Archival research of the future

By Alicia Gutting

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.

Swiss Federal Archives

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.

The Aare and Bern

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.

Old City of Bern and Unesco World Heritage site

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.

View from Bern’s Rose Garden

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.

Interview with Andrei Stsiapanau on the Politics of Nuclear Waste

By Alicia Gutting

Nuclear energy is a highly debated field and depending on the societal context usually either embraced or fully rejected. From an outsider position it sometimes seems as if there was no in between: you are either pro- or anti-nuclear. This does not solely apply to times of active nuclear energy generation, but it also affects the future and finding solutions for safe storage of nuclear waste. In today’s interview with Andrei Stsiapanau we will hear more about the nuclear debate in the former Soviet Union. Andrei is a guest in our Nuclearwaters project since January 2020 and he is a scholarship holder of the Swedish Institute Visby Scholarship Program for Senior Researchers. He researches how nuclear energy is being socially and politically debated in Russia, Belarus and Lithuania and he is especially interested in the politics of nuclear waste in Russia, Lithuania and Sweden.

Alicia Gutting: Andrei, what have you been working on in the past months?

Andrei Stsiapanau: During the last months I have been working on the nuclear waste management issues in Russia as well as in Lithuania and Sweden. When more and more nuclear facilities throughout the world enter the stage of decommissioning, it is becoming particularly urgent to find sustainable solutions to the issue of nuclear waste. The list of possible technical solutions for spent nuclear fuel and other types of waste include deep geological disposal after reprocessing (favoured in France, Japan, and UK); direct deep geological disposal (favoured in Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Germany, USA and Czech Republic); surface long-term storage (favoured in the Netherlands, Italy and Spain). Each of these solutions translates into different ways on how to communicate, classify and govern nuclear waste in a particular country.

My research is focusing on how nuclear waste issues are communicated in various techno-political contexts. While studying how nuclear waste issues are being negotiated with communities in Russia, I discovered that natural resources like clay are used within nuclear waste discourses to mitigate the risk of potential radioactive contamination. It was my starting point to investigate how natural resources are used in various discourses about nuclear waste to make it less dangerous and harmful for people and environments. In the cases of Lithuania and Sweden, I am investigating how, through awareness and information campaigns, risks associated with nuclear waste are mediated and mitigated to transform the hazardous nuclear objects into manageable waste.

AG: What role does clay play?

AS: According to numerous researches on the role of the natural barrier in the nuclear waste disposal system, clay as well as crystalline rock are considered as a retardation medium for radionuclides migration. The multi barrier protection within nuclear waste technology illustrates how natural barriers or the geology of the disposal site will retard or mediate for both fluid flow and radionuclides migration in case of the engineering layer decay. This kind of technical vision of the disposal process promotes the natural protection layer as a reliable tool for absorption and immobilization of radioactivity. Geological and chemical studies of clay rock in various sites in the United States, France, Belgium, Canada and Russia show that clay has a number of absorption properties valuable for immobilization of the radioactive elements in the geomedia in case of the technical barrier decay. Thus, clay has become employed as a part of the nuclear waste management process. It represents a tool for absorption, immobilization and confinement of radioactivity. Including clay in the whole process of the nuclear decommission and decontamination makes it possible to reconsider the role of natural resources and materials in nuclear waste technologies and multi-barrier protection discourses.

AG: Are there differences in the Swedish and the Lithuanian (political) approach?

AS: Nuclear waste management systems in Sweden and Lithuania are developing in the context of decommissioning and nuclear phase out but following different trajectories and guidelines. The final repository for short-lived radioactive waste located at Forsmark in the municipality of Östhammar started operating in 1988. Lithuania is only now entering the phase of the construction of the landfill repositories for low and medium radioactive waste, and the construction of the geological disposal is programmed for after 2045. The Swedish approach represents an advanced example of nuclear waste management, based on the long-term experience of scientific research, transparent decision-making and continued reliance on public opinion and participation. Some connections in sharing nuclear waste management technology and experience exist between these two Baltic Sea countries. The Swedish nuclear waste authority, SKB, has been involved in the assessment of the existing nuclear waste facilities at the Ignalina NPP site in Lithuania since the 1990s. Swedish nuclear research and governance institutions continue to contribute to the transfer of knowledge and expertise in nuclear waste management taking part in numerous joint international research projects (BEACON; EURAD).

