Infrastructures of Nuclearity: Exploring Entangled Histories, Spaces and Futures

24 Dec
Sergiu Novac

The initial idea to organize a nuclear panel or track – at that point it was not clear which one of the two it would be – for the forthcoming common 4S/EASST conference came during the ‘Technosciences of Post-Socialism’ workshop, also partly supported by EASST, which took place in Budapest in September 2015. The initiative came from Marton Fabok from the University of Liverpool, co-organizer of the workshop1. Marton and me were the only ones engaging nuclear issues in that workshop, him researching the nuclear new-built project at Wylfa in the UK, while I was working on the other end of the spectrum, looking at nuclear decommissioning through a case study of a former power plant of the GDR, located in Greifswald. We commonly agreed that we could set up something that would be larger in scope and engage directly with nuclear issues from an STS perspective and that the Barcelona conference would provide an ideal platform for this project.

It is important to note, however, that it was not just shared academic interest in the topic that motivated us to go forward with the idea. The Budapest workshop brought together an excellent group of young academics that are also personally engaged in, and politically concerned with the Central and Eastern European region and it showed how this engagement becomes clearly articulated in how ‘socialism’, ‘post-socialism’ and their techno-political articulations are being worked through. I think I am not mistaken to say that both of us shared a multitude of affinities with these concerns and possibilities of engaging them and we also considered that nuclear topics should receive more attention in this context. The controversial project for a new Russian built nuclear power plant at Paks2 in Hungary was a direct incentive, but it was just one example in a sea of transformations that should, in our opinion, receive more attention. Starting from that, we set out to ask how we could put together a track that would bring together several aspects of the history of nuclear energy in the region, the path dependencies this history created and the transformations that the industry goes through at present. Of main concern was to look at these issues while still having a global perspective on socialism and its ‘posts-‘ in mind, faithful to what, for example, Gabrielle Hecht had called ‘entangled geographies’ (Hecht 2011) of nuclearity. It was in this context that we contacted Sonja Schmid from Virginia Tech University, who had just published a wonderful book on the history of the Soviet civil nuclear power program (Schmid 2015) and with whom we were both already in contact, asking whether she would be interested to become involved in the organization of the track. She was very enthusiastic about the idea and this became the final organizational format.


Door to the controlled area. Greifswald NPP, Germany. Photo by the author


Ultimately we decided to go for a full track, which was giving us more space for exploring various topics. Therefore, the regional focus soon lost ground in the face of a broader approach towards present nuclear topics that would be worth engaging. Such an approach, we hoped, would also enable a larger pool of applications and lead to more diverse and engaging discussions. The final call for the track engaged with three notions that seemed crucial for this engagement: the first was nuclearity, the second infrastructure and the third aforementioned entanglement. Nuclearity is Gabrielle Hecht’s (2012) way of describing the quality of something to be nuclear, a quality which can shift according to various settings, being emphasized or deemphasized, depending on the desired political outcomes that various actors are employing it for. Infrastructures are usually those assemblages that are ideally invisible and become visible only when they break down. Therefore, we considered it important that contributions we were calling for would engage with the details of keeping nuclearity alive, or, in other cases, bringing it to its final deathbed. And finally we were very keen on bringing together grounded case studies enriched by empirical work, which would at the same time make the step towards other scales of these infrastructures and embed them in global processes, faithful to the ‘entangled geographies’ agenda, or, to use another reference, to Burawoy’s (2000) and Gille and O’Riain’s (2002) notion of ‘global ethnography’. We called for three broad sub-topics, which we hoped would cover these large subjects: 1) The way nuclearity is governed at various scales; 2) What does it mean to live and work with nuclearity?; 3) What does it mean to study nuclearity now as STS scholars or, more broadly, social scientists?

I will now go over to those discussion topics that came out of the track, which I personally found most interesting. Specifically, I will deal with two questions: first, the role of the researcher in studying nuclearity and, second, the new wave of infrastructure studies in STS and its related disciplines and how they can feed into nuclear studies. One aspect which triggered my imagination was the way in which nuclearity is being encountered. That is to say, how is it possible to engage with the hidden geographies of risk and danger at nuclear sites, how are these perceived and lived as everyday experiences. Karen Bickerstaff’s presentation on the issue, based on a rich ethnography of living in Sellafield, next to the UK’s largest nuclear facility, was for me the most inspiring in this sense. It was not the only paper engaging with these issues, but it was the one that gave most ethnographic insight to the topic, reminding me of Zonabend’s (2007) seminal ethnography of the La Hague nuclear reprocessing site in France. My own research deals with a nuclear decommissioning project located at the Baltic Sea, in a region which attempts to reinvent itself as a tourist attraction. Therefore, thinking about the way in which hidden geographies of danger are negotiated as everyday experiences, creating spatial and temporal rhythms which override expert practices of describing and containing danger, revealed new insights about how to approach my own work.

