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Nuclear Journeys

June 9, 2022

One of the most rewarding parts of my academic life during the past months has been my field work on nuclear energy and, in particular, nuclear’s multifaceted connections with hydraulic engineering – a key theme in my ERC-funded NUCLEARWATERS project at KTH. This work has taken me to nuclear sites in Germany, Sweden, France, Luxembourg and most recently also to Poland. I started out in September last year, staying on a few days in Bavaria after my participation in a Regensburg conference (see my separate blogpost about that meeting, where I gave a keynote talk on “Transnational Infrastructures in an Age of Border-Building). By car, train, and bicycle I explored the water flows, hydraulic history and nuclearized landscapes around the Gundremmingen nuclear power plant (on the upper Danube), the Isar plant (on the Danubian tributary with the same name), and the Grafenrheinfeld facility (which is on the Main and hence in the Rhine river basin).

Gundremmingen NPP and the dammed Danube (Photo by Per Högselius)

This was so inspiring and useful that I decided to combine later conference and archival trips with visits to further nuclear sites. In November this brought me to three nuclear power sites on the Lower Elbe, just downstream from Hamburg, where German utilities from the 1960s to the 1980s erected the Stade, Brunsbüttel and (the highly controversial) Brokdorf nuclear stations.

Discharge of cooling water into the Elbe at the Brokdorf NPP (Photo by Per Högselius)

This spring I continued the work by travelling up the Moselle, a Rhine tributary whose cooling potential has historically captured the imaginations of nuclear visionaries in Germany, Luxembourg and France alike – although in the end only France actually built a plant: the huge Cattenom NPP, around 15 km upstream from Schengen at the French-German-Luxembourg border.

Sunset at the Cattenom NPP and EDF’s artificial lake (Photo by Per Högselius)

Most recently, our NUCLEARWATERS team travelled together in the historical footsteps of Swedish nuclear engineering. We drove south from Stockholm along the Baltic coast to Studsvik, an iconic site in Swedish nuclear history that came to host several research reactors, then onwards to Marviken, an ambitious but ultimately failed project whose physical remains are still worthy exploring for anyone interested in the “Swedish line” of nuclear engineering: the country’s historical ambition to combine civilian, heavy-water-moderated nuclear reactors with the development of nuclear weapons. We then paid a visit to the Äspö Laboratory, next to the Oskarshamn NPP in southern Sweden, where research is being carried out 500 meters underground since several decades, as part of the Swedish nuclear industry’s efforts to build a final repository for spent nuclear fuel.

At -386 m in SKB’s Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory (Photo by Per Högselius)

From Oskarshamn I continued – without my colleagues, unfortunately! – to Karlskrona and onwards by ferry to Poland. There, I explored Lake Żarnowiec, where communist Poland started to build a large nuclear power plant in the late 1970s. The idea was to combine it with a pumped-hydropower plant. While the nuclear plant was abandoned following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the hydropower plant was completed, including construction of an impressive artificial lake in the hills above Lake Żarnowiec. I then continued westwards along the Baltic coast, familiarizing myself with the radical “anti-atomic chapel” in Gąski, a Catholic site of worship created in 2012 as part of popular protest in the area against the government’s plans to revive nuclear construction; the (ultimately failed) plan envisaged a full-scale nuclear power plant there.

The Zarnowiec pumped-hydropower plant (Photo by Per Högselius)

What, then, can historians gain from visiting sites like these? What do “nuclear journeys” like these add to what we already know about nuclear history, or to what we may find in the archives? My answer is: a whole lot. Firstly, actually visiting the sites is necessary to gain a sense of the physical size, the geographical scale, the architectural forms and the materials drawn upon in nuclear projects. Secondly, site visits makes you see things at a nuclear site and in a nuclearized landscape that have typically been of central importance, although they have been toned down in – or simply omitted from – the documentary sources and official narratives. This concerns, in particular, hydraulic components like dikes, canals, pumping stations and cooling water discharge facilities. Thirdly, by exploring a site you become aware of how the nuclear facility is integrated into a wider – half natural, half built environment (Żarnowiec is a case in point). Fourthly, site visits opens up for an in-depth understanding of how nuclear facilities tie into local histories and cultures. Hence many nuclear sites coincide with environments that in the past have featured in key political and military developments, or have attracted writers and artists, or were subject to non-nuclear resource extraction. All this is extremely helpful for any historian who wish to write “relational” nuclear histories – which is what I’m convinced we need to do.

From → Energy

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