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.
On 11 March 2011, Japan’s east coast fell victim to the Tōhoku earthquake. The earth shook for several minutes, causing a huge tsunami, 370 km from Tokyo in the Pacific. As a consequence of both, earthquake and tsunami, several nuclear power plants suffered damage. The one most affected was Fukushima-Daiichi. In the course of the following days, three of six nuclear reactors suffered meltdowns. In reactor four, serious damage through hydrogen explosions occurred.
How was that possible? Japan is located in an area highly prone to earthquakes. In the past, there were multiple occasions on which earthquakes were followed by tsunamis, causing substantial damage to the built environment along Japan’s coasts. When building a nuclear power plant, designers and decision-makers, clearly, need to minimize the plant’s vulnerability to external events. A key question is how to do this when it comes to events that occur only once in a century, millennium, or every ten thousand years.
The reactors in Fukushima-Daiichi were constructed between 1967 and 1979. This was also the time when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant started to be built. In an effort to increase safety and in stark contrast to their Soviet counterparts, the Japanese designed their reactors with containments, which added a layer of protection against the unwanted spread of radionuclides. While the Soviet Union also built power plants in seismically active areas – notably in Armenia – the Japanese plants had higher standards when it came to anti-earthquake safety. All in all, the Japanese reactors were state-of-the-art facilities and with regard to safety on par with those in countries such as the United States, France or Sweden.
So what happened? In essence, safety considerations were not taking exceptional disasters of the scope of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami into account. In other words, the magnitude of the earthquake and the height of the tsunami were simply greater than the maximum anticipated strain on the nuclear power plant. The plant operator, TEPCO, did not consider an earthquake of magnitude 9 to be a “credible event” in the Japan Trench, as the IAEA concluded in its 2015 report on the accident. TEPCO did not find it economically justifiable to invest in measures to protect the plant against such an event. As NUCLEARWATERS project leader Per Högselius writes in a forthcoming article, the company did consult historical earthquake and tsunami reports, but the conclusion was that although immense tsunamis did occur from time to time along the coast, no tsunami higher than 5.7 meters had ever been recorded in the particular stretch of coast where the Fukushima NPP was located.
Soon, a Japanese parliamentary panel declared that the disaster was not only a natural one. It was also a human-made one, because official institutions believed that measures taken were sufficient and that the cost-safety calculations were appropriate. This is correct, since humans created this envirotechnical system, in which the nuclear power plant was integrated into the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Environmental historian Sarah Pritchard (Confluence) takes inspiration from Charles Perrow’s normal accident theory and Thomas P. Hughes analyses of technological systems. Following these scholars, accidents inevitably happen in complex human-made systems. The creation of the nuclear technological system, of which Fukushima-Daiichi was part, embedded high-risk large-scale technology into an environment prone to natural disasters. Pritchard argues that the Tōhoku earthquake and the ensuing tsunami did not rupture the envirotechnical system between the power plant and the Pacific Ocean, but instead altered it. Water is still being used as a coolant, only this time the reactor has emitted radioactive substances into the sea.
For Pritchard, both the nuclear station and the aquatic system are still bound to and interwoven with each other. This becomes clear when studies find tritium in the groundwater, showing that the envirotechnical system extends beyond the obvious connection to the Pacific. This further leads to the question of how to deal with the accumulating nuclear waste from the plant, much of it in the form of contaminated water stored in tanks on site.
For TEPCO water was both a saviour that made it possible to re-establish cooling of the molten reactor cores and a medium of contamination at the same time. Currently, the operator struggles with securing the rests of the destroyed reactor cores and storing them somehow safely on land. Radioactivity prevents a lot of the decommissioning work. The reactor cores need permanent cooling to prevent further uncontrolled nuclear reactions. Due to the initial destruction of the cooling circuits and the following makeshift replacements, water was not kept within and reused as coolant, as it leaked into the reactor building. From there, it was pumped out, treated and stored outside the plant. On several occasions, it was ultimately dumped into the Pacific. At the time of writing, no end to this problem is in sight.
In connection with the ten-year-anniversary of this tragedy, I was interviewed by the local Greenpeace Group Gießen, Germany. We discussed issues of safety, the current situation at Fukushima and the exciting question of whether nuclear energy could be useful in the context of the current climate crisis.