The hidden geographies of nuclearity pointed out also another aspect, which went beyond the lived experience, namely the notion of infrastructure. This was a key theoretical binding element which ran across all the presentations of the track and was picked up by Gabrielle Hecht in her discussion of the final panel of the track. Infrastructures are supposed to be invisible and invisibility has always been the ultimate goal of the nuclear industry. Thinking nuclearity as infrastructure, in turn, has the potential of de-exceptionalizing nuclear studies and bringing it in conversation with other fields in STS and its related disciplines. Infrastructures, since rendered invisible, seem ‘boring’ and become appealing only when they break down (Star 1999). The breakdown of infrastructures reveals the amount of work that is being invested in keeping them invisible and the fact that, for instance, infrastructures of the nuclear are far more than just nuclear, involving complex assemblages of political, material and social networks. Through the second wave of infrastructure studies (Anand 2012; Appel 2012; Barry 2013; Harvey and Knox 2015; Graham 2009; Gupta 2015; Larkin 2013; Shamir 2013), which started to focus on the Global South, new topics have entered into the area of interest of STS, topics which move away from innovation studies. Because infrastructures always break down, despite the continuous maintenance work involved in rendering them invisible, topics such as repair, clean-up, waste and ‘de-creation’ have become very appealing. I would go further and argue that the focus on the Global South actually just revealed an analytical bias towards infrastructures in the Global North. As it turns out, infrastructures are becoming increasingly visible not just in the case of the Global South and they were arguably never that boring. Ever since the second wave of infrastructure studies took off, cases that look at the Global North also reveal an ever increasing focus on maintenance, break-down and ultimately an increasing visibility of what should remain invisible. For me, the main analytical insight of the track was that thinking nuclearity through infrastructure forces us also to rethink globalization and bring back into the inquiry a more nuanced and critical view of the processes that are presently at work on a global scale. It was also a gentle reminder that progress builds upon the piles of debris of past visions of progress, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, and that, especially in the context of energy transitions and anthropogenic climate change, thinking about how to remove the debris of the past is just as important as imagining new visions of the future.

Finally, an aspect which ran through most of the discussions in the track was the role ‘we’ as social scientists have in a public controversy regarding nuclear issues. Arguably this topic provoked the most heated discussions, since several of the presenters were active also in various advisory boards and had experience with public hearings and common decision making processes on nuclear matters, which involved nuclear experts and other established stakeholders in the field. Joe Masco hit a sensitive cord when he called the social scientist an ‘enabler of nuclearity’, triggering questions of what kind of enabling is going on in this process. Does the social scientist ultimately have just a token role in these advisory boards, as Shannon Cram and William Kinsella seemed to suggest? Karena Kalmbach and Gabrielle Hecht also got involved in the discussion, bringing in insights from such meetings in Germany and France. The discussion is of high importance, since in recent years social science has become, at least formally, increasingly visible in techno-scientific controversies. And yet, there seemed to be a sense of frustration that was shared by many participants in the room regarding the fact that this visibility does not lead to the desired outcome of making decisions and communicating risks in the nuclear industry more transparent. This brings back the old question of the public intellectual and his role in the shaping of expertise and, ultimately, the transformation towards more democratic decision making processes. And yet, there were also voices in the room that argued differently, pointing out that many of the outcomes of such formal discussions in expert groups depend on the kind of language that is deployed and the willingness of critically inclined social sciences to seriously engage in a compromise with established nuclear stakeholders. This would bear the potential for moving forward in such controversies, with the remark that it would also imply accepting another, maybe slower and at times frustrating understanding of democracy as something that is constantly a ‘work in progress’.


I would like to thank EASST for awarding me the with a conference waiver. I would also like to thank the local team in Barcelona for their work in organizing the conference. Special thanks go to Gabrielle Hecht, Karena Kalmbach and Joe Masco for joining the track as discussants. Last, but not least, I want to thank Sonja Schmid and Marton Fabok for making this track happen.


1 The other two co-organizers of the workshop were Zoltán Ginelli from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest and András Novoszáth from the Open University in the UK. Further information can be found on the workshop website: .

2 The Paks 2 project has received ‘green light’ from the European Union in the autumn of 2016, despite the fact that at first it seemed the EU would attempt to block it.


Anand, Nikhil. 2012. “Municipal Disconnect: On Abject Water and Its Urban Infrastructures.” Ethnography 13 (4): 487–509.

Appel, Hannah C. 2012. “Walls and White Elephants: Oil Extraction, Responsibility, and Infrastructural Violence in Equatorial Guinea.” Ethnography 13 (4): 439–65. doi:10.1177/1466138111435741.

Barry, Andrew. 2013. Material Politics: Disputes Along the Pipeline. 1sted. Wiley-Blackwell.

Burawoy, Michael. 2000. Global Ethnography: Forces, Connections, and Imaginations in a Postmodern World. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gille, Zsuzsa, and Seán Ó Riain. 2002. “Global Ethnography.” Annual Review of Sociology 28: 271–95.

Graham, Stephen. 2009. Disrupted Cities. 1sted. New York: Routledge.

Gupta, Akhil. 2015. “An Anthropology of Electricity from the Global South.” Cultural Anthropology 30 (4): 555–68. doi:10.14506/ca30.4.04.

Harvey, Penelope, and Hannah Knox. 2015. Roads: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise. Expertise (Ithaca, N.Y.). Ithaca ; London: Cornell University Press.

Hecht, Gabrielle, ed. 2011. Entangled Geographies: Empire and Technopolitics in the Global Cold War. Inside Technology. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

———. 2012. Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Larkin, Brian. 2013. “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42 (1): 327–43.

Schmid, Sonja D. 2015. Producing Power: The Pre-Chernobyl History of the Sovietnuclear Industry. Inside Technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Shamir, Ronen. 2013. Current Flow: The Electrification of Palestine. Stanford University Press.

Star, Susan Leigh. 1999. “The Ethnography of Infrastructure.” American Behavioral Scientist 43 (3): 377–91.

Zonabend, Françoise. 2007. The Nuclear Peninsula. Cambridge ; New York : Paris: Cambridge University Press ; Editions de la maison des sciences de l’homme.

Author information

author Sergiu Novac holds an M.A. from the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Central European University in Budapest and is currently a PhD Candidate of the same department. His dissertation is tentatively called: 'Putting Atoms to Rest: Decommissioning as Techno-political Laboratory in Greifswald, Germany'.

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply