Project description

Research area and aim
Themes and research questions
Theory and method
Case studies


An increasing number of national and international nuclear energy organizations today work explicitly with their “atomic heritage”. They have realized that building final repositories for spent nuclear fuel, or decommissioning a nuclear plant, are not exclusively technical challenges but also a question of handling heritage.

In spite of this growing focus, academic investigations have hitherto dealt with nuclear technology and heritage mainly as separate entities. The proposed project responds to this gap with the overarching aim to articulate atomic heritage as a field of academic inquiry and to generate new knowledge about its character, impact and potential.

Our research questions focus on 1) waste – e.g. how responsibility for radioactive left-overs is attributed to nuclear experts and society at large in various ways, 2) community – e.g. how the high-status identity of mono-industrial nuclear communities is negotiated in a decommissioning process, and 3) imaginaries – e.g. how past utopian-dystopian dichotomies attached to nuclear power are reinvented in relation to current issues like climate change.

The project is theoretically based in critical heritage studies, and a view on heritage as an element and expression of intensified cultural negotiation. Case studies will be carried out at selected nuclear power plants and connected communities in Sweden, the UK, Russia and France within an overall ethnographic methodological approach.

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Research area and aim

An increasing number of national and international nuclear energy organizations today work explicitly with their “atomic heritage” (e.g. OECD/NEA 2015; Kobets 2009; Government of Russian Federation 2007; NDA 2007; Atomic Heritage Foundation 2004). They have realized that building final repositories for spent nuclear fuel, or decommissioning a nuclear plant, are not exclusively technical challenges, and perhaps not even primarily so. Instead, theoretical and methodological approaches from the humanities and social sciences are needed in order to address issues such as professional knowledge transfer over centuries and millennia, intergenerational ethics of risk and identity, transnational archival responsibility and public engagement in repository localization processes on local and global scales (Topcu 2013; Barthe 2006; Sundqvist 2002) – issues of atomic heritage management.

In spite of this increasing focus, academic investigations have hitherto dealt with nuclear technology and heritage mainly as separate entities – a gap that this project intends to respond to.

In disciplines like human geography, history of technology, anthropology and political science we find relevant previous studies dealing with nuclear technology, for example, outlining the socio-technical development of nuclear power, especially in a national context (Nielsen & Knudsen 2010; Josephson 1999, 2003; Hecht 1998; Fjaestad 2010; Kaijser 2001; Schmid 2006). Another body of texts focuses on historical and contemporary political negotiations on nuclear power and radioactive waste (Milder 2012; Hecht 2011; Dawson 1996; Dawson & Darst 2006; Danielsen 2006; Sundqvist 2002; Kaijser & Högselius 2007; Lindén & Rinkevicius 1999; Topcu 2013). A third group of previous research deals with the aftermath of the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents in different countries (Bauer, Kalmbach & Kasperski forthcoming; Schulz 2015; Kuchinskaya 2014; Kasperski 2013, 2012); and a fourth group traces the “nuclear way of living” (Wendland unpubl.) as privileged and high-status on the one hand, and marked by fear and ignorance on the other (Meyer 2014; Zonabend 1993, 2014; Sliavaite 2005; Brown 2013; Masco 2006). While highly relevant, a specific heritage approach towards nuclear power is not elaborated in these studies.

Within heritage studies, on the other hand, and especially within the emerging field of critical heritage studies, a substantial body of academic work is produced dealing with heritage processes in museums but also beyond institutionalized settings (e.g. Waterton & Watson 2015; Harrison 2013, Smith 2006). However, in this literature, empirical cases of nuclear power are largely missing (see though Storm 2014; Holtorf & Högberg 2014, 2015; Fjæstad 2012; Garnert 2008; Bandolin & Sörlin 2007).

There is, thus, a solid basis of previous research on the history and contemporary significance of civil nuclear power from a range of disciplines, along with developing academic heritage perspectives, on which the proposed project can build. There is also a clearly identifiable gap where a heritage perspective on nuclear power is still underdeveloped in academic research. The overarching aim of this project is therefore to articulate atomic heritage as a crucial field of academic inquiry.

