It has been a few months since I came back from my stay in the U.S. And I have to say, I miss it sometimes. But being back in Sweden, I can reflect on the things I have learned and experienced!
I arrived in Washington, D.C. in August 2022, Typical for the summer there, the temperatures were tropical, the humidity excruciating, and the mosquitos everywhere. That is how I learned D.C. is actually a part of “The South.”
I stayed at Virginia Tech, a large technical university with a campus in the suburbs of the D.C. area. Although small and often compared to a prison or asylum, the campus had a certain charm. There were also many events for graduate students, with free food and ping-pong! It was a great way to meet other graduate students, of which most worked in engineering and computer science.
For four months, I was part of the STS Department of Virginia Tech as a guest Ph.D. student, hosted by professor Sonja Schmid. My aim was to get to know STS more and to learn from Sonja Schmid, who has worked extensively on nuclear safety and contributes actively to nuclear policy in the U.S.
One of the aims of my stay was to take part in a project-based STS graduate course. This year, the theme was ‘Nuclear Facilities in Armed Conflict.’ Together with six other American STS students, with varying backgrounds ranging from nuclear engineering to law, we wrote a policy report with recommendations on how to prevent situations like the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine. We also presented our work in a public session for policy-makers, government officials, and industry experts. We are working on a policy publication right now.
Washington, D.C. has many archives that are relevant for nuclear historians like me. Although they are not always easy to get into, I came back with thousands of scans from the Library of Congress, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Archives, and – most importantly – the NRC Public Documentation Room. At the NRC, I was helped a lot by the NRC historian, professor Thomas Wellock.
Staying in D.C. was a great opportunity to travel around. I attended the Society of History of Technology (SHOT) conference in the stunning city of New Orleans. I presented my work in the college town of Blacksburg, where the main campus is located, and received great feedback from the STS scholars there. And in an act of ‘dark tourism’, I drove up to the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, which is only a two-hour drive away from D.C.
But after each trip, I was also happy to be back in D.C. It is a marvelous place to live. Paradoxically, the capital of the U.S. has a very European feel: wide sidewalks, beautiful architecture, good public transport, lush parks, and so many great pubs and restaurants. I lived in Columbia Heights, a beautiful historic area with small row houses built after the Civil War to house new civil servants.
Yet, at the same time, the abundance of museums, monuments, and sports stadiums – but at the same time also the stark racial social inequalities in the city – remind you of American history and culture every day. American politics is never far away either: when you talk to people, see politicians or “staffers” in the streets, or when walk on the National Mall and cannot get the intro tune of House of Cards out of your head.
As the NUCLEARWATERS project is entering its fifth year, project activities continue to evolve and intensify. On 21-22 June our team organized an international workshop on the nuclear-water nexus, to which we invited senior and junior scholars from all fields – not only history – to present research that in one or the other way relates to the interaction between nuclear technologies and water. The aim was to let different research strands around this common theme interact, with the long-term goal of turning workshop papers into chapters of an edited volume. The workshop took place at our own Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment at KTH. We were happy to welcome 25 external participants from Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, India, Indonesia and Qatar. A total of 28 pre-circulated workshop papers were discussed during two intense and creative days.
The nuclear-water nexus, as interpreted by the workshop participants, turned out to be even more diverse and multifaceted that we could possibly have imagined. Themes covered in the papers and the discussions included:
1. Reactor cooling arrangements: this includes both the closed cooling loops in (water-cooled) nuclear power plants themselves, and the open cooling loops through which nuclear plants draw on water supplies from rivers, lakes and seas.
2. The links between nuclear energy, hydropower, navigation, irrigation, dam construction, and fisheries.
3. Thermal pollution of rivers, lakes, and seas as a result of cooling water discharges, and the construction of cooling towers and cooling ponds to cope with this problem.
4. The impact of nuclear accidents, nuclear weapons testing and radioactive pollution on drinking water supplies and wet environments and landscapes.
5. Wet pollution (such as oil spills) and organic matter (fish, jellyfish, algae, etc.) as a threat to nuclear safety.
6. Flooding of nuclear facilities and flood management strategies, along with destructive erosion at coastal nuclear sites
7. The use of nuclear energy for the purpose of seawater desalination and for district heating
All in all, the Nuclear-Water Nexus workshop became one of the intellectually most fruitful activities so far in the NUCLEARWATERS project. We are looking forward to the continued work with an edited volume, based on the workshop papers – and perhaps other outcomes of the workshop as well.
