Project description

Of about 540 commercial nuclear reactors in the world, 100 have already been taken out of use. In the near future, many more will be closed down as the first generation of reactors is becoming obsolete. Regardless of shifting political views on nuclear power and ongoing new construction in several countries, we have entered an era of post-nuclear sites in large numbers.

What legacies do the post-nuclear sites convey? Which crucial questions face us in the efforts to manage these highly contaminated places in a responsible way? The current control of radioactive material and sites, and experiences of a privileged, high status but also vulnerable “nuclear way of living” are marked by a striking asymmetry of power between different groups of actors and between different hierarchies of value. This tension forms an underlying rationale for the project.


Case study 1: Decommissioning the “nuclear way of living” (France)
Case study 2. Authorized nuclear storytelling (Russia)
Case study 3. Articulating the issue of radioactive waste (Russia)
Case study 4. Post-nuclear nature imaginaries (Sweden)


Case study 1. Decommissioning the “nuclear way of living” (Fessenheim, FRANCE) Responsible researcher: Florence Fröhlig

Historically, residents in towns connected to a nuclear facility were often privileged in terms of social welfare infrastructure. Elements of secrecy due to the industrial activity’s national importance and the dominance of high-status nuclear engineers contributed to a common experience of being special and superior, while the risks were played down. We want to explore if this is a valid characterization also in places where the primary identity has been that of a neglected periphery at the national border combined with transnational cooperation, and the aim is also to examine how the “nuclear way of living” in such a border region is re-negotiated when the plant is going to close down.

This case study examines the local communities connected to the Fessenheim nuclear power plant in Alsace, France. The plant was built in the 1970s, financed not only by France but also by neighboring Germany and Switzerland. Each country was allocated electricity use in proportion to their financial input. The region is densely populated with nearly 100,000 people live within 20 kilometers of the plant. The German border is to be found 1.5 kilometers away, and the Swiss border about 40 kilometers from the plant. Fessenheim is scheduled for shutdown in 2017.

The people of the region speak the same Alemanic language (called Alsatian in Alsace, Swiss German in Switzerland, and Swabian/Badisch in Germany) but are citizens of three countries. Does this linguistic particularity have any impact on the decommissioning process? Does the nuclear technology perform as a common denominator and could it be understood as another transnationalizing factor in these communities? With a focus on subjective perceptions and social agency, the investigation will show how the local population conceptualizes their present and future belonging in the region and in the nuclear community, with regard to their civic identities and the relation between ethnic minorities and national majorities.

The main sources are be semi-structured interviews with residents of the region (workers of the plant, political actors and people engaged in activist movements) in all three countries, and especially in the town of Fessenheim. The semi-structured interviews intend to map attitudes and strategies of different socio-economic actors facing the decommissioning process of the nuclear power plant. In addition, an analysis of local and national press featuring the history and future of the nuclear power plant is carried out in order to understand some of the discursive frames the interviewees relate to.

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Case study 2. Authorized nuclear storytelling (St Petersburg, Moscow, RUSSIA) Responsible researcher: Eglė Rindzevičiūtė

Heritage institutions like museums are crucial sites of modern society to define and legitimize the meaning of ideas, technologies, social formations and political institutions. In the Soviet Union, achievements in science and technology, especially related to space and nuclear power, were intended to demonstrate the superiority of the communist system and a number of museums on these themes were established. It is now time to investigate how the legacy of the nuclear complex has been negotiated in post-Soviet Russian museums. We describe potential continuities and shifts when the communist propaganda of nuclear energy was replaced by the narratives of the stately nuclear corporation Rosatom. Another subject of inquiry is if there are any new actors emerging, who might formulate critical counter-narratives.

This case study scrutinizes the articulation of nuclear legacies in leading museums in post-Soviet Russia. The focus of the analysis is not only on the contents of the museum exhibitions, but also the organizational processes behind the selection and framing of the stories about nuclear power. The key rationale is that speaking to the society through the museum entails a substantial financial commitment and a complex engagement with the materiality. The focus on the museumification of Russian nuclear energy, in this way, enables an analysis of deeper cultural processes of state symbolism that evolve in parallel to the more common promotional media of nuclear energy, such as web and paper publications.

We examines two long-standing and one emerging exhibition on nuclear power in Russia: a) at the Polytechnic Museum in Moscow b) at the museum department of the stately nuclear corporation Rosatom which is located in Saint Petersburg c) through the currently ongoing reorganization of the nuclear energy pavilion at the All-Russia Exhibition Centre (VDNKh) in Moscow into a new museum, specially dedicated to nuclear energy. A close study of these three examples reveals the conflicts and compromises that emerge when museums, as a traditional state-owned cultural sector organization, meets a politicized economic actor, Rosatom. From the perspective of an “authorized heritage discourse” (Smith 2006), the investigation will explore the material and discursive organization of the displays, and thereby explicate the official nuclear storytelling in today’s Russia, in a context of the general development of museums and nuclear politics in the Soviet Union/Russia.

