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.

Alicia Gutting and Itay Fischhendler discuss the “Nuclear Rhine”

Last week NUCLEARWATERS and the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment at KTH had the pleasure of welcoming Professor Itay Fishhendler from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as a disussant at NUCLEARWATERS PhD student Alicia Gutting’s mid-term seminar.

Alicia’s upcoming thesis has the preliminary title “The Nuclear Rhine” and analyses the history of nuclear energy in the upper part of the Rhine river basin from a transnational point of view, taking into account the experiences of Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein. The final thesis will consist of an introductory essay and 4-5 journal articles, two of which were presented in draft form at the seminar. The first article deals with controversies around drinking water in the area around Karlsruhe, home to Germany’s historically important nuclear research centre, which historically hosted several research reactors and a reprocessing facility. The second article targets the problem of thermal pollution along the Upper Rhine, the High Rhine and the Aare, where an impressive number of nuclear reactors were built over the years and an even greater number were planned.

Itay, an expert on transboundary water relations and environmental conflict resolution, emphasized the value of Alicia’s Rhine-oriented research for improving our general understanding of nuclear energy in transboundary river basins, and the crucial value of in-depth historical research in this field for coming to grips with contemporary concerns. The discussion at the seminar came to focus on methodological and theoretical challenges in this context, and on the potential for studies of nuclearized river basins to contribute to theories of transboundary risk and pollution. Other themes that came to the fore included the environmental history notion of a river’s agency in shaping nuclear energy history, and the relationship between thermal pollution, drinking water needs and the quest for scarce cooling water resources.

We will be looking forward to the finalized articles and, eventually, the completion of Alicia’s PhD thesis!

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.

Achim Klüppelberg and Stefan Guth discuss the Soviet Union’s nuclear waters

By Per Högselius

NUCLEARWATERS PhD student Achim Klüppelberg is now half-way through his doctoral studies. Following the KTH tradition, a “mid-term seminar” was organized last week on this occasion, where Achim’s PhD project as it has evolved so far was discussed. For the seminar we invited Stefan Guth from the University of Tübingen to comment on Achim’s work. Stefan is a leading expert on the history of nuclear energy in the Soviet Union, having coordinated the research group “Nuclear technopolitics in the Soviet Union and Beyond” (2018-2020, involving the Universities of Tübingen, Heidelberg and Bern). Stefan has also recently published several articles on the nuclear city of Shevchenko/Aqtau in Kazakhstan, where the water dimension also comes to the fore in very prominent ways.

Achim Klüppelberg’s PhD thesis will not be a traditional monograph, but will take the form of a “compilation thesis”, consisting of a general introductory essay and 4-5 separate journal articles. At the seminar an early draft of the introductory essay and two journal article drafts were discussed. The first article, co-authored with NUCLEARWATERS project leader Per Högselius, develops an historical geography of nuclear energy in the Soviet Union, exploring the centrality of water at macro, meso and micro levels and the co-evolution of the Soviet nuclear energy system as a whole with the envirotechnical systems that can be discerned around specific nuclear facilities. The second article, which is single-authored, uses unique Soviet archival sources to reconstruct the vast “energy complex” that was built in southern Ukraine in the 1970s and 1980s, featuring intricate interaction between nuclear energy, hydropower, energy storage, irrigation, pisciculture and drinking water supply. A third article, co-authored with NUCLEARWATERS researcher Kati Lindström and so far available as a rough sketch, was also briefly touched upon; it explores the proposal to build a nuclear power plant in Soviet Estonia, which eventually did not materialize.

The seminar discussion focused partly on theoretical issues linked to, for example, the concept of “technocratic culture”, and the tension between nuclear energy as a pioneering new technology and its deeper roots in and close links to earlier hydraulic engineering traditions – a recurring theme in the NUCLEARWATERS project as a whole. The discussion also featured several methodological and empirical problems. In particular, access to further Russian and Ukrainian archival sources remains uncertain for the time being, given lingering restrictions in most countries in the context of the pandemic. All in all, it will be exciting to follow Achim’s progress towards a finalized PhD thesis.

Roman Khandozhko joins NUCLEARWATERS

By Per Högselius

The NUCLEARWATERS research group is expanding! Today we are welcoming Dr. Roman Khandozhko as a new project member, to work with us for a period of one year as a senior researcher. Roman’s employment at the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment at KTH Royal Institute of Technology takes the form of a unique cooperation between two ongoing ERC projects: NUCLEARWATERS and GRETPOL (the latter led by Peder Roberts).

Roman holds a PhD degree in history from Rostov-on-Don in Russia. He has extensive earlier experience of researching the history of nuclear energy in the Soviet Union, most recently through his participation in the impressive “Nuclear Technopolitics of the Soviet Union” project at the University of Tübingen in Germany. In his new position at KTH Roman he will contribute to our regional case study on the Soviet Union’s nuclear waters.

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.

Alicia Gutting presents her PhD project

Today NUCLEARWATERS doctoral candidate Alicia Gutting presented her PhD project plan in the Higher Seminar series at KTH’s Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment.

