Siegfried Evens and Aditi Verma on the history of nuclear risk governance

By Per Högselius

Last week we had the pleasure of welcoming Aditi Verma from Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs as a discussant at NUCLEARWATERS PhD student Siegfried Evens‘ mid-term seminar. Siegfried’s PhD thesis will take the form of a monograph with the preliminary title Streams, Steams, and Steel: A History of Nuclear and Non-Nuclear Risk Governance (1850-1990), and seminar participants were able to dive into an ambitious and unusual manuscript in the making. It is certainly not common for nuclear energy historians to trace the history of nuclear things back to the mid-nineteenth century, but in his PhD project Siegfried argues that it is necessary to grasp this early period if we are to make sense of risk governance in the nuclear age. But Siegfried’s work is ambitious not only in a temporal, but also in a geographical sense: it covers three national case studies – centering on the United States, France and Sweden – combined with a strong focus on international organizations like the IAEA and Euratom and, in particular, on how national and transnational developments intersect.

Aditi Verma, who was trained as a nuclear engineer and who has subsequently become strongly engaged with social issues in the nuclear field (see, for example, her recent featured article in Nature, published in connection with the 10th anniversary of the Fukushima tragedy), had done a thorough reading of Siegfried’s text. The discussion centered on several issues. One of the most intriguing points concerned the opportunities and problems for historians who do not actually have any training in science and engineering to go ahead and open up the “black box” of nuclear technology. In much nuclear history-writing to date this box remains disappointingly closed. Here it would seem that Siegfried’s efforts demonstrate the feasibility of doing this, and that his approach can be regarded as methodologically rejuvenating. Another key theme dealt with at the seminar concerned the dichotomy between “nuclear” and “non-nuclear” parts of nuclear power plants and how the boundary and interaction between them can be analyzed from an historical and social science point of view, and how engineering perceptions of “nuclearity” changes over time in relation to risk. Aditi further suggested that Siegfried’s work may have implications for the future, in terms of engineering and policy decisions to be taken.

Following the seminar, Siegfried now aims to undertake further archival research, as far as the pandemic allows, in Sweden, France and the United States. He plans to complete his PhD thesis by 2023/24.

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