This year, we will also commemorate the 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Therefore, it makes sense to reflect upon the role that nuclear energy plays in global and European energy supply. This is even more true in view of the fact that the nuclear industries in France, Britain, Sweden and other countries face tough decisions whether or not to reinvest into the aging nuclear infrastructure, the alternative being renewable energy sources.
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.
Nuclear energy is a highly debated field and depending on the societal context usually either embraced or fully rejected. From an outsider position it sometimes seems as if there was no in between: you are either pro- or anti-nuclear. This does not solely apply to times of active nuclear energy generation, but it also affects the future and finding solutions for safe storage of nuclear waste. In today’s interview with Andrei Stsiapanau we will hear more about the nuclear debate in the former Soviet Union. Andrei is a guest in our Nuclearwaters project since January 2020 and he is a scholarship holder of the Swedish Institute Visby Scholarship Program for Senior Researchers. He researches how nuclear energy is being socially and politically debated in Russia, Belarus and Lithuania and he is especially interested in the politics of nuclear waste in Russia, Lithuania and Sweden.
Alicia Gutting: Andrei, what have you been working on in the past months?
Andrei Stsiapanau: During the last months I have been working on the nuclear waste management issues in Russia as well as in Lithuania and Sweden. When more and more nuclear facilities throughout the world enter the stage of decommissioning, it is becoming particularly urgent to find sustainable solutions to the issue of nuclear waste. The list of possible technical solutions for spent nuclear fuel and other types of waste include deep geological disposal after reprocessing (favoured in France, Japan, and UK); direct deep geological disposal (favoured in Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Germany, USA and Czech Republic); surface long-term storage (favoured in the Netherlands, Italy and Spain). Each of these solutions translates into different ways on how to communicate, classify and govern nuclear waste in a particular country.
My research is focusing on how nuclear waste issues are communicated in various techno-political contexts. While studying how nuclear waste issues are being negotiated with communities in Russia, I discovered that natural resources like clay are used within nuclear waste discourses to mitigate the risk of potential radioactive contamination. It was my starting point to investigate how natural resources are used in various discourses about nuclear waste to make it less dangerous and harmful for people and environments. In the cases of Lithuania and Sweden, I am investigating how, through awareness and information campaigns, risks associated with nuclear waste are mediated and mitigated to transform the hazardous nuclear objects into manageable waste.
AG: What role does clay play?
AS: According to numerous researches on the role of the natural barrier in the nuclear waste disposal system, clay as well as crystalline rock are considered as a retardation medium for radionuclides migration. The multi barrier protection within nuclear waste technology illustrates how natural barriers or the geology of the disposal site will retard or mediate for both fluid flow and radionuclides migration in case of the engineering layer decay. This kind of technical vision of the disposal process promotes the natural protection layer as a reliable tool for absorption and immobilization of radioactivity. Geological and chemical studies of clay rock in various sites in the United States, France, Belgium, Canada and Russia show that clay has a number of absorption properties valuable for immobilization of the radioactive elements in the geomedia in case of the technical barrier decay. Thus, clay has become employed as a part of the nuclear waste management process. It represents a tool for absorption, immobilization and confinement of radioactivity. Including clay in the whole process of the nuclear decommission and decontamination makes it possible to reconsider the role of natural resources and materials in nuclear waste technologies and multi-barrier protection discourses.
AG: Are there differences in the Swedish and the Lithuanian (political) approach?
AS: Nuclear waste management systems in Sweden and Lithuania are developing in the context of decommissioning and nuclear phase out but following different trajectories and guidelines. The final repository for short-lived radioactive waste located at Forsmark in the municipality of Östhammar started operating in 1988. Lithuania is only now entering the phase of the construction of the landfill repositories for low and medium radioactive waste, and the construction of the geological disposal is programmed for after 2045. The Swedish approach represents an advanced example of nuclear waste management, based on the long-term experience of scientific research, transparent decision-making and continued reliance on public opinion and participation. Some connections in sharing nuclear waste management technology and experience exist between these two Baltic Sea countries. The Swedish nuclear waste authority, SKB, has been involved in the assessment of the existing nuclear waste facilities at the Ignalina NPP site in Lithuania since the 1990s. Swedish nuclear research and governance institutions continue to contribute to the transfer of knowledge and expertise in nuclear waste management taking part in numerous joint international research projects (BEACON; EURAD).
