Exploring the nuclearized Po River basin

From 24 to 27 October NUCLEARWATERS project leader Per Högselius participated in the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), wich was held in Milan this year. The history of nuclear engineering played a prominent role at the meeting, featuring an impressive 25 presentations analyzing nuclear technologies in energy, medicine and war. Our project featured in a special session organized by ERC representative Flavia Cumoli, with the double purpose of spreading the word about three ongoing ERC projects in the history of technology – the other two being led by Maria Rentetzi and Mikael Hård – and seeking to inspire other historians of technology to apply for the ERC’s generous research grants.

After the meeting we decided to take the opportunity to explore Italy’s nuclear past through an excursion to the Po River basin. The area around and between Milan and Turin is heavily industrialized, while also being a key agricultural region. Water flows play key roles for both industry and agriculture, and the region has a proud water history, with a mesmerizing network of tributaries to the Po, artificial water ways, irrigation systems and so on. Rice cultivation, being highly dependent on water, has a long tradition in the region.

Several key nuclear facilities were built in the Po River basin. We went to see, in particular, the once so proud Trino Vercellese nuclear power plant, one of the world’s first-ever pressurized water reactors (PWRs), which went operational in 1964. At that time Italy was on the forefront in nuclear energy developments. Not far from here, in Saluggia, where the famous Cavour Canal meets a major Po tributary, the Italian nuclear engineers constructed the EUREX facility for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. As noted by Davide Orsini in a presentation at the SHOT annual meeting, that site soon became problematic due to repeated problems with severe flooding of the whole facility.

In another SHOT presentation, Elisabetta Bini analyzed the new surge in nuclear construction in Italy that followed after the two oil shocks in the 1970s. One of the main new projects in the 1980s was to build two new powerful nuclear reactors just next to the existing Trino site on the Po. However, internal technical problems and fierce opposition from the side of the general public, and in particular from the local rice farmers, who feared local climate changes and water shortages, caused the new projects to stagnate. Then, in 1986, the Chernobyl accident occurred, and in a referendum the year after Italy opted radically to phase out its entire nuclear programme. And so by 1990 not only had construction of the new reactors at Trino been stopped, but also the original Trino facility built in the 1960s was being permanently closed down. However, the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Power Plant, as it is also called, is still there to be seen, beautifully situated on the swiftly flowing Po, in the dreamy fog of history.

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