There was a time when virtually all my academic activities gravitated around the Baltic Sea. For a number of years, I travelled along its coasts, attempted to learn its languages and read everything I could find about its history. I spent a year and a half in Greifswald in Pomerania, where I wrote my master’s thesis, then a year in Tallinn and Tartu in Estonia, where I did research for my PhD thesis. And of course I spent numerous summers in Kvarnåkershamn on Gotland, where we have a summer house. In 2007 I wrapped up my experiences of the Baltic Sea world in a travelogue, “Östersjövägar”, which let the past confront the present and the personal meet the professional.
Since then my geographical focus has been less distinct, as I have become engaged with wider European and global issues. The NUCLEARWATERS project, however, which aims to rewrite the global history of nuclear energy through the lens of water, has allowed me to partly return to the Baltic Sea: one of the six case studies addresses the “Nuclear Baltic”. Earlier this month I had the chance to present tentative results of it at this year’s Baltic Connections conference in Jyväskylä, Finland. I had been invited to give one of the keynote lectures, and decided to make use of the opportunity to discuss the ongoing nuclear-historical research that my colleagues at KTH and I are currently doing with a multi-disciplinary crowd of scholars from Finland, Scandinavia, the Baltics and beyond.
The notion of the “Nuclear Baltic” reflects a desire to move away from the nationally oriented nuclear histories that so far has dominated the literature and, instead, take the Baltic Sea region in its entirety as the point of departure for analysing nuclear’s past and present. There is good reason to do so, especially if we view the history of nuclear energy through the lens of water. Finland, Sweden, the Soviet Union and East Germany all built nuclear power plants on one or the other Baltic coast, making use of the same brackish water for the plants’ cooling needs. Denmark also planned to erect a Baltic nuclear plant, but eventually opted not to go nuclear at all. Poland started to built a large NPP near the Baltic coast, although in this case the nuclear builders, for reasons still not entirely clear to me, preferred to use a lake rather than the Baltic itself for cooling. Nuclear engineers tamed the Baltic Sea, adapting the coastscape to their specific needs, while the sea itself occasionally also “revolted”, causing problems for the nuclear plants. Nuclear builders, moreover, interacted intensely with fishing, navigational and recreation activities. The plants were usually built in places that were popular spots for bathing, swimming, hiking and sailing.
After 1989, the nuclear power plants that had been erected on different Baltic shores started to interact with each other in very interesting ways. The collapse of communism on the Baltic’s eastern shores made it much easier for actors on the Baltic’s western shores to access information about nuclear developments in the east. This partly generated new fears in the West about the dangers of Soviet-designed NPPs. Finland, for example, was increasingly worried about the Chernobyl-type reactors at Sosnovy Bor. Denmark, for its part, had traditionally been extremely critical of the Swedish Barsebäck NPP, but towards the late 1980s this was more and more accompanied by fears of the Greifswald NPP as well. Sweden, too, worried both about Greifswald but even more about Ignalina and its Chernobyl-type reactors.
But there were also new hopes. The collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War opened up for new forms of hands-on technical cooperation between East and West. Nordic and West German nuclear engineers became very engaged in improving the safety of Soviet-designed plants. Moreover, the closure of the closure of the ex-GDR’s Greifswald NPP (which I have written a book about long ago) enabled engineers to take a close look at the decommissioned reactor vessels and examine safety problems related to things like pressure vessel embrittlement in Soviet-type reactors. These studies proved very useful especially for the Loviisa NPP in Finland, which had two very similar pressure vessels. The Loviisa reactors had for some time experienced embrittlement problems, and the study of the decommissioned Greifswald pressure vessels led engineers to devise effective engineering solutions to that problem. There was a similar interaction between Finland and Poland. The Poles had abandoned their work on the Zarnowiec NPP after the Chernobyl disaster. The Finns then asked the Poles if they could purchase one of the Polish reactor vessels, along with various other equipment, with the idea of using them for training purposes in Finland. These are fascinating examples of transnational dynamics in the post-Cold War nuclear Baltic.
