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The Nuclear Waters of the Soviet Union

Hydro-Engineering and Technocratic Culture in the Nuclear Industry

Time: Fri 2024-03-22 14.00

Location: F3-Lecture Hall (Flodis), Lindstedtsvägen 26, Campus

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Language: English

Subject area: History of Science, Technology and Environment

Doctoral student: Achim Klüppelberg , Historiska studier av teknik, vetenskap och miljö, Nuclearwaters

Opponent: Professor Melanie Arndt, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, Professur für Wirtschafts-, Sozial- und Umweltgeschichte

Supervisor: Professor Per Högselius, Historiska studier av teknik, vetenskap och miljö; Dr. Kati Lindström, Historiska studier av teknik, vetenskap och miljö; Professor Anna Storm, Linköping University, TEMA-T

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You can reach the author via email: achim.klueppelberg[at]



After the development of nuclear weapons, civil applications were seen as a way through which protagonists of Soviet modernity could embrace a new future, which Josephson called atomic-powered communism. Where hydro-powered communism had reached its boundaries, nuclear energy was to take over. Crucial parts of the Soviet nuclear industry were based on the use of water. The mantle of progressiveness, innovation, and status previously embodied by the hydropower industry was taken up by emerging nuclear technocrats. While scholars have readily engaged nuclear power as a topic, they have neglected its hydraulic roots and hydro-nuclear entanglements, especially for cooling and other technological purposes. An important but yet overlooked influence came from the creation of Soviet hydraulic-hydropower technological systems.

This doctoral thesis fills a twofold gap in the existing literature. First, water is placed at the centre of an analysis of the Soviet nuclear programme. Pipes, valves, tanks, pumps, pressure mechanics and gravity approaches all use much older inventions and engineering mindsets, which are generally not considered in the existing historiography concerning nuclear energy. Aquatic systems, riverbeds, industrial improvements, watersheds, and fluid pathways of potential contamination have not sufficiently been linked to the rapid development of the nuclear industry, even though toxic radioisotopes were spread across the globe.

Second, it analyses how technocratic culture influenced nuclear decision-making processes. Therefore, discourses of siting Soviet nuclear power plants in the period between 1954 and 1991 are analysed under a water and technocratic culture perspective to tap more accurately into the links between the nuclear industry, hydraulic engineering, economic imperatives, power and hierarchy, as well as state-communist ideology. The dominant culture present at the construction site of a nuclear power plant determines the circumstances, within which regimes of nuclear safety are defined and operated. If we want to understand the underlying reasons for why nuclear safety was mismanaged in the USSR, we need to investigate the details and everyday decision-making process made by people on the ground, also in order to see which mistakes should not be repeated in the future. Therefore, this work proposes an original technocratic culture analysis to explain these issues within a Soviet context, based on three subcategories designated as political, nuclear inner circle, and safety culture.

Consequently, insights from these investigations shall serve to broaden our understanding of the phenomenon of the Soviet nuclear industry’s fast development, by answering the main research question of how technocratic culture influenced hydraulic engineering practices in the Soviet nuclear industry and how this affected safety. The two foci, water and technocratic culture, are interlinked and thus investigated together. By highlighting hydro-nuclear entanglements at crucial nuclear installations throughout the USSR, this thesis contributes to a more sophisticated understanding of the environmental consequences such a technological system entails, stressing the necessity for nuclear safety under the long shadow of the state-communist legacy that continues to influence how we live in Europe today.