More specifically, the project aims to generate new knowledge about the character, impact and potential of atomic heritage; at a moment in time when many of the first generation of reactors are reaching the end of their technical life (about 100 of the world’s 540 commercial reactors have already been taken out of use, see e.g IAEA 2016). Through a deepened understanding of what nuclear power production signifies in different societal and temporal contexts, our ambition is to contribute to a more informed and better designed management of atomic heritage in European perspective. The “criticality” denoting how the fission chain reaction in a nuclear reactor becomes self-sustaining and reaches a steady power level, therefore corresponds to an atomic legacy that has developed into a powerful object for political and cultural negotiations that requires our attention.

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Themes and research questions

The topicality of atomic heritage becomes visible in its material, relational and, not the least, representational features. Together these themes describe a scale from concrete to abstract. At the same time, they form incessantly corresponding vessels by giving each other meaning. The three themes therefore primarily serve as analytical entry points for the research team.

1) The material features of atomic heritage range from the nuclear power plants themselves, to geographically specified safety zones around the nuclear facilities, exclusively built mono-industrial communities, transmission infrastructures, and storage of radioactive waste. In some national, political and institutional contexts, the management of radioactive waste is included in the understanding of “nuclearity”(Hecht 2012), that is, what belongs to the cycle of nuclear energy production and therefore also to the area of responsibility for actors in the nuclear industry. However, in other contexts, radioactive waste is rather understood as a material feature separate from the energy production and separate from considerations about the future of nuclear fission as a source of energy. One of the most challenging material residues of nuclear energy production is therefore also the object of a contested techno-political categorization.

On this theme, the project addresses the following first set of research questions concerning radioactive waste: In which national and institutional contexts is radioactive waste defined as belonging to the cycle of nuclear energy production (as a form of material heritage) and in which is it not? How are the responsibilities of radioactive waste storage as a both short-term and long-term legacy related to these definitions of belonging (nuclearity/non-nuclearity); and how are the responsibilities attributed and distributed between the nuclear industry, nuclear public bodies and society at large?

2) The relational features of atomic heritage concern the interactions between a nuclear enterprise and the local community, and between the nuclear industry and popular opinion. Historically, residents in communities tied 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; taken together expressed in what has been termed the “nuclear way of living” (Wendland unpubl.). The trust in authorities was generally high (Brown 2013, Sliavaite 2005). Further away from the plant, however, the potential hazards of the nuclear industry for humans and the natural environment instead often sparked fear and anxiety (Storm 2014).

On this theme, the project addresses the following second set of research questions concerning community: How is the established high-status identity of mono-industrial nuclear communities (as an expression of relational heritage) maintained or negotiated when facing a decommissioning process? Is it possible to denuclearize a community, from a local as well as a regional-national viewpoint, and if so, in what ways?

3) The representational features of atomic heritage deploy historic scientific and societal hopes of all the problems atomic power would solve. Recent research demonstrates that specific ways of thinking about the future were spread by strategic and transnational networks of individuals since the 1960s; the implications of nuclear energy being one focal point (Andersson 2015). These future visions ranged from utopias connected to an inexhaustible source of energy, revolutionary food preservation and medical treatment, to, on the other hand, dismal images of the extinction of humanity following the nuclear winter (Jameson 1990; Gordin et al 2010; Rindzeviciute forthcoming). The framing of nuclear power as either utopian or dystopian (van Lente 2012; Weart 2012; Kargon & Low 2003) has today evolved into a third imaginary that transcends these polarized positions, but also draws on them.

On this theme, the project addresses the following third and final set of research questions related to imaginaries: What characterizes current dominant nuclear imaginaries in comparison to earlier ones? How are previous utopian-dystopian dichotomies (as an expression of representational heritage) blurred and reinvented – for example in relation to nationalism, climate change and ideas about nature’s capacity for recovery?

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Theory and method


The project is based in critical heritage studies and in dialogue with different understandings and uses of the notion of “heritage”. Heritage is a concept that comprises physical and social as well as representational expressions of how the past interacts with the present (e.g. Waterton & Watson 2015; Harrison 2013; Graham & Howard 2008). It is basically a future-oriented term, highlighting how our “horizon of expectations” is defined by our “space of experience” (Koselleck 2004).