At another level, the end of the Cold War ushered in a new era of transnational cooperation in the field of electricity system-building. A mix of political and technological visionaries suggested that an integrated electricity grid and a common electricity market in the Baltic Sea region could serve as a powerful example of Baltic Sea cooperation more generally and, following a Kantian and Saint-Simonian philosophical tradition, contribute to political stability, international understanding and peace. This became the starting point a project that was popularly referred to as the “Baltic Ring”. Actors envisioned new subsea electrical connections between Finland and Estonia, between Lithuania and Poland, between Lithuania and Sweden, between Poland and Sweden, and so on – connections that would serve to unite the Baltic Sea both materially and symbolically.
There was at least one problem with these new proposed interconnection projects: there were radically different interpretations about the actual purpose of the subsea cables. To understand this we should first observe that, for example, the Ignalina NPP in Lithuania had traditionally served electricity needs not only of Lithuania itself, but also of neighbouring regions in the ex-Soviet realm, especially Russia and Belarus. In the 1990s, then, Lithuania’s nuclear exports to these countries was expected to be phased out. In this situation, the Lithuanians hoped to compensate for its loss of export revenues by shifting its nuclear electricity exports to the Nordic region and Poland. Hence from a Lithuanian perspective the purpose of the “Baltic Ring” was to enable a restructuring of Lithuanian nuclear electricity exports. This vision contrasted starkly with Nordic and in particular Swedish visions. The Swedes regarded a potential new electricity connection between Lithuania and Sweden as a way for Sweden to strengthen the Lithuanian electricity system and, by extension, make it possible for the Lithuanians to close down their dangerous nuclear power plant. These very different interpretations was a key reason for the very long delay of the proposed link between Sweden and the Baltics; it was finally implemented only in 2015 – nearly a quarter of century after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In the case of Poland, the decision to abandon the Zarnowiec NPP was detrimental to Polish electric grid stability. It was clear to electricity system builders that a new source of electric power was direly needed in the northern part of the country. The post-nuclear solution, however, was not to build a coal power plant or a gas power plant in northern Poland. Instead, Poland and Sweden agreed on laying down a subsea electricity cable under the Baltic Sea, through which Poland was given access to Swedish nuclear electricity. The cable, which was eventually inaugurated in 2000, landed in the port of Ustka on the Pomeranian coast, not far from the ruins of Zarnowiec. So all in all, when we read about the electricity cables that now criss-cross the bottom of the Baltic Sea, we should view them as components in a wider transnational struggle for and against nuclear energy in the Baltic Sea region.
A final chapter in the Baltic’s nuclear history has to do with how the Baltic Sea itself has gradually emerged as a threat to nuclear safety. The environmental situation in the Baltic Sea has been deteriorating for decades, in ways that the nuclear builders of the 1960s and 1970s could hardly have imagined. Since the 1980s, in particular, the Baltic Sea has seen enormous problems with eutrophication and algal blooms, much highlighted in the general media. In addition, the Soviet Union and then Russia has increased its oil exports enormously, and much of this oil is shipped through the Baltic on its way to foreign markets. These developments now pose a major threat to nuclear safety, or so nuclear engineers and power plant operators think. More precisely, what they fear is that the supply of cooling water might be compromised or disrupted for one or the other reason.
The most severely affected nuclear pant in this respect – so far! – appears to be the Finnish Loviisa facility, situated as it is in a vulnerable spot on the Gulf of Finland, where Russian oil tankers pass by and which is also susceptible to algal blooms. In response to this, the nuclear operator, Fortum, in 2013 announced a new investment program, centering on the construction of special cooling towers to “improve safety in extreme conditions when seawater becomes unavailable for cooling, such as an oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Finland, or an exceptional natural phenomenon such as excessive algae growth.” In this way the Baltic Sea, which historically seemed to offer a perfect source of cooling water, in a way that was seen to guarantee nuclear safety, is nowadays turning into a threat to nuclear safety, and nuclear engineers are now very busy devising technical solutions to cope with these perceived dangers. It remains to be seen how the marine environmental situation in the Baltic Sea continues to interact with nuclear developments. In any case, the history of the Nuclear Baltic is still very much a history in the making.