AG: What role does environmentalism play in the debate?

AS: As the two countries are at different stages of implementation of nuclear waste programs, it illustrates different levels of public engagement in the site selection process and environmental impact assessment of the radioactive waste disposals. In Sweden environmental issues are at the core of the public debate and concerns about the nuclear waste management program and are involving various actors, from local communities to International NGOs and leading national media outlets. In Lithuania environmental issues are less questioned, site selection is not contested and public participation is limited to local communities of the nuclear site with scarce media coverage. I suppose this situation will change with the start of a public discussion about the site selection for geological disposal of high radioactive waste and SNF and its environmental impact assessment. This debate will expand nuclear waste issues to the national scale. Considering environmentalism not only as participatory but also as scholarly concern, at the moment there are relatively few studies in environmental humanities and history about the uses of the natural resources in nuclear waste confinement and its impact on social and natural landscapes.

AG: Do people in the two countries differ in their risk perception?

AS: Different levels of public engagement in the nuclear decision-making illustrates different public opinion dynamics as well as public perception of nuclear risks. In Sweden due to the nuclear phase-out decision in 1980 and to the high impact of environmental movements, critical voices are prevailing the publicity concerning nuclear waste. In Lithuania the nuclear energy use became public only in the 1990s after the reestablishment of the independence and were associated mostly with Chernobyl disaster risks and anti-communist, sovereignty claims. During the transition period, the use of nuclear energy was considered as necessary for the economic and social developments of the country; political personnel, nuclear engineers and Lithuanian citizens embraced the energy produced by the Ignalina NPP as a national resource. The referendums about nuclear energy uses in Lithuania in 2008 and 2012 after the start of the decommissioning of the Ignalina NPP showed a rather radical change from pro- to anti-nuclear attitudes challenging the plan to construct a new NPP in the country.

NUCLEARWATERS welcomes Louis Fagon as a guest

By Alicia Gutting

The NUCLEARWATERS project puts great emphasis on studying nuclear history globally. Therefore, it is of major importance to us to work with other researchers. This March we welcome French nuclear historian Louis Fagon, who will stay with us for one month. NUCLEARWATERS project member Alicia Gutting is curious about who he is.

Alicia Gutting: Louis, it is great to have you here! Could you please introduce yourself and tell us about your research?

Louis Fagon: I am a PhD candidate in history at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris since 2018. In my thesis The Nuclear Industry at the Rhône River (1950s-1997) I am researching the social and environmental effects of the excessive nuclear planning at the Rhône with a focus on the microscale. Using local archives, I try to narrow in on the regional nuclear history. So far, the national history of nuclear power of France has been studied, however, the regional histories still remain a desideratum. What connects my research to the NUCLEARWATERS project is the special interest in water. In my thesis I research water twofoldly: On the one hand as part of the environment and a cooling agent for nuclear power plants and on the other hand water offers a research access to the nuclear history of France. Researching nuclear power in France most often poses a challenge as almost all files concerning nuclear are classified. The water focus is one way to circumvent the issue of access. So, I have been taking a detour through water files in the archives, which have led me to nuclear files in the end.

AG: How did you hear about the NUCLEARWATERS project?

LF: This was purely coincidental. I attended a conference in Mulhouse on the future of post-nuclear territories. There I’ve heard about a group of international researchers studying nuclear power from a water perspective in Stockholm. I was thrilled to hear that there were also other people interested in these issues! This seemed to confirm the relevance of my choice of subject, but I was also eager to meet the group.

AG: What expectations do you have of your time here?

LF: The Rhône is a transnational water body and also an international resource. This means different interests can collide over the allocation of this resource. I am hoping to learn from the other researchers in the group as they all have different national as well as international perspectives on nuclear power. These other perspectives will hopefully contribute to my thesis work, assist me in asking interesting questions and also challenge the French notion of France being exceptional.

AG: Thank you for telling us a little about yourself and your research!

On 25 March from 1pm till 3pm Louis will give a seminar at KTH’s Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment and elaborate a little more on his research. This will also be the launch of our NUCLEARWATERS Seminar Series. Welcome to join us if you are in town!