AG: What role does environmentalism play in the debate?
AS: As the two countries are at different stages of implementation of nuclear waste programs, it illustrates different levels of public engagement in the site selection process and environmental impact assessment of the radioactive waste disposals. In Sweden environmental issues are at the core of the public debate and concerns about the nuclear waste management program and are involving various actors, from local communities to International NGOs and leading national media outlets. In Lithuania environmental issues are less questioned, site selection is not contested and public participation is limited to local communities of the nuclear site with scarce media coverage. I suppose this situation will change with the start of a public discussion about the site selection for geological disposal of high radioactive waste and SNF and its environmental impact assessment. This debate will expand nuclear waste issues to the national scale. Considering environmentalism not only as participatory but also as scholarly concern, at the moment there are relatively few studies in environmental humanities and history about the uses of the natural resources in nuclear waste confinement and its impact on social and natural landscapes.
AG: Do people in the two countries differ in their risk perception?
AS: Different levels of public engagement in the nuclear decision-making illustrates different public opinion dynamics as well as public perception of nuclear risks. In Sweden due to the nuclear phase-out decision in 1980 and to the high impact of environmental movements, critical voices are prevailing the publicity concerning nuclear waste. In Lithuania the nuclear energy use became public only in the 1990s after the reestablishment of the independence and were associated mostly with Chernobyl disaster risks and anti-communist, sovereignty claims. During the transition period, the use of nuclear energy was considered as necessary for the economic and social developments of the country; political personnel, nuclear engineers and Lithuanian citizens embraced the energy produced by the Ignalina NPP as a national resource. The referendums about nuclear energy uses in Lithuania in 2008 and 2012 after the start of the decommissioning of the Ignalina NPP showed a rather radical change from pro- to anti-nuclear attitudes challenging the plan to construct a new NPP in the country.
The NUCLEARWATERS project puts great emphasis on studying nuclear history globally. Therefore, it is of major importance to us to work with other researchers. This March we welcome French nuclear historian Louis Fagon, who will stay with us for one month. NUCLEARWATERS project member Alicia Gutting is curious about who he is.
Alicia Gutting: Louis, it is great to have you here! Could you please introduce yourself and tell us about your research?
Louis Fagon: I am a PhD candidate in history at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris since 2018. In my thesis The Nuclear Industry at the Rhône River (1950s-1997) I am researching the social and environmental effects of the excessive nuclear planning at the Rhône with a focus on the microscale. Using local archives, I try to narrow in on the regional nuclear history. So far, the national history of nuclear power of France has been studied, however, the regional histories still remain a desideratum. What connects my research to the NUCLEARWATERS project is the special interest in water. In my thesis I research water twofoldly: On the one hand as part of the environment and a cooling agent for nuclear power plants and on the other hand water offers a research access to the nuclear history of France. Researching nuclear power in France most often poses a challenge as almost all files concerning nuclear are classified. The water focus is one way to circumvent the issue of access. So, I have been taking a detour through water files in the archives, which have led me to nuclear files in the end.
AG: How did you hear about the NUCLEARWATERS project?
LF: This was purely coincidental. I attended a conference in Mulhouse on the future of post-nuclear territories. There I’ve heard about a group of international researchers studying nuclear power from a water perspective in Stockholm. I was thrilled to hear that there were also other people interested in these issues! This seemed to confirm the relevance of my choice of subject, but I was also eager to meet the group.
AG: What expectations do you have of your time here?
LF: The Rhône is a transnational water body and also an international resource. This means different interests can collide over the allocation of this resource. I am hoping to learn from the other researchers in the group as they all have different national as well as international perspectives on nuclear power. These other perspectives will hopefully contribute to my thesis work, assist me in asking interesting questions and also challenge the French notion of France being exceptional.
AG: Thank you for telling us a little about yourself and your research!
On 25 March from 1pm till 3pm Louis will give a seminar at KTH’s Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment and elaborate a little more on his research. This will also be the launch of our NUCLEARWATERS Seminar Series. Welcome to join us if you are in town!
