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).

Launching the NUCLEARWATERS website

There have been rumours around for almost a year now that there is a strange new research project being carried out at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, called NUCLEARWATERS: Putting Water at the Centre of Nuclear Energy History. As the project leader, I can confirm that these rumours are true and that the project does exist! Being funded by the European Research Council (ERC), it was started up on 1 May 2018 and during the autumn it gained momentum as several new project members were recruited. Our team now comprises three senior researchers – Per Högselius, Kati Lindström and Anna Storm – along with three brand new PhD students – Alicia Gutting, Siegfried Evens and Achim Klüppelberg, who joined us in October 2018. So, not a day too early for launching the project’s website!

The project is based the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment at KTH, and for those already familiar with this research environment it should not come as a surprise that NUCLEARWATERS is a strongly interdisciplinary project that combines history of technology perspectives on nuclear energy with environmental history, historical geography, political science, risk studies, STS, anthropology, cultural analysis, literary studies and so on. With a budget of €2.5 million, NUCLEARWATERS is one of the largest research projects ever carried out on the history of nuclear energy. However, it will be a very different kind of nuclear history than the ones you might be used to hearing about. If you always wondered what nuclear energy has to do with ancient Mesopotamia, the history of wet rice cultivation in East Asia or Holland’s medieval wind mills, NUCLEARWATERS will be a project that you cannot afford not to be acquainted with. So, welcome to our project website!

Read more about the NUCLEARWATERS project here!