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Nuclear disasters wet and dry

May 27, 2013

Last week I gave a seminar at Renmin University of China in Beijing, where a Center for Ecological History exists since a year. It has aroused some attention abroad, as one of the world’s most well-known environmental historians and founder of this research field, Donald Worster, serves as the centre’s honorary director. It also has strong connections with the excellent Rachel Carson Center in Munich.

I was much too late in submitting an abstract to a major conference organized by the Centre, “Disasters wet and dry: Rivers, floods, and droughts in world history”, but I was given the generous opportunity to compensate for this neglect of mine by presenting some of my water-related research in the Centre’s internal seminar series. I felt inspired by the theme of the upcoming conference, and decided to link, in a somewhat unusual way, the seminar with my earlier research on nuclear power history. The result was a seminar paper entitled “Nuclear disasters wet and dry”, in which I made an attempt to reinterpret the history of nuclear power as a history of water, and nuclear engineering as a special case of hydraulic engineering.

The implication is that nuclear power perhaps, after all, is not as new as it might seem: rather it can be understood as but the latest extension of a long history that started in earnest with the great ancient hydraulic empires of China, India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and so on. I also argue that nuclear power, contrary to what has been the point in earlier research, is more dependent on and entangled with nature and the landscape in which its facilities are built, than most other energy sources. The nature of nuclear disasters, for their part, can be better understood if they are seen in relation to the ways in which nuclear engineers have learnt – and not learnt – from the mistakes of other hydraulic engineers in the past.


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