Nuclear Waters at the Centre of a Soviet Technocratic Culture Analysis

“In designing the water-graphite reactors used at Chernobyl’, Soviet nuclear engineers chose specific design features that made serious – albeit not catastrophic – accidents all but inevitable.”1

Soviet nuclear power plants in the vast majority of cases depended on water as a necessary and safeguarding coolant. But where should one get enough of it in such an inaccessible and land-locked landscape, encompassing steppes, forests, mountains, deserts, and arable land featuring one of the harshest continental climatic differences between summer and winter in the whole world?

For Soviet technocratic planners, this did not pose an unconquerable obstacle. Over the centuries, the country’s grand rivers, for example the Volga, Don and Dnepr have hosted numerous settlements with different industries and economical endeavours as well as some of the respective area’s biggest population centres. So why not using their immense powers for harnessing a new and even greater power – that of the mirnij atom?

Unsurprisingly, the Soviet civil nuclear programme was one of the most ambitious of the world. Before 1986, the year in which Chernobyl struck, the nuclear industry held grand prospects for further investment and development. Being a country as vast as the USSR, in which 75% of the population lived in the West while 80% of national (mostly fossil) energy resources were located in the Far East, technocratic planners envisioned nuclear power as one way to secure a stable energy supply, especially for industrial hotspots in western Russia and eastern Ukraine.2

Soviet projections in the 1980’s stated nuclear energy would be together with coal the only realistic choice for the future production of energy, leaving hydro power deliberately out of the picture.3 Facing these circumstances, the nuclear inner circle decided to turn a blind eye to possible detrimental consequences to both the natural environment and human populations, in order to reinvigorate an ailing Soviet economy to facilitate the advent of Communism.

In 1979 only 4,5% of the energy mix of the USSR actually derived from atomic electricity production.4 Instead, the country was despite developed hydro power stations fully dependent on fossil fuel and stayed so until her end.5 Economically speaking, Soviet technocrats had mobilised tremendous resources into the development of the nuclear industry in order to further diversify the Soviet energy mix. On the union-level central planners agreed to increase nuclear power production from 16 GWe in 1982 to 90 GWe in 1990 and then even further to 200 GWe in 2000, hence aiming to increase nuclear power output 12,5 times in just 18 years6. In fact, in 1990 prior to her collapse, the Soviet Union had succeeded in installing 38.3 GWe.7 Although falling considerably short of the planned goal, these numbers show how technocratic planners in the Soviet Union succeeded to implement their vision of nuclear future for their country.

But how did they use the water network to their advantage? Rivers, lakes and the sea-shore could be prepared to host nuclear power stations, but each of them had important implications for local stakeholders, such as fisheries, agriculture and local municipalities. It is both clear, that water was on the one hand the limiting factor for the construction of nuclear power plants due to the necessity of sufficient coolant, and on the other an everything connecting trans-systemic agent, which incorporated the nuclear into the Soviet socio-economic utopia. My part of the Nuclearwaters-Project strives to investigate this linkage between Technocratic Culture and water, between central planning ambitions and atomic waterways and between communist historic-materialist ideals and nature’s essence of life. Only by investigating this complex of ideology, culture and material environment scholars will come closer to understanding the Soviet nuclear industry. If we want to judge nuclear safety in Europe’s East, this is necessary.

“Science demands sacrifices.”8

Petrosyants, chairman of the State Committee for the Use of Nuclear Energy in the USSR on 6 May 1986, 10 days after the explosions of reactor 4 at Chernobyl.

1Geist: Political Fallout: The Failure of Emergency Management at Chernobyl’, p. 107.

2Semenov: Nuclear power in the Soviet Union, in: International Atomic Energy Agency Bulletin Vol. 25, No. 2, June 1983, p. 47.

3Medvedev, Z.: The Legacy of Chernobyl, New York a. London 1990, pp. 300-301.

4Margulis: Atomnaya ėnergiya i radiatsionnaya bezopasnost’, Moskva 1983, p. 125.

5CIA: USSR Energy Atlas, Washington a. Springfield 1985, p. 7.

6Vorob’ev et al.: Radiation Safety of Atomic Power Plants in the USSR, in: Atomic Energy (Vol. 54, No.4, April 1983), Luxembourg/ Berlin/ Heidelberg 1983, pp. 290-301, here p. 290.

7https://pris.iaea.org/PRIS/CountryStatistics/CountryDetails.aspx?current=RU [25.04.2019]). Also IAEA: Nuclear Power Reactors in the World (Reference Data Series No.2, 2018 Edition), Vienna 2018.

8Medwedew, G.: Verbrannte Seelen. Die Katastrophe von Tschernobyl, Munich a. Vienna 1991, p. 222.

Workshop in Dounreay, Scotland

Dounreay nuclear station was in operation between 1955 and 1994 and houses two fast breeder reactors and one thermal research reactor, along with fabrication and reprocessing facilities. Next to it is a military nuclear establishment with two reactors for submarine developments, in operation between 1965 and 2015. Taken together, there are no less than five reactors located directly on the dramatic shore of Scotland’s northern tip, where the North Sea meats the Atlantic Ocean and create some of the most dangerous water fairways in the world.

