As the NUCLEARWATERS project is entering its fifth year, project activities continue to evolve and intensify. On 21-22 June our team organized an international workshop on the nuclear-water nexus, to which we invited senior and junior scholars from all fields – not only history – to present research that in one or the other way relates to the interaction between nuclear technologies and water. The aim was to let different research strands around this common theme interact, with the long-term goal of turning workshop papers into chapters of an edited volume. The workshop took place at our own Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment at KTH. We were happy to welcome 25 external participants from Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, India, Indonesia and Qatar. A total of 28 pre-circulated workshop papers were discussed during two intense and creative days.
The nuclear-water nexus, as interpreted by the workshop participants, turned out to be even more diverse and multifaceted that we could possibly have imagined. Themes covered in the papers and the discussions included:
1. Reactor cooling arrangements: this includes both the closed cooling loops in (water-cooled) nuclear power plants themselves, and the open cooling loops through which nuclear plants draw on water supplies from rivers, lakes and seas.
2. The links between nuclear energy, hydropower, navigation, irrigation, dam construction, and fisheries.
3. Thermal pollution of rivers, lakes, and seas as a result of cooling water discharges, and the construction of cooling towers and cooling ponds to cope with this problem.
4. The impact of nuclear accidents, nuclear weapons testing and radioactive pollution on drinking water supplies and wet environments and landscapes.
5. Wet pollution (such as oil spills) and organic matter (fish, jellyfish, algae, etc.) as a threat to nuclear safety.
6. Flooding of nuclear facilities and flood management strategies, along with destructive erosion at coastal nuclear sites
7. The use of nuclear energy for the purpose of seawater desalination and for district heating
All in all, the Nuclear-Water Nexus workshop became one of the intellectually most fruitful activities so far in the NUCLEARWATERS project. We are looking forward to the continued work with an edited volume, based on the workshop papers – and perhaps other outcomes of the workshop as well.
There was a time when virtually all my academic activities gravitated around the Baltic Sea. For a number of years, I travelled along its coasts, attempted to learn its languages and read everything I could find about its history. I spent a year and a half in Greifswald in Pomerania, where I wrote my master’s thesis, then a year in Tallinn and Tartu in Estonia, where I did research for my PhD thesis. And of course I spent numerous summers in Kvarnåkershamn on Gotland, where we have a summer house. In 2007 I wrapped up my experiences of the Baltic Sea world in a travelogue, “Östersjövägar”, which let the past confront the present and the personal meet the professional.
Since then my geographical focus has been less distinct, as I have become engaged with wider European and global issues. The NUCLEARWATERS project, however, which aims to rewrite the global history of nuclear energy through the lens of water, has allowed me to partly return to the Baltic Sea: one of the six case studies addresses the “Nuclear Baltic”. Earlier this month I had the chance to present tentative results of it at this year’s Baltic Connections conference in Jyväskylä, Finland. I had been invited to give one of the keynote lectures, and decided to make use of the opportunity to discuss the ongoing nuclear-historical research that my colleagues at KTH and I are currently doing with a multi-disciplinary crowd of scholars from Finland, Scandinavia, the Baltics and beyond.
The notion of the “Nuclear Baltic” reflects a desire to move away from the nationally oriented nuclear histories that so far has dominated the literature and, instead, take the Baltic Sea region in its entirety as the point of departure for analysing nuclear’s past and present. There is good reason to do so, especially if we view the history of nuclear energy through the lens of water. Finland, Sweden, the Soviet Union and East Germany all built nuclear power plants on one or the other Baltic coast, making use of the same brackish water for the plants’ cooling needs. Denmark also planned to erect a Baltic nuclear plant, but eventually opted not to go nuclear at all. Poland started to built a large NPP near the Baltic coast, although in this case the nuclear builders, for reasons still not entirely clear to me, preferred to use a lake rather than the Baltic itself for cooling. Nuclear engineers tamed the Baltic Sea, adapting the coastscape to their specific needs, while the sea itself occasionally also “revolted”, causing problems for the nuclear plants. Nuclear builders, moreover, interacted intensely with fishing, navigational and recreation activities. The plants were usually built in places that were popular spots for bathing, swimming, hiking and sailing.
After 1989, the nuclear power plants that had been erected on different Baltic shores started to interact with each other in very interesting ways. The collapse of communism on the Baltic’s eastern shores made it much easier for actors on the Baltic’s western shores to access information about nuclear developments in the east. This partly generated new fears in the West about the dangers of Soviet-designed NPPs. Finland, for example, was increasingly worried about the Chernobyl-type reactors at Sosnovy Bor. Denmark, for its part, had traditionally been extremely critical of the Swedish Barsebäck NPP, but towards the late 1980s this was more and more accompanied by fears of the Greifswald NPP as well. Sweden, too, worried both about Greifswald but even more about Ignalina and its Chernobyl-type reactors.
