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.
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).
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!