The NUCLEARWATERS project invites you to our next seminar, scheduled for Tuesday 7 June at 15.15-17.00 CET (Stockholm Time). It will take place in hybrid format at the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment (big seminar room) and via Zoom (https://kth-se.zoom.us/j/61154466603):
Stefan Guth, researcher at the Department of Eastern European History at Heidelberg University in Germany, will present his paper with the title “The Atom, the Human-Made River and the Radioactive Lake: Desalting and Degrading Water in Shevchenko/Aqtau, 1959-2019”. Afterwards, we will discuss the nuclear waters of Kazakhstan, the Soviet Union, and beyond.
Join us at KTH or online via Zoom! We are looking forward to a great discussion.
Water often lives in the margins of affirmative narratives about nuclear energy, as an unglamorous ancillary resource used to cool reactors or process uranium before being disposed of. But this was not the case in the Soviet city of Shevchenko in Kazakhstan, whose nuclear complex combined uranium mining, nuclear energy generation and atomic-powered water desalination to great effect – facilitating what was touted domestically and abroad as a ‘nuclear oasis’ on the desertlike Eastern shore of the Caspian Sea.
Studying this highly selective sociotechnical imaginary alerts us to the deliberate sightedness and blindness of Soviet nuclear technopolitics, whereas analysing Shevchenko as an envirotechnical system reveals more complex and ambiguous entanglements of water and nuclear energy. While Shevchenko’s NPP fed a ‘human-made river’ of freshwater, its hydrometallurgical uranium-processing plant discharged a constant stream of liquid tailings into what became one of the world’s largest radioactive lakes by the end of the Soviet period. At the BN-350 fast breeder reactor, the hydraulic system had the potential to wreak havoc upon the nuclear part of the reactor, as the sodium-steam junction between the primary and the secondary cooling loops posed a hard-to-manage risk of explosions and fires. And while the Caspian Sea was an indispensable part of the NPP’s design, providing seawater for cooling and desalination, Soviet nuclear technologists had failed to account for the long-term sea level fluctuations for which the Caspian is known, and which threatened to inundate the expensive artefact in the late 1980s.
In my paper, I will argue that only by combining the study of imaginaries with the analysis of envirotechnical systems can we begin to understand both the short-term motivations of Soviet technologists and the long-term implications of their actions, thereby bridging the gap between the vastly different timescales of nuclear technologies and nuclear ecologies.
One year has passed and the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is still asking questions that demand answers. The wild response to HBO’s miniseries “Chernobyl” and the continuing publication of high-class scientific literature has established again that both scholarly and public interest in the catastrophe has not subsided, even 36 years after the catastrophe happened. Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl and Brown’s Manual for Survival are only two examples, and I highly recommend reading both.
There are many reasons for the continued interest in Chernobyl. First, there are still issues that demand an explanation regarding the accident and its consequences. What about the inherent safety features of a humanly made and controlled technological system? Perrow in his Normal Accidents taught us that accidents are inevitable in complex high-tech-systems in which humans play a crucial role. What does this mean for nuclear energy in the context of failing to meet the 1.5°C goal specified in the 2015/16 Paris Climate Agreement?
Second, those consequences still play a profound role in the present for many people, especially in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Can and will Russia finally shut down or replace all Chernobyl-type reactors that are still online at Leningrad-1 (2 active RBMKs), Smolensk-1 (3), and Kursk-1 (3)? True, they were updated after 1986 to compensate for intrinsic safety deficits, but can the state utility ROSATOM really guarantee that their operation poses no threat?
Third, the potential future of nuclear energy is linked to what Chernobyl means and represents, especially in regard to the watershed question whether long-term exposure to lowly to medium elevated radiation levels would be harmful to human societies over a long period of time. If one answers with yes, then many steps of the regular nuclear lifespan, such as mining, transportation, reprocessing and waste storage would have to be evaluated as dangerous liabilities. Recently, nuclear infrastructure has been interpreted as resembling colonial trade structures, as Jacob Darwin Hamblin writes inThe Wretched Atom. While I am not convinced of his comparison with Frantz Fanon’s postcolonial classic The Wretched of the Earth, Hamblin has a point when it comes to the exploitation of uranium mines in previously or still colonised countries. The French Arlit mining complex in Niger serves as a sound illustration of this circumstance.
So where are we standing now, 36 years after the nuclear nimbus of technological progress, while not being destroyed, was at least severely dented? Recently, Chernobyl was in the news yet again because parts of the Russian invasion force into Ukraine captured the plant and caused disruptions, which in turn fuelled fears of the possibility of a renewed accident.