But there were also new hopes. The collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War opened up for new forms of hands-on technical cooperation between East and West. Nordic and West German nuclear engineers became very engaged in improving the safety of Soviet-designed plants. Moreover, the closure of the closure of the ex-GDR’s Greifswald NPP (which I have written a book about long ago) enabled engineers to take a close look at the decommissioned reactor vessels and examine safety problems related to things like pressure vessel embrittlement in Soviet-type reactors. These studies proved very useful especially for the Loviisa NPP in Finland, which had two very similar pressure vessels. The Loviisa reactors had for some time experienced embrittlement problems, and the study of the decommissioned Greifswald pressure vessels led engineers to devise effective engineering solutions to that problem. There was a similar interaction between Finland and Poland. The Poles had abandoned their work on the Zarnowiec NPP after the Chernobyl disaster. The Finns then asked the Poles if they could purchase one of the Polish reactor vessels, along with various other equipment, with the idea of using them for training purposes in Finland. These are fascinating examples of transnational dynamics in the post-Cold War nuclear Baltic.
At another level, the end of the Cold War ushered in a new era of transnational cooperation in the field of electricity system-building. A mix of political and technological visionaries suggested that an integrated electricity grid and a common electricity market in the Baltic Sea region could serve as a powerful example of Baltic Sea cooperation more generally and, following a Kantian and Saint-Simonian philosophical tradition, contribute to political stability, international understanding and peace. This became the starting point a project that was popularly referred to as the “Baltic Ring”. Actors envisioned new subsea electrical connections between Finland and Estonia, between Lithuania and Poland, between Lithuania and Sweden, between Poland and Sweden, and so on – connections that would serve to unite the Baltic Sea both materially and symbolically.
There was at least one problem with these new proposed interconnection projects: there were radically different interpretations about the actual purpose of the subsea cables. To understand this we should first observe that, for example, the Ignalina NPP in Lithuania had traditionally served electricity needs not only of Lithuania itself, but also of neighbouring regions in the ex-Soviet realm, especially Russia and Belarus. In the 1990s, then, Lithuania’s nuclear exports to these countries was expected to be phased out. In this situation, the Lithuanians hoped to compensate for its loss of export revenues by shifting its nuclear electricity exports to the Nordic region and Poland. Hence from a Lithuanian perspective the purpose of the “Baltic Ring” was to enable a restructuring of Lithuanian nuclear electricity exports. This vision contrasted starkly with Nordic and in particular Swedish visions. The Swedes regarded a potential new electricity connection between Lithuania and Sweden as a way for Sweden to strengthen the Lithuanian electricity system and, by extension, make it possible for the Lithuanians to close down their dangerous nuclear power plant. These very different interpretations was a key reason for the very long delay of the proposed link between Sweden and the Baltics; it was finally implemented only in 2015 – nearly a quarter of century after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In the case of Poland, the decision to abandon the Zarnowiec NPP was detrimental to Polish electric grid stability. It was clear to electricity system builders that a new source of electric power was direly needed in the northern part of the country. The post-nuclear solution, however, was not to build a coal power plant or a gas power plant in northern Poland. Instead, Poland and Sweden agreed on laying down a subsea electricity cable under the Baltic Sea, through which Poland was given access to Swedish nuclear electricity. The cable, which was eventually inaugurated in 2000, landed in the port of Ustka on the Pomeranian coast, not far from the ruins of Zarnowiec. So all in all, when we read about the electricity cables that now criss-cross the bottom of the Baltic Sea, we should view them as components in a wider transnational struggle for and against nuclear energy in the Baltic Sea region.
A final chapter in the Baltic’s nuclear history has to do with how the Baltic Sea itself has gradually emerged as a threat to nuclear safety. The environmental situation in the Baltic Sea has been deteriorating for decades, in ways that the nuclear builders of the 1960s and 1970s could hardly have imagined. Since the 1980s, in particular, the Baltic Sea has seen enormous problems with eutrophication and algal blooms, much highlighted in the general media. In addition, the Soviet Union and then Russia has increased its oil exports enormously, and much of this oil is shipped through the Baltic on its way to foreign markets. These developments now pose a major threat to nuclear safety, or so nuclear engineers and power plant operators think. More precisely, what they fear is that the supply of cooling water might be compromised or disrupted for one or the other reason.