The main sources are the actual exhibitions along with related documentation, such as catalogs, guiding texts and websites, as well as archival documents pertaining to the history of these exhibitions. In order to find out about the reasons behind the choice of particular display solutions, semi-structured interviews are conducted with museum curators and representatives of Rosatom.

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Case study 3. Articulating the issue of radioactive waste (Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant, Sosnovyj Bor, RUSSIA) Responsible researchers: Tatiana Kasperski and Andrei Stsiapanau

In the Soviet Union, nuclear hazards were most often successfully concealed from public knowledge and radioactive waste was mainly a non-issue. In post-Soviet Russia, contaminated landscapes have increasingly entered the political agenda. By small steps, environmental experts, activists and local populations try to draw attention to the needs of humans and natural environments exposed to radioactivity. Thus, for example, in the mid-2000s the Russian state has initiated a process to establish long-term national nuclear waste storage facilities.

We think it is urgent to ask how the previous non-issue of nuclear waste is now being articulated. The definitions of radioactive waste and its safe disposal are certainly pertinent, as are the issues of how the hegemonic interpretation of the government and the state nuclear corporation, Rosatom, might be contested and challenged by other actors. We aim to show which strategies of meaning making are employed to articulate alternative views on the nuclear waste. With a focus on the last 10-15 years, we investigate how the urgent question of nuclear waste legacies is currently being raised and how the “nuclearity” (Hecht 2006) of the waste, that is, its status as an integral part of nuclear technology is defined or denied by different actors.

This case study focuses on the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant (Russia) which has four graphite moderated reactors (the so-called RBMK type, similar to the reactors at the Chernobyl plant) and two pressurized water reactors under construction. It sits on the Gulf of Finland near the city of Sosnovy Bor and 70 kilometers from St. Petersburg. The RBMK reactors were connected to the grid between 1973 and 1982, and two of them are scheduled for shutdown in 2018 and 2020. Sosnovy Bor was founded specifically to support nuclear energy production. It is a closed city that requires special permission to access (since 2013 Russian citizens do not need permissions). The Leningrad nuclear power plant site has recently become a contested place with overfull spent fuel storages and significant uncertainties related to its legacy and future, something representatives of NGOs have struggled to expose. The construction of new storage facilities for nuclear waste is planned at the site, and thousands of spent fuel assemblies await final disposition.

The main sources of the study are semi-structured interviews with environmental activists, officials and scientists in St Petersburg, Sosnovyj Bor and the Leningrad region, as well as an analysis of local press, expert reports and governmental policy documents.

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Case study 4. Post-nuclear nature imaginaries (Barsebäck, Forsmark, SWEDEN) Responsible researcher: Anna Storm

In the process of dismantling a nuclear power plant, the goal is often a fully restored “natural” landscape, possible to use for any purpose without fear for radioactivity. Energy companies launch future scenarios depicting unspoiled green lawns, free of any trace of nuclear establishments, which imply a responsible reset to a state previous to the industrial activity. Other actors, like municipalities and real estate companies, envision scenarios of living environments with pastoral characteristics. Appealing prospects envisage people walking their dogs and children playing in sandboxes at the former sites of nuclear power plants. Any reflections about potential risks are lacking all through.

In parallel, an emerging photographic genre shows idyllic natural motifs at abandoned industries, including nuclear plants. For example, the highly contaminated so called “exclusion zone” around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine is not only a contemporary target for rich Westerners searching a thrilling experience on their vacation, but also an area for photographic depictions showing peaceful natural settings. In lavish photo books we encounter blossoming fruit trees and rare species like the European bison grazing in backlight. In the case study, we try to understand the post-nuclear natures expressed in these visions. We examine how the legacies of the nuclear activity affect the transformation of the places, and what impact the nature imaginaries might have in relation to public opinion of nuclear power in general.

This case study investigates the ongoing decommissioning of the Barsebäck nuclear power plant in Sweden in relation to the dismantling of the Risø research station in Denmark, and places them in the context of the romanticizing as well as dystopian imaginaries of sites like Chernobyl and Fukushima. The owner E.ON and the employees at Barsebäck are currently in the phase of thorough preparations for dismantling within a few decades. Since Barsebäck is the first large-scale commercial nuclear power plant being shut down in Sweden, the work has implications as a model for later decommissioning processes. The historically shifting relations between Sweden and Denmark in nuclear politics will also be touched upon through the lens of the attitudes towards Barsebäck and Risø in the region of Öresund. The study analyzes the discursive and organizational resources that are mobilized in order to extend the “clean” nuclear industry into a supposedly pure and safe post-nuclear nature. Such an extension brings in unexpected negotiations and innovations, such as the introduction of the concept of “industrial nature” (Kowarik 2005) into the nuclear field.

The main sources are semi-structured interviews with employees at Barsebäck and Risø nuclear plants, E.ON representatives and stately and municipal actors, primarily in Stockholm, Kävlinge and Copenhagen, along with an analysis of visual and text material, for example architectural and decommissioning plans, strategically used in the ambition to erase all the traces of the nuclear past at the sites.

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