When the Russians retreated from Chernobyl after the failed first attack on Kiev, it became news that Russian soldiers had in fact built trenches in the heavily contaminated Red Forest, close to the station. Media outlets such as CNN, BBC and Reuters were wondering about the cases of radiation sickness within the Russian force and the renewed spread of radioisotopes through the interplay of wind and contaminated dust. This additionally testifies to the fact that Chernobyl has become what Kalmbach and Uekötter called an Erinnerungsort; a place which both became site and projection space for a catastrophe, for heritage, and for imaginaries of the future. It became a metaphor for nuclear fallout, technocratic hubris, and also the hope to overcome its consequences. But also for its vulnerability to war and terrorism.
Chernobyl’s 36th anniversary demands once again to reflect upon the danger of nuclear energy. Unfortunately, this question has apparently become urgent again, since all Ukrainian nuclear power plants evidently face the danger of warfare, inflicted by Russian arms. Today Ukraine is host to four active nuclear power plants: Khmelnytskyi, Rivne, South-Ukraine, and Zaporizhzhya. The latter also became recently famous beyond the circles of nuclear experts. Unfortunately, it was not because of its sheer size. (Zaporizhzhya is with its 6 GWe nominal capacity the largest nuclear power plant in Europe.) Instead, it was in the news because Russian troops shot at the plant’s facilities with cannon-sized shells, hitting one administrative building in a brutal attempt to take over the plant against local resistance.
This incidence has made it clear that in a time of war, civil nuclear power plants are highly dangerous objects. Here I am not only talking about potential damage received through military actions, but also harm done to the prevention of established security working routines. If workers are not able to regularly rotate their shifts and to get necessary rest, mistakes in operation will inevitably happen.
The same is true for the disruption of power lines. Electricity is necessary to keep the cooling system going of both an active nuclear power plant, and spent nuclear fuel as well as nuclear waste storage facilities. Every facility has backup generators, usually running on diesel. But if the stocks are depleted, for example if the outage takes substantially longer than three days, the situation can become dangerous. The problem is that the established nuclear infrastructure needs stability and adamant security routines to operate in a relatively safe way. A war in this environment is madness, as the warring parties, in the worst case, risk another nuclear meltdown with subsequent releases of large amounts of radioisotopes into the environment. Such an event, as shown by the Chernobyl catastrophe, can include Ukraine, Russia and other nations.
Personally, I have a lot of respect for all those workers at nuclear installations in Ukraine who stay at their workplace and try to keep it safe – in the cases of Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhya under direct risk for their personal health and also private fate. The future of Ukrainian nuclear power plants is of course linked to the outcome of the war. But it is clear that the previously established interconnectedness of nuclear infrastructure between European countries, including Russia, will be renegotiated. An independent Ukraine will probably have good reasons to never again cooperate with Russian nuclear specialists after what is happening now. This would have severe consequences for the Ukrainian nuclear industry in the spheres of uranium and fuel element provision, as well as the storing of spent nuclear fuel. In such a situation, Ukraine would probably have to find national solutions in addition to other non-Russian trading partners to compensate for that.
This situation in Ukraine during the war is a case of precedence, as there had earlier never been any conventional warfare in nuclearised landscapes. 36 years after the catastrophe of Chernobyl hit, we are now to rethink nuclear energy under these new circumstances. Chernobyl keeps asking us questions, which demand answers to secure the safety of established nuclear infrastructures in Europe in general and in Ukraine in particular. The events that are happening right now will profoundly change the European energy system. Besides the fossil fuel industry, also nuclear will have to re-organise. It is clear that we cannot continue like we did before February 2022.
Like so many other researchers, I experienced a slowdown in my research activities over the last two years. Archive visits could no longer be planned well in advance, but had to happen spontaneously and even then, it was not certain that I would actually be able to travel. Combined with other commitments, such as teaching, this presented me with greater difficulties than I would have liked. Summer 2021 offered one of the rare chances to actually travel to Germany and visit archives for my PhD research on the Nuclear Rhine. My plan was to go to the Generallandesarchiv in Karlsruhe and the Staatsarchiv in Freiburg. Afterwards, I wanted to head to Switzerland to visit the Federal Archives in Bern.
Shortly before my departure, however, the government of Baden-Württemberg introduced new corona restrictions that made it difficult for me to visit the two archives in Baden-Württemberg. So, I changed my plans at short notice and ordered digitised documents online and books from the library, which are not so easily accessible in Sweden.
