Geographies of nuclear energy

By Per Högselius

Nuclear energy is inevitably entangled with both natural and human geographies. Siting of nuclear facilities constitutes a classical dilemma in the history of nuclear energy. Fears of accidents have tended to push nuclear sites as far as possible into geographical peripheries – often to border regions. At the same time there has been a counter-quest for proximity – to resources, labour and knowledge as well as to transport and electricity hubs. As emphasized in the NUCLEARWATERS project, nuclear sites are often dominated by their need for large-scale water resources (for cooling). Hence most nuclear sites are found close to rivers, lakes and the sea. This and other factors make nuclear facilities deeply entangled with regional environments and landscapes. Accidents – and fears of them – turn such spaces into exceptional exclusion (and inclusion) zones. The quest for technological advances in the nuclear field, meanwhile, generate place-specific transnational communities of expertise. At another level, nuclear facilities interact with each other across vast distances through cross-border transports of (and international trade in) uranium and radioactive waste. In nuclearized river basins, nuclear sites become interconnected through scarcity of cooling water and shared risks linked to thermal pollution and radioactive contamination.

Based on these observations, NUCLEARWATERS researcher Alicia Gutting and project leader Per Högselius took the initiative of organizing a panel on the geographies of nuclear energy at the 2022 version of the annual international conference of the Royal Geographical Society and the Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IBG), which was held in London and online from 31 August to 3 September. As it turned out, the proposed topic attracted a large number of scholars, eventually leading us to organize not only one, but two interlinked panels on the topic, with a total of 12 paper presentations:

  • Michiel Bron (Maastricht University, The Netherlands), “Uranium geopolitics: an international perspective on the origins of the infamous uranium cartel”
  • Louis Fagon (EHESS-CIRED, France), “Who is concerned? Defining nuclear territories and their borders: a historical perspective on the nuclearization of the Rhone River, 1970s-1990s”
  • Matteo Gerlini (Sapienza University Rome, Italy), “The creation of the EURATOM research centre in Ispra, Italy: the first effort to achieve a European nuclear community”
  • Alicia Gutting (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden), “Thermal Pollution – An Overlooked Risk of Nuclear Power Plants?”
  • Christopher Hill (University of South Wales, UK), “Africa’s Last Colony: British Imperialism and the Political Ecology of Uranium in Namibia”
  • Jan-Henrik Meyer (Max-Planck-Institute for Legal History, Germany), “Rules never made: How the European Communities failed to regulate nuclear installations at the border (1975-1980)”
  • Isaiah Bertagnolli (University of Pittsburgh, USA), “Monuments to Eternity: The Funerary Complex of Djoser and The Onkalo Spent Nuclear Fuel Repository”
  • Romain Garcier (Ecole normale superieure de Lyon, France), “Cross-border flows in the nuclear industry, information and metabolism”
  • Jenna Kirk (University of Glasgow, UK), “‘Did I ever tell you about the seal in the forebay?’: (Extra)ordinary histories of the wet nuclear spaces of Hunterston-B Nuclear Power station”
  • Melanie Mbah (Institute for Applied Ecology, Germany) and Sophie Kuppler (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany), “Governing Nuclear Waste in the Long-Term: On the Role of Place”
  • Teva Meyer (Universite de Haute-Alsace, France), “Bordering nuclearity: very low-level radioactive wastes’ clearance and the production of spatial nuclearities in Germany”
  • Agnes Villette (Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton, UK) “Deciphering thresholds in the nuclear landscape of La Hague”

The conference and the two sessions offered a welcome opportunity to interact with geographers as well as with researchers from several other disciplines, and learn from their insights and approaches. In this way the event seemed to confirm some of our arguments raised in a recently published NUCLEARWATERS article (“How Should History of Technology Be Written?“) on the need for interdisciplinarity and interaction between diverse scholarly communities. In addition, the sessions took us on a tour around the world to numerous nuclearized sites that have so far not been covered in our own research, including the Scottish coast, the Rhône river, La Hague on the French coast, Lago Maggiore on the Italian-Swiss border and Namibia’s uranium mines. Moreover, several presentations dealt with uranium mining or radioactive waste disposal, which triggered our thinking and seemed to point to a possibility of merging research on nuclear waters with that on nuclear fuel by conceptualizing these as two sets of flows that together contribute to the “metabolism” of nuclear energy. It remains to be seen how the geographical inspiration eventually influences the outcome of the NUCLEARWATERS project.

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