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Putting Water at the Centre of Nuclear Energy History

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - NUCLEARWATERS (Putting Water at the Centre of Nuclear Energy History)

Reporting period: 2019-11-01 to 2021-04-30

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. The project investigates 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. 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 sub-projects 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.
The sub-project “Nuclear-hydraulic pioneers” has so far progressed in empirical terms through research in the archives of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and of EURATOM. The scope of the sub-project has been further widened through the addition of three national case studies – France, the United States and Sweden – as a way to explore the formation of a nuclear-hydraulic engineering communities. The work within the sub-project has resulted in one of the first article-length publications in the project. In the end the sub-project will also produce a monograph.

In the sub-project on the Soviet Union’s nuclear waters, four journal articles are being drafted. The first explores what we call the historical geography of nuclear energy in the Soviet Union. The second deals with the phenomenon of nuclear-water “complexes”. The third unveils the previously unknown case of a planned Estonian nuclear power plant. The fourth studies two Soviet nuclear projects that were initiated but then cancelled in the context of environmental concerns related to water.

The sub-project on the “Nuclear Rhine” has produced a general survey of the Rhine river basin’s nuclear history. Empirical material has been consulted in archives in Karlsruhe, Stuttgart and Vienna. A first journal article is available in draft form, targeting the problem of drinking water supply in the nuclearized Rhine river basin. Two further articles are in the planning stage, one of which will discuss the phenomenon of nuclearized river basins at a theoretical level, and the other specifically detailing the history of nuclear-thermal pollution in the Rhine river basin.

The sub-project on “Japan’s atomic coastscapes” is so far the least developed. This is according to the original plan, which specifies that the work on this sub-project will be gradually scaled up only during the second half of the project’s life-time. There are so far no significant achievements, though several areas of interest and possible data collections have been identified.

The sub-project on the “Nuclear Baltic” has produced one journal article, discussing the phenomenon of “atomic fish”. Other work in the sub-projects aims to produce a synthetic mapping of the Baltic Sea’s transnational nuclear history.

Finally, the synthetic sub-project will in the end result in a book. However, the sub-project has also produced an important journal article that is currently being reviewed in revised form. In addition, initial work on a further journal article is being started up; it will subsequently form the starting point for an edited collection produced as part of the project.
Generally speaking, the project has made good progress in exploring the centrality of water in nuclear energy history from a variety of thematic and geographical angles. Its ambitious aim – to provide a new, global history of nuclear energy by studying this history through the lens of water – seems fully attainable and the team is very optimistic about the project’s evolution so far, with the reservation, as elaborated on further below, that the corona crisis has impeded some of our planned empirical work. In the end we expect that the project will produce one major book, one edited collection, at least 10 journal articles and three PhD theses. Collectively, these publications will contribute to a new narrative of nuclear energy in world history.