Looking back on four months in D.C.

It has been a few months since I came back from my stay in the U.S. And I have to say, I miss it sometimes. But being back in Sweden, I can reflect on the things I have learned and experienced!

I arrived in Washington, D.C. in August 2022, Typical for the summer there, the temperatures were tropical, the humidity excruciating, and the mosquitos everywhere. That is how I learned D.C. is actually a part of “The South.”

I stayed at Virginia Tech, a large technical university with a campus in the suburbs of the D.C. area. Although small and often compared to a prison or asylum, the campus had a certain charm. There were also many events for graduate students, with free food and ping-pong! It was a great way to meet other graduate students, of which most worked in engineering and computer science.

For four months, I was part of the STS Department of Virginia Tech as a guest Ph.D. student, hosted by professor Sonja Schmid. My aim was to get to know STS more and to learn from Sonja Schmid, who has worked extensively on nuclear safety and contributes actively to nuclear policy in the U.S.

One of the aims of my stay was to take part in a project-based STS graduate course. This year, the theme was ‘Nuclear Facilities in Armed Conflict.’ Together with six other American STS students, with varying backgrounds ranging from nuclear engineering to law, we wrote a policy report with recommendations on how to prevent situations like the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine. We also presented our work in a public session for policy-makers, government officials, and industry experts. We are working on a policy publication right now.

Washington, D.C. has many archives that are relevant for nuclear historians like me. Although they are not always easy to get into, I came back with thousands of scans from the Library of Congress, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Archives, and – most importantly – the NRC Public Documentation Room. At the NRC, I was helped a lot by the NRC historian, professor Thomas Wellock.

Staying in D.C. was a great opportunity to travel around. I attended the Society of History of Technology (SHOT) conference in the stunning city of New Orleans. I presented my work in the college town of Blacksburg, where the main campus is located, and received great feedback from the STS scholars there. And in an act of ‘dark tourism’, I drove up to the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, which is only a two-hour drive away from D.C.

But after each trip, I was also happy to be back in D.C. It is a marvelous place to live. Paradoxically, the capital of the U.S. has a very European feel: wide sidewalks, beautiful architecture, good public transport, lush parks, and so many great pubs and restaurants. I lived in Columbia Heights, a beautiful historic area with small row houses built after the Civil War to house new civil servants.

Yet, at the same time, the abundance of museums, monuments, and sports stadiums – but at the same time also the stark racial social inequalities in the city – remind you of American history and culture every day. American politics is never far away either: when you talk to people, see politicians or “staffers” in the streets, or when walk on the National Mall and cannot get the intro tune of House of Cards out of your head.

Nuclear Waters on Holiday: Power Plants along the Autoroute du Soleil

It is the summer holiday season! A period in which people try to relax, de-connect, and forget about work for a while. Yet, work sometimes has its funny ways of following you.

My family and I have the tradition of spending our holidays at the Côte d’Azur in the South of France. We load the car as full as we can and hit the road for a full day (normally by night or on a Sunday to avoid the traffic jams).

Since this year, the first year of my PhD (which is about the global governance of water-related nuclear risks), this drive has become a bit more interesting than before. After you have passed Lyon, the highway to the Côte d’Azur, popularly called the “Autoroute du Soleil”, runs through the Rhône valley, where a lot of nuclear power plants are located.

It reminded me of course of Sara Pritchard’s book ‘Confluence’, which tells the history of the transformations of the Rhône during the post-war period. It is a key publication for our project. Not only does it theorise the connection between technology and the environment, it is also (and especially) a powerful account of the human use of water and the management and conflicts of interest that this entails.

Nuclear power plants are one of the key users of the river. Not less than 6 nuclear power plants have been constructed on the banks of the Rhône. ‘Confluence’ describes the controversies this entailed and the effects this had on the river. Even if the scope of nuclear energy in France is huge, 6 nuclear power plants along one river is still a enormous concentration.

And interestingly, there is no better way to observe this than driving past them. When you leave Lyon, you almost immediately see the power plant of Cruas, which is a bit hidden in a valley but still visible from the highway. From there it only takes an extra 45 minutes to see the next nuclear power plant, Tricastin, located right next to the highway. From Tricastin the next nuclear power plant, Marcoule, is not even 30 (!) minutes away. The “Autoroute du Soleil” is really an “Autoroute Nucléaire as well.”

The Tricastin nuclear power plant, seen from the “Autoroute du Soleil.” It has four reactors and is located very close to both the nuclear power stations of Cruas and Marcoule. Due to record temperatures this summer in France, EDF closed down the power plant temporarily.

This is perhaps just a geeky enjoyment during a tedious 14-hour drive, and maybe at best a nice anecdote to tell my fellow nuclear scholars. Yet, it has also left me with some questions. Is it actually safe to build nuclear power plants that close to each other? Is there enough water for them to use? Does the water not heat up too rapidly? And does this heavy nuclearisation of rivers not render nuclear power more vulnerable (and thus more risky) to droughts and heat waves? This year again, Electricité de France (EDF, France’s energy operator) closed down several reactors because the cooling water was diminishing and heating up, including two along the Rhône.

I cannot help but wonder whether this was at some point on the political agenda of either the French government or an international organisation such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, Euratom, or the Nuclear Energy Agency. In any case, it is something I hope to find out in my PhD!