The project

NUCLEARWATERS develops a groundbreaking new approach to studying the history of nuclear energy. Rather than interpreting nuclear energy history as a history of nuclear physics and radiochemistry, it analyses it as a history of water. The project develops the argument that nuclear energy is in essence a hydraulic form of technology, and that, as such, it builds on centuries and even millennia of earlier hydraulic engineering efforts worldwide – and, culturally speaking, on earlier ‘hydraulic civilizations’, from ancient Egypt to the modern Netherlands. We investigate how historical water-manipulating technologies and wet and dry risk conceptions from a deeper past were carried on into the nuclear age. These risk conceptions brought with them a complex set of social and professional practices that displayed considerable inertia and were difficult to change – sometimes paving the way for disaster. We argue that, by studying these processes, a water-centred nuclear energy history enables us to resolve several key riddles in nuclear energy history and to grasp the deeper historical logic behind nuclear accidents worldwide.

The project is structured along six work packages that problematize the centrality – and dilemma – of water in nuclear energy history from different thematic and geographical angles. These include in-depth studies of the transnational nuclear-hydraulic engineering community, of the Soviet Union’s pivotal nuclear waters, of the Rhine Valley as a transnational and heavily nuclearized river basin, of Japan’s atomic coastscapes and of the ecologically and politically fragile Baltic Sea region. The ultimate ambition is to significantly revise nuclear energy history as we know it – with implications both for the history of science and technology as an academic field (and its relationship with environmental history) and for the public debate about nuclear energy’s future in Europe and beyond.

Funded by the European Research Council (ERC), the project is led by Prof. Per Högselius at the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm. It was started up in May 2018 and will be completed in April 2023. Including co-funding from KTH, it has a total budget of €2.5 million.