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Streams, Steams, and Steels: A History of Nuclear and Non-Nuclear Risk Governance (1850-1990)

You are warmly welcome to Siegfried Evens' mid-term seminar, where his thesis work so far, and the plans for continued research up to a PhD, will be presented and discussed.

Time: Mon 2021-06-14 16.15 - 17.45

Lecturer: Siegfried Evens, Div. History of Science, Technology and Environment

Location: Zoom (register for link)

Opponent: Aditi Verma at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University

KTH Supervisor: Per Högselius


What do almost all serious nuclear accidents in history have in common? The answer is perhaps simpler than you imagine: they were all caused by failures in the cooling system. The meltdowns at Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Miles Island had not been possible had there been a steady stream of water cooling the reactor. Most nuclear power plants in operation today are very reliant on water. They are designed as ‘light water reactors’ and use normal water, which is turned into steam in order to produce electricity. The “conventional” or “non-nuclear” technologies that keep the water flowing in a nuclear power plant, mostly made out of steel, such as pumps, valves, pipes, tubes, steam generators, turbines, condensers, taps, and even canals, are with us since the Industrial Revolution, or even earlier. Yet, due to their perceived banality, they are often overlooked; by nuclear engineers, but especially also by nuclear historians and social scientists. The importance of these cooling technologies thus stands in sharp contrast to the attention it has received from scholars.

That is why the main focus of this research will be the streams, steams, and steels in nuclear power plants. The main aim of my dissertation is therefore to research how these crucial technologies have been shaped, regulated and governed by different actors in order to render nuclear power plants safer. The quite ambitious goal of my project is to revise this chapter in nuclear history, conceiving a longue durée history of nuclear safety – in the spirit of the work of Fernand Braudel. Drawing on theoretical frameworks from risk studies, history of technology, and environmental history, I aim to get a better understanding of where our safety regulation practices come from. The consequence of such a longue durée approach then becomes that my history of nuclear safety will not begin during the Second World War or at the construction of the first commercial nuclear power plant, but instead during the first Industrial Revolution, when the first industrial safety regulations for steam technologies were drafted.

I will execute a 3+1 case study approach, with three countries to focus on: The United States, France, and Sweden. All three countries have been major players in the development of nuclear safety, but it is clear that the United States set the standard – quite literally, as my research shows – in leading these developments. Nuclear safety was in many ways a transnational undertaking, closely interwoven with diplomacy, international relations, and Cold War politics. That is why I am also looking – as an additional case – at global governance and the initiatives for nuclear safety taken by and within international organisations: most notably the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but also the European Union/Euratom and the International Standardisation Organisation (ISO).

This research is conducted in the framework of the NUCLEARWATERS -project (funded by the European Research Council) led by Per Högselius at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, which aims to study the history of nuclear power from the perspective of water.

Belongs to: Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment
Last changed: May 11, 2021