Accepted Paper:

Tracing the tacit meanings of nuclear things: Nuclear work and the making of material memories  


Anna Veronika Wendland (Herder Institute for East Central European Historical Research)

Paper short abstract:

The paper discusses “nuclearity” as it is embodied in specific entanglements between men and machines, in working practices, rituals, and in individual memories and imaginaries which are connected to the materiality of nuclear things.

Paper long abstract:

The proposed paper is based on field study research for a research project on the comparative history of nuclear power plant communities, nuclear work, and the transformation and mutual interconnection of nuclear "safety cultures" in Eastern and Western Europe, with case studies from Rivne and Chernobyl (Ukraine), Ignalina (Lithuania), Grafenrheinfeld and Grohnde (both Germany).

One of my methodological approaches to the field is Participant Observation, which I conducted under different conditions in operating units, during maintenance outage, and in decommissioning. PO is a complementary research methodology which helps the historian to learn about things which are under-represented in engineering literature and official sources, such as working routines, individual perceptions of risks and safety matters, and individual envisioning of man-machine relationships.

The paper aims at discussing "nuclearity" as it is embodied in specific working practices, rituals, and in individual memories which are connected to nuclear things - to systems that one is operating, to machinery which did not function as expected, or to distinct objects connected to emotions. I gathered such memories when participating in specific working processes and putting questions on them - an interaction which often triggered my informants' reflection on individual experiences with objects, and the tacit meanings that objects have for them. A further, and often unknown, source representing such man-machine/object memories is amateur photography from the private archives of nuclear engineers. Such photographs of people and nuclear machinery convey workplace imaginaries as seen through the eyes of "nuclear people", and give valuable insights into the material aspects of nuclearity.

Panel T093
Infrastructures of nuclearity: Exploring entangled histories, spaces and futures