My visits to archives so far, at least in Germany, have followed a fairly similar pattern. I ordered many thick folders, boxes and files, which I went through at top speed and handwrote on a form what I considered worth copying. This way of working was not always pleasant, but usually could not be avoided. There are many documents on the nuclear history of the Rhine and when ordering archival materials, it is not always clear whether there are relevant documents in them. Also, in many archives it is not allowed to photograph documents that are younger than 100 years.
I then submitted the form and so ordered digital copies, which were made available to me after about a month and after paying a substantial invoice. The fact that these archives now offered the service of ordering digital copies online made my work much easier, even if there were differences between the individual archives. One archive provided me with the digital copies within a very short time and the staff even took the trouble to search for documents on certain topics from the records. Another archive was unable to do this due to a lack of staff. Even though this reasoning seemed plausible to me, I asked myself how archival research would be organised in the future if one cannot always just hop on a plane or train like that, for whatever reason.
I basically got the answer to my question while I was doing my research in Switzerland. The Federal Archives in Bern are already digitising entire collections of files and doing so free of charge. Some of the archival documents relevant to me had already been digitised, while others I ordered as digital copies. However, since I was looking for materials for several articles and this required me to go through many files and folders, I set off for Switzerland. In contrast to Baden-Württemberg, the requirements in Bern were not quite as strict and I was looking forward to two intensive weeks in the archive.
For me, this was my first visit to Bern and what particularly impressed me was the connection between the river Aare and the city. On the one hand, the Aare flows right through it, but not as a strongly tamed little river, but as a watery stream that also had something impetuous about it.
On the other hand, the turquoise colour of the river was reflected in the city centre, which is uniformly built of the striking green sandstone of the Bernese hinterland. The uniformity of the city centre put me off at first. Especially because the houses were decorated with national flags and in combination with the somewhat gloomy sandstone, the city centre had something oppressive about it.
The swift Aare, on the other hand, lightened the mood. What struck me most was the view of the city from the Rose Garden. It was only here that I realised how green and almost natural Bern actually is. From Stockholm’s perspective, of course, this is nothing new. However, since I also lived in Vienna for more than ten years and this city hides its greenery almost entirely in backyards, I was still somewhat impressed. Moreover, I was in Bern in June, which was not inferior to high summer in terms of temperature, and the cool breeze blowing through the city by the river and the greenery made the heat not quite so unbearable.
All in all, I have to say that my personal archival odyssey nevertheless ended on a positive note and I got something like an idea of how future archival work could be organised.
Greenpeace campaginer and former Arctic 30-member Dima Litvinov presents the water aspects of Krasnokamensk’s Pryargunsky Uranium Mine in eastern Siberia. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Dima went to one of the biggest uranium mines in the world to investigate how water was being treated throughout the mining process. There, they were also able to film. This film is now going to be presented as part of the NUCLEARWATERS seminar series. Dima will comment on the video and we will have a joint discussion afterwards. This event should be interesting for scholars of mining endeavours, nuclear history, water and contamination experts. Join us at KTH or online via Zoom!
Melina holds a BA in history, art history and Scandinavian studies from the University of Vienna, an MA in International and Global History and a PhD in history from the University of Oslo. In June 2021 she successfully defended her thesis “Green Internationalists: Nordic Environmental Cooperation, 1967-1988”. At KTH she will make use of her expertise in Nordic environmental history while moving into the nuclear-historical field.
Melina will present her research project “Nuclear Nordics” in the NUCLEARWATERS seminar series on Wednesday 2 February at 13.15-15.00 CET. Welcome to join the seminar over zoom: https://kth-se.zoom.us/j/67288060397.
Every writer knows that there are different phases in our work. Of course, the most important phase is the writing phase. After all, it is our job to produce high-quality texts, is it not? Subsequently, every writer also knows that in order to be able to do so, one needs high-quality sources. While working as an historian, having access to valuable source material is paramount in order to write something relevant for the respective academic field. At the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic has made normal schedules obsolete, and many archival trips had to be cancelled or postponed – in my case, since summer 2020. Therefore, I was very grateful to finally be able to go on a crucial archival trip this November. My destination was the vibrant Ukrainian capital of Kiev, and I had three archives stacked with Soviet-era nuclear documents on my to-do-list. Here, I would like to tell you about my experiences and impressions.