Alicia Gutting holds a diploma degree in theatre, film and media studies and a master’s degree in social and cultural anthropology, both from the University of Vienna. Before joining KTH she also worked as a junior researcher at the Institute of Technology Assessment at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. In her PhD project she explores the making of the Rhine as a highly nuclearized transnational river basin from the 1960s to today. Key to grasping this history, she argued at the seminar, is to study the transnational perception of risk in the borderlands between Germany, France, Switzerland and Austria. She sets out to do so from a healthy diversity of empirical angles, ranging from fears of floods and droughts and the consequences of heatwaves – the latter phenomenon was dramatically illustrated during the past two summers as Rhine nuclear operators were forced to lower electricity production in the face of water scarcity – to clashes between nuclear cooling requirements – of exisential importance for preventing nuclear core meltdowns! – and equally existential drinking water needs and, not least, powerful agricultural interests and fears of local climate change.

Siegfried Evens and Achim Klüppelberg present their PhD projects

Last Monday NUCLEARWATERS doctoral candidates Siegfried Evens and Achim Klüppelberg presented their PhD project plans in the Higher Seminar series at KTH’s Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment.

Siegfried Evens (left) and Achim Klüppelberg during the seminar

Siegfried Evens, who holds an MA degree in history from KU Leuven in Belgium and joined KTH in October last year, is embarking on an ambitious project that targets what he calls the global governance of nuclear cooling. The point of departure is the hypothesis that nuclear safety is, in practice, first and foremost about making sure that the cooling systems work properly and that the water flows for this purpose are never disrupted. But what were the organizational and political structures that took form to handle this since the onset of the nuclear age? What role did international organizations like IAEA and Euratom play? Who had the power to shape the development? Siegfried suggests to theorize the history of nuclear cooling and its governance by taking inspiration from Fernand Braudel’s thinking in terms of different temporalities, with sudden critical events interacting with societal conjectures and the slowly changing long durations in environment and society.

Achim Klüppelberg, who was trained in East European history at the University of Göttingen in Germany and joined KTH in October 2018, researches the interaction between nuclear energy and water history specifically in the Soviet Union. He starts out from the observation that the Soviet Union was to a great extent a continental country with problematic access to the sea. While in many other heavily nuclearized countries the sea played the main role in the supply of cooling water for NPPs, the Soviet Union built nearly all of its plants far inland – on rivers, canals and lakes. Achim is particularly interested in Soviet expert cultures and how different expert communities – for example, nuclear engineers and water engineers – interacted, cooperated and clashed with each other over the years. An interesting question in this context is also to what extent the Soviet Union was special or unique in the global nuclear context, and to what extent Soviet nuclear and water experts were shaped in their thinking and approaches by interactions with the non-communist world.

Per Högselius presents NUCLEARWATERS at Swedish history of technology conference

Last week Sweden’s historians of science and technology convened for its bi-annual conference, Teknik- och vetenskapshistoriska dagar. This year the conference was held in Kiruna in Sweden’s far north, a town best know for its huge iron ore mine (90% of the EU’s iron is produced in Sweden, and most of this comes from Kiruna). The natural resource theme loomed large over the conference as a whole and NUCLEARWATERS project leader Per Högselius argued in his presentation of the project that nuclear energy historians can learn a lot from students of resource scarcity. The problem is that nuclear historians have been too much pre-occupied with uranium as the key resource for nuclear energy, whereas there have been very few studies looking into the arguably even more pervasive issue of water scarcity in nuclear operations. The water is needed for cooling, and the challenge of perptually guaranteeing a steady, uninterrupted flow of good-quality water has in no way been an easy one. A key task in the NUCLEARWATERS project is precisely to explore how scientists, engineers and other actors have tried to make sure that sufficient volumes of water will always be available. Failure in this respect may lead to catastrophe.

Read more about Teknik- och vetenskapshistoriska dagar here.

Remembering Three Mile Island

Today it is exactly 40 years since the Three-Mile-Island nuclear accident shocked the world. It became a turning point for US nuclear developments, and by extension for global nuclear expansion. In my own country, Sweden, it paved the way for a referendum about the future of nuclear power. In Austria, which had already had a referendum a year earlier, it confirmed that the decision to abandon nuclear energy was a reasonable one. In Germany, the US accident added fuel to an already fierce struggle for the future of the country’s energy supply. No country remained unaffected by Three Mile Island.

Nuclear engineers dryly refer to the accident as a “partial core meltdown”. But it was a “dry” accident in another sense too: there was not enough water available to cool the plant’s second reactor. Thousands of pages have been written seeking to come to grips with the accident. But from a purely technical point of view it is actually very easy to understand what went wrong: there was a valve in one of the cooling loops that had accidentally been left closed at a time when it should have been open. So nothing mysterious really. And this is, when one looks closer, nearly always the root of nuclear accidents and incidents worldwide: some prosaic, everyday technical component is out of order: a valve, a pipe, a pump, a diesel generator, or something like that. Not the nuclear reactor as such.

The implication, as far as historical studies of nuclear energy is concerned, is clear: if we want to understand nuclear disasters, we need to liberate ourselves from the nuclear historian’s normal obsession with nuclear reactors and nuclear reactions and, instead, target the more traditional or “conventional” technologies that make up most of any nuclear power plant: pumps, pipes and valves – or, as in the case of Fukushima, dikes and seawalls.

By the way, the best account of the Three-Mile-Island accident is (still) the first chapter of Charles Perrow’s classical book “Normal Disasters” (1984).