During the second week of September, about fifteen scholars and heritage professionals, among them NUCLEARWATERS’ Anna Storm, met in Dounreay and the nearby town of Thurso to engage with the legacies of the nuclear establishment, among them a flourishing community life but also severe contamination problems. The liquid radioactive waste produced by the nuclear research experiments was often simply discharged into the sea through an underwater pipe, while the solid residues were dumped into a deep shaft on site, originally stemming from the building of the emission pipe. After an explosion in the 1970s, it was acknowledged that the shaft was not an acceptable storage, not least since it was unlined and open to ground water flows.

All transportation to and from the Dounreay site go through the nearby Scrabster harbour. Scrabster has a long fishing tradition and remains one of the top landing ports in the UK for whitefish and shellfish, including brown crab, lobsters, prawns and scallops. During our visit, trucks went in shuttle service to customers southward, not only in the UK but on the European continent. Around the Dounreay nuclear site however, there is an effective fishing prohibition for a radius of two kilometers, and the levels of contamination at the closest beach of Reay are still unclear.

Alicia Gutting presents her PhD project

Today NUCLEARWATERS doctoral candidate Alicia Gutting presented her PhD project plan in the Higher Seminar series at KTH’s Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment.

Alicia Gutting holds a diploma degree in theatre, film and media studies and a master’s degree in social and cultural anthropology, both from the University of Vienna. Before joining KTH she also worked as a junior researcher at the Institute of Technology Assessment at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. In her PhD project she explores the making of the Rhine as a highly nuclearized transnational river basin from the 1960s to today. Key to grasping this history, she argued at the seminar, is to study the transnational perception of risk in the borderlands between Germany, France, Switzerland and Austria. She sets out to do so from a healthy diversity of empirical angles, ranging from fears of floods and droughts and the consequences of heatwaves – the latter phenomenon was dramatically illustrated during the past two summers as Rhine nuclear operators were forced to lower electricity production in the face of water scarcity – to clashes between nuclear cooling requirements – of exisential importance for preventing nuclear core meltdowns! – and equally existential drinking water needs and, not least, powerful agricultural interests and fears of local climate change.

Nuclear Waters on Holiday: Power Plants along the Autoroute du Soleil

It is the summer holiday season! A period in which people try to relax, de-connect, and forget about work for a while. Yet, work sometimes has its funny ways of following you.

My family and I have the tradition of spending our holidays at the Côte d’Azur in the South of France. We load the car as full as we can and hit the road for a full day (normally by night or on a Sunday to avoid the traffic jams).

Since this year, the first year of my PhD (which is about the global governance of water-related nuclear risks), this drive has become a bit more interesting than before. After you have passed Lyon, the highway to the Côte d’Azur, popularly called the “Autoroute du Soleil”, runs through the Rhône valley, where a lot of nuclear power plants are located.

It reminded me of course of Sara Pritchard’s book ‘Confluence’, which tells the history of the transformations of the Rhône during the post-war period. It is a key publication for our project. Not only does it theorise the connection between technology and the environment, it is also (and especially) a powerful account of the human use of water and the management and conflicts of interest that this entails.

Nuclear power plants are one of the key users of the river. Not less than 6 nuclear power plants have been constructed on the banks of the Rhône. ‘Confluence’ describes the controversies this entailed and the effects this had on the river. Even if the scope of nuclear energy in France is huge, 6 nuclear power plants along one river is still a enormous concentration.

And interestingly, there is no better way to observe this than driving past them. When you leave Lyon, you almost immediately see the power plant of Cruas, which is a bit hidden in a valley but still visible from the highway. From there it only takes an extra 45 minutes to see the next nuclear power plant, Tricastin, located right next to the highway. From Tricastin the next nuclear power plant, Marcoule, is not even 30 (!) minutes away. The “Autoroute du Soleil” is really an “Autoroute Nucléaire as well.”

The Tricastin nuclear power plant, seen from the “Autoroute du Soleil.” It has four reactors and is located very close to both the nuclear power stations of Cruas and Marcoule. Due to record temperatures this summer in France, EDF closed down the power plant temporarily.

This is perhaps just a geeky enjoyment during a tedious 14-hour drive, and maybe at best a nice anecdote to tell my fellow nuclear scholars. Yet, it has also left me with some questions. Is it actually safe to build nuclear power plants that close to each other? Is there enough water for them to use? Does the water not heat up too rapidly? And does this heavy nuclearisation of rivers not render nuclear power more vulnerable (and thus more risky) to droughts and heat waves? This year again, Electricité de France (EDF, France’s energy operator) closed down several reactors because the cooling water was diminishing and heating up, including two along the Rhône.

I cannot help but wonder whether this was at some point on the political agenda of either the French government or an international organisation such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, Euratom, or the Nuclear Energy Agency. In any case, it is something I hope to find out in my PhD!