The most severely affected nuclear pant in this respect – so far! – appears to be the Finnish Loviisa facility, situated as it is in a vulnerable spot on the Gulf of Finland, where Russian oil tankers pass by and which is also susceptible to algal blooms. In response to this, the nuclear operator, Fortum, in 2013 announced a new investment program, centering on the construction of special cooling towers to “improve safety in extreme conditions when seawater becomes unavailable for cooling, such as an oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Finland, or an exceptional natural phenomenon such as excessive algae growth.” In this way the Baltic Sea, which historically seemed to offer a perfect source of cooling water, in a way that was seen to guarantee nuclear safety, is nowadays turning into a threat to nuclear safety, and nuclear engineers are now very busy devising technical solutions to cope with these perceived dangers. It remains to be seen how the marine environmental situation in the Baltic Sea continues to interact with nuclear developments. In any case, the history of the Nuclear Baltic is still very much a history in the making.
Like so many other researchers, I experienced a slowdown in my research activities over the last two years. Archive visits could no longer be planned well in advance, but had to happen spontaneously and even then, it was not certain that I would actually be able to travel. Combined with other commitments, such as teaching, this presented me with greater difficulties than I would have liked. Summer 2021 offered one of the rare chances to actually travel to Germany and visit archives for my PhD research on the Nuclear Rhine. My plan was to go to the Generallandesarchiv in Karlsruhe and the Staatsarchiv in Freiburg. Afterwards, I wanted to head to Switzerland to visit the Federal Archives in Bern.
Shortly before my departure, however, the government of Baden-Württemberg introduced new corona restrictions that made it difficult for me to visit the two archives in Baden-Württemberg. So, I changed my plans at short notice and ordered digitised documents online and books from the library, which are not so easily accessible in Sweden.
My visits to archives so far, at least in Germany, have followed a fairly similar pattern. I ordered many thick folders, boxes and files, which I went through at top speed and handwrote on a form what I considered worth copying. This way of working was not always pleasant, but usually could not be avoided. There are many documents on the nuclear history of the Rhine and when ordering archival materials, it is not always clear whether there are relevant documents in them. Also, in many archives it is not allowed to photograph documents that are younger than 100 years.
I then submitted the form and so ordered digital copies, which were made available to me after about a month and after paying a substantial invoice. The fact that these archives now offered the service of ordering digital copies online made my work much easier, even if there were differences between the individual archives. One archive provided me with the digital copies within a very short time and the staff even took the trouble to search for documents on certain topics from the records. Another archive was unable to do this due to a lack of staff. Even though this reasoning seemed plausible to me, I asked myself how archival research would be organised in the future if one cannot always just hop on a plane or train like that, for whatever reason.
I basically got the answer to my question while I was doing my research in Switzerland. The Federal Archives in Bern are already digitising entire collections of files and doing so free of charge. Some of the archival documents relevant to me had already been digitised, while others I ordered as digital copies. However, since I was looking for materials for several articles and this required me to go through many files and folders, I set off for Switzerland. In contrast to Baden-Württemberg, the requirements in Bern were not quite as strict and I was looking forward to two intensive weeks in the archive.
For me, this was my first visit to Bern and what particularly impressed me was the connection between the river Aare and the city. On the one hand, the Aare flows right through it, but not as a strongly tamed little river, but as a watery stream that also had something impetuous about it.
On the other hand, the turquoise colour of the river was reflected in the city centre, which is uniformly built of the striking green sandstone of the Bernese hinterland. The uniformity of the city centre put me off at first. Especially because the houses were decorated with national flags and in combination with the somewhat gloomy sandstone, the city centre had something oppressive about it.
The swift Aare, on the other hand, lightened the mood. What struck me most was the view of the city from the Rose Garden. It was only here that I realised how green and almost natural Bern actually is. From Stockholm’s perspective, of course, this is nothing new. However, since I also lived in Vienna for more than ten years and this city hides its greenery almost entirely in backyards, I was still somewhat impressed. Moreover, I was in Bern in June, which was not inferior to high summer in terms of temperature, and the cool breeze blowing through the city by the river and the greenery made the heat not quite so unbearable.
All in all, I have to say that my personal archival odyssey nevertheless ended on a positive note and I got something like an idea of how future archival work could be organised.
Melina holds a BA in history, art history and Scandinavian studies from the University of Vienna, an MA in International and Global History and a PhD in history from the University of Oslo. In June 2021 she successfully defended her thesis “Green Internationalists: Nordic Environmental Cooperation, 1967-1988”. At KTH she will make use of her expertise in Nordic environmental history while moving into the nuclear-historical field.