Naturally, Kiev is a city with a rich history, reflected in different architectural styles, urban planning and monuments. Kiev has a troubled and at the same time glorious history. Being the medieval cradle of Eastern Slavic principalities, states and nations, having formed the mighty Kievan Rus Empire, which through its Baptism led to the Slavic traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy, forming the cultural, political, and industrial capital of Ukrainians, posing as a major battlefield in World War Two, centring Ukraine’s independence after the collapse of the USSR and recently hosting the Maidan protests, this place emanates historic significance at its different sites. Kiev is also a torn city, in which the current economic crisis, the hybrid-war with Russia, antisemitism and nationalism struggle with opposing ideas on the streets. If we live in a time during which Ukrainian history is written in short intervals, then Kiev is the place to be.
My work led me to three archives. The first on the list was the Central State Archive of Supreme Bodies of Power and Government of Ukraine (Центральний державний архів вищих органів влади та управління України, ЦДАВО). Located in South Central Kiev, the archive is based in a complex of several governmental institutions. The reading room offered a rich ensemble of documents from Soviet-Ukrainian ministries and planning institutions, which proved to be invaluable for the immediate progress of my dissertation.
My second station was the Central State Archive of Public Organisations of Ukraine (Центральний державний архів громадських об’єднань України, ЦДАГО України), where I looked into files from the Communist Party. The archive was located next to the Kiev Region State Administration, along which the massive Lesi Ukrainky Boulevard allowed dozens of cars to speed on ten lanes towards the city centre. Here, I was less fortunate. The CP Ukraine files I ordered offered insights into internal party affairs, but not into any planning aspects of Soviet Ukraine’s energy system.
My third and last station on this trip was the State Archive of Kiev Province (Державний архів Київської області, ДАКО). Inspired by Louis Fagon’s approach of visiting local and regional archives in order to circumvent the occasional quietness in central documents on nuclear issues, I examined local party protocols of the towns of Pripyat and Chernobyl to find out more about water amelioration processes and different important stages of the construction of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Here, lots of exciting issues came to light and I am looking forward to incorporate them into my next article.
Apart from those visits to the archives, I was also able to see the exhibitions at the Holodomor and the Chernobyl museums. Both were very impressive. The Holodomor Museum was located in the Park of Eternal Glory overlooking the Dnepr, in which apart from the museum many memorials for Ukrainian nationalists were placed. There, visitors would see an exhibition showing the horrors of the forced famine in Stalin’s Soviet Union from 1932-33. This was based on many personal testimonials and artefacts from survivors of these times. Their main message was that it was a planned famine created by Moscow as a way to subdue ethnic Ukrainians.
I was very surprised, in a positive way, by the Chernobyl Museum. There, they had collected multiple artefacts of the main protagonists of the catastrophe, such as identity cards and passports from Deputy Chief Engineer Anatoly Dyatlov, or accident-shift-leader Aleksandr Akimov. Selected archival documents along newspaper articles were also on display. Next to them, one could see the flags of the firefighter brigades, uniforms, respirators, and dosimeters. Two whole sections were dedicated to the construction of the first and the second sarcophagus. Following were some dedications to the international solidarity in regard to the mitigation of the consequences of the accident as well as the ongoing help for chronically sick people, such as the “Children of Chernobyl” network. Another room was dedicated to the effects of radionuclides dispersed by the accident to the environment and human society. Here the focus was not to tell a uniquely Ukrainian story, but instead to document the disaster from an international point of view.
Summarising, I am very grateful for this opportunity that arose at this crucial state in my dissertation. Kiev is an exciting place, where so many things have happened and are happening right now. It is definitely worth a trip.
As the most recent wave of the corona pandemic rolls in over Europe, it seems that much of the past summer and autumn was a narrow window of opportunity for international travel. I now feel happy that I managed to make use of that window.
