 18 at 7pm: Closing – a music performance and a 2nd screening of Mercury.