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Streams, Steams, and Steels

A Transnational History of Risk Regulation in Nuclear Power Plants (1850–1985)

Time: Fri 2024-05-03 13.00

Location: F3 (Flodis), Lindstedtsvägen 26 & 28, Stockholm

Video link:

Language: English

Subject area: History of Science, Technology and Environment

Doctoral student: Siegfried Evens , Historiska studier av teknik, vetenskap och miljö

Opponent: Professor Scott Knowles, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology

Supervisor: Professor Per Högselius, Historiska studier av teknik, vetenskap och miljö; Docent Kati Lindström, Historiska studier av teknik, vetenskap och miljö; Professor Anna Storm, Linköping University

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QC 20240402


Water is essential to produce nuclear energy and prevent nuclear disasters. As light water reactors are increasingly seen as a solution to achieving a sustainable energy transition and battling the climate crisis, it is more important than ever to investigate the risks of using water for nuclear power production. However, the reactor technologies that manage all that water and steam – pressure vessels, steam generators, pipes, valves, and pumps – have not received much attention from historians, STS scholars, and risk sociologists. Therefore, this dissertation aims to study the risk regulation of these crucial reactor components and materials by national and international actors from a historical perspective.

Relying on archival sources from the US, France, Sweden, and multiple international organisations, as well as on interviews, this dissertation aims to write a new, longue durée history of nuclear safety, going back to the origins of water and steam risk management in the nineteenth century. Such a historical perspective on nuclear risk regulation reveals two important insights. Firstly, in the 1950s and 1960s, the usage of water and steam technologies in nuclear reactors revealed new types of risks. These ‘ambi-nuclear risks’ are a hybrid of older steam risks, such as leaks, breaks, and explosions, and new risks of radiation and contamination. Secondly, between the 1950s and 1980s, new regimes were created in the US, France, and Sweden to regulate these risks. Initially, during the 1950s, non-nuclear steam regulations were applied directly to the first nuclear power plants. Yet, as power plants increased in size, accidents occurred, and nuclear technologies became increasingly controversial, ‘ambi-nuclear risk regimes’ were created to adapt or ‘nuclearise’ the older regulations. They included new safety measures and methodologies that were directed toward preventing radiation releases, but at the same time they mobilised older technologies, institutions, knowledges, and ideas related to thermal hydraulics and metallurgy. Ambi-nuclear risk regimes were shaped by a wide variety of historical actors through negotiating boundaries between ‘nuclear’ and ‘non-nuclear’ knowledges, components, risks, and regulations. Private or semi-private engineering associations played a particularly vital role in this.

This thesis thus shows how nuclear safety as we know it today became nuclear as the result of a transnational long-term process that was greatly determined by much older non-nuclear water and steam risks. The results of this dissertation contribute to ongoing scholarly debates on risk, nuclear technologies, and water in fields like History of Technology, Environmental3History, STS, and Risk Sociology. Most importantly, the thesis expands the time frame in which nuclear risk has traditionally been studied. It challenges dominant conceptions of nuclear power as innovative or exceptional, instead connecting questions of nuclear risk to longer historical developments in water management and industrialisation. This demonstrates the importance of historical contingency for understanding risk and preventing (nuclear) disasters.