In late September I went to Regensburg to participate in a conference on infrastructures in East and Southeast Europe (see my separate blogpost on that). After the conference, I stayed on in Bavaria for a couple of days. I rented a car and a bike and went to take a close look at the water supply arrangements for three German nuclear power plants and the nuclearized landscapes that have emerged as a result of nuclear construction there from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Gundremmingen is the only German nuclear power plant situated directly on the Danube. It started to be built already in 1962 and was one of Germany’s first nuclear power plants. There was a fierce debate during construction about possible contamination of the region’s drinking water. Less known is that plant construction demanded a complex reengineering of the Danube, which was dammed upstreams and also a few kilometres downstream to create a reliable and regular water flow for cooling the reactors. This generated an artificial water reservoir, the shores of which, as I was able to experience directly, are nowadays still very popular places for various leisure activities. Nuclear hydraulic engineers also built a canal to divert Danube water to the nuclear plant. The early pioneering reactor at Gundremmingen was shut down long ago. However, the plant was expanded through the addition of two much more powerful reactors: one boiling water reactor (seen to the left in one of the pictures below) and one pressurized water reactor (seen to the right), which today makes the plant area look very diverse. The pressurized water reactor was closed in 2017. The boiling water reactor, supported by one cooling tower, is still in operation, but like all remaining German NPPs, its days are numbered.
The Isar nuclear power plant is named after the Danube tributary on which it was built. Here, too, nuclear construction was intimately linked to other hydraulic projects aimed at “taming” the river. The Isar was dammed and equipped with hydroelectric turbines (see the image to the upper left), which now still contribute to the safety of the nuclear station, because they ensure that electricity will always be available locally even in the case of a regional power failure. This made it unnecessary for the nuclear operators to invest in emergency diesel generators. The Isar plant was originally designed for one boiling water reactor only, for which a less powerful and very compact type of cooling towers were built (lower left, to the right of the reactor building); these were used only when the Isar’s water flow was insufficient. The high-rise cooling tower that can be seen across much of Bavaria was constructed only when a further reactor, of the pressurized water type, was added later on (right). The boiling water reactor was shut down immediately after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. The pressurized water reactor is supposedly still in operation, but apparently not on the day of my visit, judging by the lack of “smoke” (water vapour) from the cooling tower.
The Grafenrheinfeld NPP is also in Bavaria, but further north, in Lower Franconia, where the inhabitants usually don’t think of themselves as “Bavarians”. This cultural divide largely coincides with the physical drainage divide between the Rhine and the Danube river basins. Hence this nuclear station, which is no longer in operation (having been shut down in 2015), is situated not in the Danube basin, but on the Main, the Rhine’s most important tributary. When construction started in 1974 the Main was already a suitable river for cooling water supplies. This was because Germany had invested enormously in the 1950s and 1960s in making the Main navigable all the way up to Bamberg, taming the river and regularizing its water flow with the help of no fewer than 34 weirs and locks. The river is now part of a system that interconnects the Rhine and Danube river basins, the centrepiece of which is the Rhein-Main-Danube Canal.
A month later I returned to Germany. I first spent a few days at the German Federal Archives in Koblenz, which turned out to be a treasure trove for nuclear-historical research. I then went up (or rather down) to northern Germany and the Lower Elbe region. There I went to see how the Stade, Brokdorf and Brunsbüttel nuclear power plants (of which only Brokdorf is still in operation, but only until the end of this year) were integrated into this North Sea estuary. In contrast to the plants erected along the Danube, Isar and Main further south, the main challenge here seemed to be flood (rather than water scarcity) management. The Lower Elbe region is historically very much a marshland and all nuclear – indeed, all industrial – projects are dependent on a reliable drainage infrastructure. Like in the Netherlands, that infrastructure is critically dependent on large pumps for lifting water, in this case into the Elbe (see the image below, far left). The nuclear stations along the Lower Elbe also made use of a pre-nuclear infrastructure of earthen dikes, which are typically 5 meters tall (upper and lower right). These have always formed the centerpiece of nuclear flood protection and hence they can be regarded as components in the nuclear safety system. However, after the 1999 flooding of the Blayais NPP in France, a plant that is located in an estuary very similar to that of the Elbe, German regulatory authorities started looking into the deeper history of flooding events in the North Sea and how new such events might potentially cause havoc to the Lower Elbe NPPs: would they be able to cope with an event on a par with the famous Storegga slide, which is believed to have caused a huge tsunami throughout the North Sea region back in 6200 BC?
In early 2022 I will publish an article in Technology & Culture which discusses, in further depth, some of the above-mentioned issues relating to nuclearized landscapes, water scarcity management, flood protection, the complex interplay between nuclear and non-nuclear hydraulic construction. Have a look in our list of publications.