Chasing after shadows – or – The nuclear power plant never built in Estonia

Sometimes interesting intellectual journeys can start with literally one small dot on a map. This happened to us when Achim was looking at a book that featured the map of nuclear power plants planned for the Soviet Union. Do you know anything about this dot on the territory of Estonia, he asked. I did not.

The dot was somewhat misplaced geographically and timewise, it seems, but nevertheless opened a question: what about that power plant planned for Estonia? There never was “a real” nuclear power plant in Estonia, although ESSR had some nuclear infrastructure: for example, 90 and 70 mW reactors in Paldiski, meant for training nuclear submarinists, or the uranium processing facilities in Sillamäe. Any bigger nuclear power plants were never built.

Anto Raukas (standing) giving an opening speech at a conference in the honour of F. G. Bellingshausen’s 200th birth anniversary in 1978 (almost a decade later than this story unfolds!). Academician Ilmar Öpik to his right. Estonian National Archive, EFA.774.0.411333

A closer look reveals a story that talks to the core of the NuclearWaters project. Some time between 1966-1968, The Council of Ministers of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics started to enquire about the possibility to build a nuclear power plant at Lake Võrtsjärv and summoned a series of meetings in Estonia. Three Estonian experts were apparently involved in the meetings, all from the Estonian Academy of Sciences: Ilmar Öpik, Harald Haberman and Anto Raukas. Document trail of these negotiations is hard to pin down but luckily Academician Raukas is still in good health and could meet me and Achim in early May to talk about the parts that he remembered.

Võrtsjärv may look big on a map but it is extremely shallow. Initial plans envisioned an RBMK of the size of 4000 mWatts! What would this do to a lake with a volume of less than 1 cubic km? The three Estonian Academicians summoned help from the limnology specialists and together they reached a conclusion that even a 1000 megaWatt reactor would heat the lake by 10 degrees, causing a major ecological collapse. According to Raukas, raising the level of the lake was not considered, in order to protect the fertile agricultural lands of Rannu collective farm.

Yet loads of questions remain that guide us into new avenues and archives. How important was rivalry for water resources between the energy sector and agriculture in the early Soviet Union? Would food security really weigh more than energy supply in the central planning documents? How would the experts calculate the impact of the reactor type that had never been built before? When the impressive 10 degrees calculation was done, no RMBKs had been built yet. Why not think of a river or was that the realm destined for hydroelectricity only? Why did they consider lakes and not sea? Sosnovyi Bor was eventually built on the Baltic coast so why not go for the Latvian coast if the purpose of the NPP was to provide energy to Riga? While memories are elusive and many documents will never be accessible, the journey continues…

Is nuclear power environmentally friendly only in Sweden?

By Anna Storm

27 May 2019 In an essay article in Sweden’s newspaper Dagens Nyheter, Anna Storm, Achim Klüppelberg and Tatiana Kasperski outline how the nuclear future logics today and in the past differ considerably between Sweden, Germany, Russia and Finland. In connection to nuclear power currently being discussed in Sweden as a critical tool to mitigate climate change, the rhetorical question goes: “Is nuclear power environmentally friendly only in Sweden?” The article concludes that the negotiations on what our nuclear future should look like has to be re-politicized in an international context, and also take into account the legacies of radioactive waste which we will leave to future generations. Link to the article (in Swedish).

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.

Remembering Chernobyl’s 33rd Sad Anniversary for New Impulses in Research

By Siegfried Evens and Achim Klüppelberg

The present authors felt it was desirable to show this positive experience in the domain of the radiation safety of nuclear power. This is all the more important in that the view is often expressed that nuclear power is a dangerous branch of industry and a source of harmful effects on the personnel, the population, and the environment. Such unqualified statements cannot bring anything else but actual harm.1

Soviet scholars in the field of radiation safety discussing the Chernobyl-type reactor in 1983.

Today we commemorate the 33rd anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe. Since that fateful Friday night on 25-26 April 1986, a lot has happened. The world witnessed the thus far biggest nuclear cataclysm in northern Ukraine. The Soviet Union was unable to mitigate the radioactive consequences of the exploded and burning reactor and was frozen in awe to the unknown danger of the invisible power of the atom. Fingers were pointed very quickly towards the personnel as the quickest scapegoat and indeed, many mistakes and transgressions in regard to Soviet regulations were made. Later on, fingers were pointed towards the several institutions and the insufficient design of the reactor. Nuclear engineers in the West assured the general public that such an accident could not happen on the capitalist side of the Iron Curtain. Nevertheless, since Fukushima-Daiichi in 2011 we know for sure that the organisation of nuclear safety by political structures is not so evident as nuclear enthusiasts might want to portray it.

For us, researchers of the NUCLEARWATERS-project, a day like this reminds us of the possibility to engage in an investigation of nuclear safety from many different angles. Chernobyl might not only teach lessons to nuclear engineers and state ministries, but also to researchers of the social sciences and the humanities.

What in our analysis of nuclear safety has been left out so far? What has been neglected? Have we looked beyond the events? Have we considered the more structural causes of the accident, such as safety culture, political decision-making, or the structural complexity of nuclear technology? Have we dared to look beyond the power plant? To its environment, and the huge amounts of water flowing into the cooling system and tipping the balance between energy production and massive nuclear meltdown? And how can we then contribute and translate that knowledge towards a better nuclear safety’s discourse?

Apart from being a day of memory, it was also a regular day in which about 450 reactors produced electricity worldwide. Chernobyl forces us to remember what can go wrong if nuclear safety is not tackled with the necessary attention.

In this sense, let us use the fatal example of Chernobyl, to put substance into our research in order to contribute to a better discourse on nuclear safety.

1Vorob’ev, E.I./ Il’in, L.A./ Turovskiĭ et al.: Radiation Safety of Atomic Power Plants in the USSR, in: Atomic Energy (Vol. 54, No.4. April 1983), Luxembourg/ Berlin/ Heidelberg 1983, pp. 290-301, here p. 300.

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!