The 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan highlighted the centrality of water in nuclear energy operations. This paper reinterprets the history of nuclear power as a history of water, and the history of nuclear accidents as a special case of droughts, floods, and other water-related disasters. The utmost importance of large-scale uninterrupted water flows for cooling nuclear facilities, and the need to simultaneously protect them from flooding and from contaminating their wet surroundings, have turned nuclear engineers into hydraulic engineers who interact with and transform nature in a variety of ways. The “nuclear age,” to the extent that it can be said to have materialized, is fundamentally a hydraulic age, and as such it draws heavily on experience gathered from hydraulic societies in the past. These historical affinities become particularly visible in times of crisis. The paper discusses several concrete examples of nuclear disasters, trying to discern what – if anything – makes such disasters special in relation to other, “normal” droughts and floods.
Per Högselius is Professor of History of Technology at the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment at KTH Royal Institute of Technology. His books, which were published in Sweden, Germany, Britain and the United States, include the award-winning Red Gas: Russia and the Origins of European Energy Dependence (2013), the synthetic Europe’s Infrastructure Transition: Economy, War, Nature (2016, co-authored with Arne Kaijser and Erik van der Vleuten and published as one of 6 volumes in the award-winning Making Europe book series), and most recently the provocative Energy and Geopolitics (2019). In Sweden he is also active as an author of popular history books and essays (the latter mainly published in the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet). In 2018 he started up his ERC Consolidator project “NUCLEARWATERS: Putting Water at the Centre of Nuclear Energy History” (www.nuclearwaters.eu), which will be completed by 2023.