Melina will present her research project “Nuclear Nordics” in the NUCLEARWATERS seminar series on Wednesday 2 February at 13.15-15.00 CET. Welcome to join the seminar over zoom: https://kth-se.zoom.us/j/67288060397.
As the most recent wave of the corona pandemic rolls in over Europe, it seems that much of the past summer and autumn was a narrow window of opportunity for international travel. I now feel happy that I managed to make use of that window.
In late September I went to Regensburg to participate in a conference on infrastructures in East and Southeast Europe (see my separate blogpost on that). After the conference, I stayed on in Bavaria for a couple of days. I rented a car and a bike and went to take a close look at the water supply arrangements for three German nuclear power plants and the nuclearized landscapes that have emerged as a result of nuclear construction there from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Gundremmingen is the only German nuclear power plant situated directly on the Danube. It started to be built already in 1962 and was one of Germany’s first nuclear power plants. There was a fierce debate during construction about possible contamination of the region’s drinking water. Less known is that plant construction demanded a complex reengineering of the Danube, which was dammed upstreams and also a few kilometres downstream to create a reliable and regular water flow for cooling the reactors. This generated an artificial water reservoir, the shores of which, as I was able to experience directly, are nowadays still very popular places for various leisure activities. Nuclear hydraulic engineers also built a canal to divert Danube water to the nuclear plant. The early pioneering reactor at Gundremmingen was shut down long ago. However, the plant was expanded through the addition of two much more powerful reactors: one boiling water reactor (seen to the left in one of the pictures below) and one pressurized water reactor (seen to the right), which today makes the plant area look very diverse. The pressurized water reactor was closed in 2017. The boiling water reactor, supported by one cooling tower, is still in operation, but like all remaining German NPPs, its days are numbered.
The Isar nuclear power plant is named after the Danube tributary on which it was built. Here, too, nuclear construction was intimately linked to other hydraulic projects aimed at “taming” the river. The Isar was dammed and equipped with hydroelectric turbines (see the image to the upper left), which now still contribute to the safety of the nuclear station, because they ensure that electricity will always be available locally even in the case of a regional power failure. This made it unnecessary for the nuclear operators to invest in emergency diesel generators. The Isar plant was originally designed for one boiling water reactor only, for which a less powerful and very compact type of cooling towers were built (lower left, to the right of the reactor building); these were used only when the Isar’s water flow was insufficient. The high-rise cooling tower that can be seen across much of Bavaria was constructed only when a further reactor, of the pressurized water type, was added later on (right). The boiling water reactor was shut down immediately after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. The pressurized water reactor is supposedly still in operation, but apparently not on the day of my visit, judging by the lack of “smoke” (water vapour) from the cooling tower.
The Grafenrheinfeld NPP is also in Bavaria, but further north, in Lower Franconia, where the inhabitants usually don’t think of themselves as “Bavarians”. This cultural divide largely coincides with the physical drainage divide between the Rhine and the Danube river basins. Hence this nuclear station, which is no longer in operation (having been shut down in 2015), is situated not in the Danube basin, but on the Main, the Rhine’s most important tributary. When construction started in 1974 the Main was already a suitable river for cooling water supplies. This was because Germany had invested enormously in the 1950s and 1960s in making the Main navigable all the way up to Bamberg, taming the river and regularizing its water flow with the help of no fewer than 34 weirs and locks. The river is now part of a system that interconnects the Rhine and Danube river basins, the centrepiece of which is the Rhein-Main-Danube Canal.
A month later I returned to Germany. I first spent a few days at the German Federal Archives in Koblenz, which turned out to be a treasure trove for nuclear-historical research. I then went up (or rather down) to northern Germany and the Lower Elbe region. There I went to see how the Stade, Brokdorf and Brunsbüttel nuclear power plants (of which only Brokdorf is still in operation, but only until the end of this year) were integrated into this North Sea estuary. In contrast to the plants erected along the Danube, Isar and Main further south, the main challenge here seemed to be flood (rather than water scarcity) management. The Lower Elbe region is historically very much a marshland and all nuclear – indeed, all industrial – projects are dependent on a reliable drainage infrastructure. Like in the Netherlands, that infrastructure is critically dependent on large pumps for lifting water, in this case into the Elbe (see the image below, far left). The nuclear stations along the Lower Elbe also made use of a pre-nuclear infrastructure of earthen dikes, which are typically 5 meters tall (upper and lower right). These have always formed the centerpiece of nuclear flood protection and hence they can be regarded as components in the nuclear safety system. However, after the 1999 flooding of the Blayais NPP in France, a plant that is located in an estuary very similar to that of the Elbe, German regulatory authorities started looking into the deeper history of flooding events in the North Sea and how new such events might potentially cause havoc to the Lower Elbe NPPs: would they be able to cope with an event on a par with the famous Storegga slide, which is believed to have caused a huge tsunami throughout the North Sea region back in 6200 BC?