Chasing after shadows – or – The nuclear power plant never built in Estonia

Sometimes interesting intellectual journeys can start with literally one small dot on a map. This happened to us when Achim was looking at a book that featured the map of nuclear power plants planned for the Soviet Union. Do you know anything about this dot on the territory of Estonia, he asked. I did not.

The dot was somewhat misplaced geographically and timewise, it seems, but nevertheless opened a question: what about that power plant planned for Estonia? There never was “a real” nuclear power plant in Estonia, although ESSR had some nuclear infrastructure: for example, 90 and 70 mW reactors in Paldiski, meant for training nuclear submarinists, or the uranium processing facilities in Sillamäe. Any bigger nuclear power plants were never built.

Anto Raukas (standing) giving an opening speech at a conference in the honour of F. G. Bellingshausen’s 200th birth anniversary in 1978 (almost a decade later than this story unfolds!). Academician Ilmar Öpik to his right. Estonian National Archive, EFA.774.0.411333

A closer look reveals a story that talks to the core of the NuclearWaters project. Some time between 1966-1968, The Council of Ministers of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics started to enquire about the possibility to build a nuclear power plant at Lake Võrtsjärv and summoned a series of meetings in Estonia. Three Estonian experts were apparently involved in the meetings, all from the Estonian Academy of Sciences: Ilmar Öpik, Harald Haberman and Anto Raukas. Document trail of these negotiations is hard to pin down but luckily Academician Raukas is still in good health and could meet me and Achim in early May to talk about the parts that he remembered.

Võrtsjärv may look big on a map but it is extremely shallow. Initial plans envisioned an RBMK of the size of 4000 mWatts! What would this do to a lake with a volume of less than 1 cubic km? The three Estonian Academicians summoned help from the limnology specialists and together they reached a conclusion that even a 1000 megaWatt reactor would heat the lake by 10 degrees, causing a major ecological collapse. According to Raukas, raising the level of the lake was not considered, in order to protect the fertile agricultural lands of Rannu collective farm.

Yet loads of questions remain that guide us into new avenues and archives. How important was rivalry for water resources between the energy sector and agriculture in the early Soviet Union? Would food security really weigh more than energy supply in the central planning documents? How would the experts calculate the impact of the reactor type that had never been built before? When the impressive 10 degrees calculation was done, no RMBKs had been built yet. Why not think of a river or was that the realm destined for hydroelectricity only? Why did they consider lakes and not sea? Sosnovyi Bor was eventually built on the Baltic coast so why not go for the Latvian coast if the purpose of the NPP was to provide energy to Riga? While memories are elusive and many documents will never be accessible, the journey continues…

Is nuclear power environmentally friendly only in Sweden?

By Anna Storm

27 May 2019 In an essay article in Sweden’s newspaper Dagens Nyheter, Anna Storm, Achim Klüppelberg and Tatiana Kasperski outline how the nuclear future logics today and in the past differ considerably between Sweden, Germany, Russia and Finland. In connection to nuclear power currently being discussed in Sweden as a critical tool to mitigate climate change, the rhetorical question goes: “Is nuclear power environmentally friendly only in Sweden?” The article concludes that the negotiations on what our nuclear future should look like has to be re-politicized in an international context, and also take into account the legacies of radioactive waste which we will leave to future generations. Link to the article (in Swedish).

Siegfried Evens and Achim Klüppelberg present their PhD projects

Last Monday NUCLEARWATERS doctoral candidates Siegfried Evens and Achim Klüppelberg presented their PhD project plans in the Higher Seminar series at KTH’s Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment.

Siegfried Evens (left) and Achim Klüppelberg during the seminar

Siegfried Evens, who holds an MA degree in history from KU Leuven in Belgium and joined KTH in October last year, is embarking on an ambitious project that targets what he calls the global governance of nuclear cooling. The point of departure is the hypothesis that nuclear safety is, in practice, first and foremost about making sure that the cooling systems work properly and that the water flows for this purpose are never disrupted. But what were the organizational and political structures that took form to handle this since the onset of the nuclear age? What role did international organizations like IAEA and Euratom play? Who had the power to shape the development? Siegfried suggests to theorize the history of nuclear cooling and its governance by taking inspiration from Fernand Braudel’s thinking in terms of different temporalities, with sudden critical events interacting with societal conjectures and the slowly changing long durations in environment and society.

Achim Klüppelberg, who was trained in East European history at the University of Göttingen in Germany and joined KTH in October 2018, researches the interaction between nuclear energy and water history specifically in the Soviet Union. He starts out from the observation that the Soviet Union was to a great extent a continental country with problematic access to the sea. While in many other heavily nuclearized countries the sea played the main role in the supply of cooling water for NPPs, the Soviet Union built nearly all of its plants far inland – on rivers, canals and lakes. Achim is particularly interested in Soviet expert cultures and how different expert communities – for example, nuclear engineers and water engineers – interacted, cooperated and clashed with each other over the years. An interesting question in this context is also to what extent the Soviet Union was special or unique in the global nuclear context, and to what extent Soviet nuclear and water experts were shaped in their thinking and approaches by interactions with the non-communist world.