Last Tuesday NUCLEARWATERS guest Andrei Stsiapanau and I interviewed Dima Litvinov on his experiences from being Greenpeace’s representative in Russia. Among other issues, Russian nuclear waste handling during the 1990s became a main topic of our conversation.
While the interview as such was very stimulating for us as nuclear historians, two things stayed in my thoughts afterwards. First, the characteristics of the nuclear fuel cycle and secondly the role of water in it. As NUCLEARWATERS project leader Per Högselius has argued, in reality there is no such thing as a fuel “cycle” – proclamations of the nuclear industry notwithstanding. Instead, the management of nuclear fuel follows a linear process. With the mining of uranium it has a clear beginning and with the storage of nuclear waste it has its end. The actual amount of recycled fuel elements can in some cases prolong its lifetime, but they will still ultimately end up as waste. Dima shared with us his experiences of both the mining and the storage aspect. It became apparent that water has been a very crucial component in both. Unfortunately, water is often the carrier of radionuclide emissions in both instances, as it is used as a cleaning agent in the mining process and as a medium for storage in the case of historical dumping of nuclear waste into the sea.
In other words, water is crucial not only for the operation of nuclear power plants, but in virtually all segments of nuclear fuel systems. If we want to improve nuclear safety, water hence needs to be accounted for in our studies of the nuclear industry as a whole.
The NUCLEARWATERS research group is expanding! Today we are welcoming Dr. Roman Khandozhko as a new project member, to work with us for a period of one year as a senior researcher. Roman’s employment at the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment at KTH Royal Institute of Technology takes the form of a unique cooperation between two ongoing ERC projects: NUCLEARWATERS and GRETPOL(the latter led by Peder Roberts).
Roman holds a PhD degree in history from Rostov-on-Don in Russia. He has extensive earlier experience of researching the history of nuclear energy in the Soviet Union, most recently through his participation in the impressive “Nuclear Technopolitics of the Soviet Union” project at the University of Tübingen in Germany. In his new position at KTH Roman he will contribute to our regional case study on the Soviet Union’s nuclear waters.
From 24 to 27 October NUCLEARWATERS project leader Per Högselius participated in the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), wich was held in Milan this year. The history of nuclear engineering played a prominent role at the meeting, featuring an impressive 25 presentations analyzing nuclear technologies in energy, medicine and war. Our project featured in a special session organized by ERC representative Flavia Cumoli, with the double purpose of spreading the word about three ongoing ERC projects in the history of technology – the other two being led by Maria Rentetzi and Mikael Hård – and seeking to inspire other historians of technology to apply for the ERC’s generous research grants.
After the meeting we decided to take the opportunity to explore Italy’s nuclear past through an excursion to the Po River basin. The area around and between Milan and Turin is heavily industrialized, while also being a key agricultural region. Water flows play key roles for both industry and agriculture, and the region has a proud water history, with a mesmerizing network of tributaries to the Po, artificial water ways, irrigation systems and so on. Rice cultivation, being highly dependent on water, has a long tradition in the region.
Several key nuclear facilities were built in the Po River basin. We went to see, in particular, the once so proud Trino Vercellese nuclear power plant, one of the world’s first-ever pressurized water reactors (PWRs), which went operational in 1964. At that time Italy was on the forefront in nuclear energy developments. Not far from here, in Saluggia, where the famous Cavour Canal meets a major Po tributary, the Italian nuclear engineers constructed the EUREX facility for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. As noted by Davide Orsini in a presentation at the SHOT annual meeting, that site soon became problematic due to repeated problems with severe flooding of the whole facility.
In another SHOT presentation, Elisabetta Bini analyzed the new surge in nuclear construction in Italy that followed after the two oil shocks in the 1970s. One of the main new projects in the 1980s was to build two new powerful nuclear reactors just next to the existing Trino site on the Po. However, internal technical problems and fierce opposition from the side of the general public, and in particular from the local rice farmers, who feared local climate changes and water shortages, caused the new projects to stagnate. Then, in 1986, the Chernobyl accident occurred, and in a referendum the year after Italy opted radically to phase out its entire nuclear programme. And so by 1990 not only had construction of the new reactors at Trino been stopped, but also the original Trino facility built in the 1960s was being permanently closed down. However, the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Power Plant, as it is also called, is still there to be seen, beautifully situated on the swiftly flowing Po, in the dreamy fog of history.