In early 2022 I will publish an article in Technology & Culture which discusses, in further depth, some of the above-mentioned issues relating to nuclearized landscapes, water scarcity management, flood protection, the complex interplay between nuclear and non-nuclear hydraulic construction. Have a look in our list of publications.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
The current covid-19 crisis challenges our usual ways of conducting research. While the spring term might have gone by without too many impairments (although digitisation and the cancellation of conferences and workshops leaves some marks), by now several researchers face the problem of inaccessible archives. Albeit this also stalls my work, I was lucky to slip through a narrow window of opportunity. While spending the summer in Germany, where infection numbers were at that time considerably low, I was able to profit from Lithuania’s State Archives’ reopening. After brief consultations with my supervisors and our administration it became clear: I had green light to finally dig again into Soviet nuclear documents.
On 12 August I arrived in Vilnius. At first, I made myself familiar with the archival opportunities this city offers. Unfortunately, my 10-day-visit did not suffice to exhaust the various archives. I first visited the Modern State Archive. Despite the fact that they eventually did not have the documents I was searching for, they provided me with a contact at the Archive of Technical Documentation at Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant. This was where I headed next to.
Ignalina is actually a town 50 km south of nuclear power plant and has no obvious connection to it. The plant was earlier called (in Russian) the Drukshaiskaya NPP, after the lake that provided it with ample cooling water: Lake Drūkšiai. However, naming it after Ignalina seemed easier.
After a two-hour train ride I reached the nuclear town of Visaginas. Visaginas was earlier called Sniečkus after a former first secretary of the Lithuanian branch of the Soviet Communist Party. It was built to host about 35,000 people, but the population has now fallen to 18,000. Visaginas provided the base for people employed at Ignalina NPP and is still today mostly Russian-speaking. Obviously, the nuclera power plant shaped the vibe in Visaginas in many respects.
Taking advice from my fellow PhD student at KTH, Daniele Valisena, I explored the two-hour way from Visaginas to the power plant on foot. It was a very scenic experience and let me soon astray from the main road leading to the plant. It was very sunny and warm. Not many people were around in this somehow eerie landscape in the northeastern corner of Lithuania, close to Latvia’s Daugavpils and Belarus’ Braslaŭ.
I found myself walking through a small dacha village called Vishnya. Here, people were gardening and small-scale farming a short distance from the nuclear power plant, which hosted the biggest reactors of the world during the 1980s. It was a strange feeling, in view of a history of incidents and accidents at the plant. From the village I went through a forest towards the plant. Soon I reached a beautiful small cemetery with carefully kept graves. While Lake Drūkšiai was supposed to be very close to me, I did neither see its waters nor noticed its presence in any other way.
After a thorough fight with mosquitoes for the sovereignty over my legs, arms and neck, I soon saw the tops of the power plant’s huge transformer station. Given my experiences with Russian security, I was actually expecting someone to stop me, as I slowly but steadily approached the nuclear power plant. But nothing happened. When Lithuania entered the European Union, it had to agree to decommission the power plant due to the similarity of its reactors with those at Chernobyl. More than three quarters of the money for decommissioning came from the European Union, which, together with Lithuania’s turn towards a freer society, changed priorities from secrecy to openness. Soon I reached unhindered the formal entrance of the power plant.
After a short orientation, I entered the Archive of Technical Documentation and spoke with my contact there. Although I was provided with additional valuable literature and information, I was put off until I would be granted formal access by the leadership of the plant. This could not be acquired while I was in Lithuania, but I might get the chance to come back and follow up on this lead in the future.
On my way back I walked past an installation for the storage of low-level radioactive waste, with a conveyor belt stemming directly from the main building of the plant. This made me wonder what actually was going on inside and how the progress of the decommissioning was getting along. Opinions are split on this issue.
After my trip to Ignalina I spent the rest of my time searching through files in Lithuania’s Central State Archives. A personal highlight was here the discussion of how to make Ignalina NPP safer in the wake of the aftermath of the Chernobyl catastrophe. It was very fortunate that I was able to visit Lithuania. The trip provided me with a first archival overview, some crucial source documents, and very valuable impressions and photographs. Hopefully, we can soon all go back to our data, sources, and interview partners as we used to do. There is so much more to explore.