Hitherto, theoretical development in the field have mainly concerned the logics and consequences of institutionalized heritage practices (Smith 2006), while a wider field of past-present-future relations have been considered either as impossible to grasp or as relativizing heritage to become simultaneously everything and nothing (Lowenthal 2011; Hewison 1987). The thinking around “heritage” is confounded by the fact that the word at the same time signifies a process or object, the results of a specific professional practice, and a theoretical perspective used to analyze these processes, objects and practices. Still, no other concept is yet capable to encompass the same range of expressions of temporal interaction involving both material and immaterial features.

The core of heritage studies research deals with institutionalized heritage selection and canonization processes. One strand relevant for the project is industrial heritage in which the processes and objects related to industrial activities and industrial communities constitutes the topic of investigation (e.g. Oevermann & Mieg 2015; Smith, Shackel & Campbell 2011; Nisser 1996). Another strand of relevance for the project is dark or difficult heritage, often focusing on remnants and memories of war and abuse (e.g. Macdonald 2009; Logan & Reeves 2009); acknowledging the value complexity of past experiences.

We draw on the above mentioned traditions, but also move beyond these by generally considering heritage as an element and expression of intensified cultural negotiation (Giblin 2013). Even though we see an increasing interest in atomic heritage from different actors, the residues of nuclear power production are still most often not articulated as atomic heritage. By an understanding of heritage as intensified cultural negotiation, we will be able to trace atomic heritage both within and outside institutionalized heritage practices, which will not only allow us to understand the criticality of atomic heritage, but also potentially contribute to the development of heritage theory.


An overall ethnographic approach will inform our selection and combinations of methods (Atkinson et al. 2007). One first fundamental choice we have made is to put case studies central to the project. The studies concern four locations in countries with substantial or high reliance on nuclear power in their energy mix. More precisely will we examine nuclear power plants, radioactive waste storage facilities and connected communities in Sweden (Forsmark), the UK (Dounreay), Russia (the Leningrad nuclear power plant and the city of Sosnovy Bor) and France (Fessenheim). We will carry out on-site observations to be able to map and describe built-up environments and natural features in a qualitative way, including photo documentation, and, also, to gain insight in non-linguistic human practices at the nuclear power plants, around storage facilities and in the adjacent villages and towns (Öhlander 2011).

Furthermore, we will conduct semi-structured interviews with key actors (Gray 2003) in the nuclear industry (e.g. local plant management, waste management companies and decommissioning authorities), local communities (e.g. so-called local security committees, local entrepreneurs, politicians and stakeholder associations), NGOs (e.g. Green World, Bellona, Sortir du nucléaire and Trinational Nuclear Protection Action Group) and heritage organizations (e.g. Historic Scotland, the National Museum of Scotland, Uppsala county museum and the National Heritage Board).

Finally, we will examine archival and contemporary written sources using historical source criticism (Nilsson 2005), along with visual material using visual analysis methodology (Rose 2007; Sonesson 1992). This empirical group includes for example newspaper articles (e.g. Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace, Le Monde, UNT, DN), blogs, museum exhibitions, and local information centers established by the specific nuclear enterprise or a national nuclear industry organization (e.g. EO.N and Rosatom).

The Leningrad case is difficult because – similar to other Russian nuclear power plants – we will most likely not be able to visit the plant, and it is hard to get access to the connected city of Sosnovy Bor. The case is nevertheless of vital importance to the project and the research team has experience from other Russian atomic sites to find alternative ways of for example arranging interviews and getting access to written sources.

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Case studies

The four case studies are selected because they represent different situations and different strategies in relation the project’s sets of research questions (concerning waste, community and imaginaries). While Forsmark is a site with a working nuclear power plant, a long-term involvement with biological monitoring programs and plans for long-term storage of radioactive waste, at Dounreay decommissioning began in the late 1990s, challenged by heavily contaminated land areas and interwoven with an elaborated heritage process. The Leningrad plant has two reactors scheduled for shutdown but also two new reactors under construction, along with severe problems of waste storage. Interaction with the general public is sparse and highly conditioned as in all Russia, but still more developed here than at most other Russian nuclear sites. The Fessenheim plant exposes intricate relations between local, regional and national scales by its economic, infrastructural and identity politics’ features connected to nuclear energy production, some of which cross the national borders dividing the Alsatian region. The range and variety of situations and strategies at hand at the four case studies will enable us to explore different characteristics of the atomic heritage formation.


Forsmark. Photo: Anna Storm, 2016.

The Forsmark nuclear power plant (Sweden) (see e.g. Lundqvist 2005; Ternström 2008) with three boiling water reactors was built in the early 1970s and commissioned 1980-1985 (the delay was due to the introduction of stricter rules concerning storage of spent fuel, and a referendum on the future of nuclear power in Sweden). The plant is located in a forested and sparsely populated area on the east coast of Sweden. Within a 150 kilometers radius, however, are several bigger cities, one of them being the capital Stockholm. The plant employs just over 1,000 people. In April 1986, high levels of radiation were detected at Forsmark, later influencing the Soviet official announcement of an accident at the Chernobyl plant. In 1988 a facility for low and medium term waste storage was built a few kilometers from the plant, and in 2009 – after a long and complicated process – the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company decided to advocate a location a couple of kilometers from the Forsmark plant as the site for long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel in Sweden. A decision is expected earliest during 2016.

Dounreay. Photo: Dorcas Sinclair [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The Dounreay nuclear power plant (Scotland, UK) (see e.g Gunn & Croft 2010; Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd. 2009) was the site for testing fast breeder and submarine reactors, five reactors in total. It represents nuclear dreams and persistent concerns about the atomic research and power generation program. Between 1954 and 1994, when the last reactor was shut down, the Dounreay nuclear site supported British efforts to establish a closed plutonium fuel cycle. Waste, reprocessing, and decommissioning activities have continued into the 21st century, cost billions of pounds and revealed contamination of the ocean and land nearby. Of roughly 180 facilities built at the site, 50 are highly contaminated and require special controls. The case of Dounreay is characterized by tensions between Scottish nationalism, the British techno-scientific community and local community involvement. Dounreay has also become an object of heritage articulation. Nuclear decommissioning authorities in partnership with museum professionals have worked to establish a strategy for creating a lasting cultural heritage for the site.


Leningrad. Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #305005 / Alexey Danichev / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The Leningrad nuclear power plant (Russia) (see e.g. Vandysheva 2013; Kharitonov 2004) with four graphite moderated reactors (the so-called RBMK type, similar to the reactors at the Chernobyl plant) and two pressurized water reactors under construction, 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 2016 and 2017. Sosnovy Bor was founded specifically to support nuclear energy production. It is a closed city that requires special permission to access. The Leningrad plant is a contested place with overfull spent fuel storages and significant uncertainties related to its 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.


Fessenheim. Photo: Anna Storm, 2017.

The Fessenheim nuclear power plant (France) (see e.g. Meyer 2014; Milder 2012) with two pressurized water reactors was built in the 1970s and commissioned in 1977. It was financed not only by France but also by neighboring Germany and Switzerland and each country is allocated electricity use in proportion to their financial input. The plant is located on the Grand Canal d’Alsace from which it draws its cooling water. The region is densely populated with nearly 100,000 people living 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. The plant employs permanently around 700 staff and 200 contractors, and supports up to 2,000 people during maintenance operations. Anti-nuclear opposition towards the plant has existed since its construction, focusing on risks connected to seismic activities and flooding. Locally, the plant constitutes a valuable source of employment and tax income. Nationally, a closure has become an electoral and political affair. The plant is currently scheduled for shutdown in 2018, but the date is debated and a shutdown has already been postponed several times.

The analytical entry points expressed in our three themes (material, relational and representational atomic heritage, and the corresponding questions connected to waste, community and imaginaries) will direct the research carried out in all four case studies although with varying emphasis. The issue of waste will primarily be examined at Leningrad and Forsmark, the issue of community will be the focus of Fessenheim and Leningrad and the issues of imaginaries will be scrutinized mainly at Dounreay and Forsmark. These combinations also make transnational comparison possible.

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