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.
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.”
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!
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.
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.
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…
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).
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, 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.
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
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
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.
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!