Nuclear Modernity. Atomic Cities, Nuclear Work, and Nuclear Safety in Eastern and Western Europe, 1966-2021

Dr. Anna Veronika Wendland (habilitation project)

The proposed monograph is situated at the interface of urban (social) history, technology studies, and environmental history. Research focuses on a unique urban-technological phenomenon which existed, and still exists, solely on the territory of the former Soviet Union. An Atomograd or Atomgrad (Russian for “atom city”) is a small industrial city (from 30,000 to 80,000 inhabitants) designed to serve the needs of large commercial – as we would say in the West – nuclear power plants. Such cities with giant reactor parks (or rather, reactor parks with cities) emerged in the 1960s and 70s, mainly in the Western parts of the Soviet Union. With few exceptions, they were all situated amidst agrarian land- and riverscapes, which Soviet engineers and planners regarded as appropriate for the construction of nuclear power plants. The sites were not too far from industrial regions in need of electric energy, but sparsely populated. They were easily integrated into existing railway and high voltage grids, and well supplied with cooling water and plenty of “empty” space for large industrial and urban constructions.

In contrast to the closed and secret military nuclear facility (compare Kate Brown’s project on “cities made by plutonium” in the U.S. and the Soviet Union), the Atomograd was an urban project that served the purposes of both energy economy and political propaganda. As such, it was a public project. Though the Soviet NPP was a closed enterprise, with security clearance and related restrictions imposed on nuclear workers, the Atomograd was an open city, and often the only “real” city in its respective regional context. Its city-dwellers were well-educated, and socially privileged in comparison to average Soviet urban society. Nuclear cities played a crucial role in “nuclear age” propaganda, and in the specific Soviet cultural representations of science, nuclear engineering, and electric energy. Likewise important, such urban communities represent a certain type and stage of – or reanimation of – sotsgorod Socialist industrial city planning and social engineering. Its main characteristics are formal standardization, rationalization, transnational aesthetics, and specific designs of public space (garden city elements, a dominant role of health, sports, socialist art). Another characteristic is a specific definition of “man to nature” relations in such cities.

Moreover, the Atomograd was a Soviet transnational integration project, where nuclear specialists from all over the Soviet Union lived with people of rural origin from the NPP hinterland, who still were connected to the surrounding agrarian society. Nuclear cities heavily influenced their surroundings, providing an opportunity to escape from the village for young men and women who were hired for work on the NPP construction sites. For them, working in nuclear cities was the crucial step from static Soviet rural life to urban industrial modernity. Thus, the late modern nuclear city reloaded high modern models of urban lives and careers. However, nuclear utopia did not provide identical prospects for all people coming into touch with it. Social stratification along linguistic (e.g. Russian-Ukrainian), and educational lines was common in the Atomograd, with corresponding differences, and conflicts, with respect to wages, privileges, and access to housing.

Another very important aspect of urban Atomograd history is the emergence of distinct social identities through “working with the atom” i.e. “domesticating the atom”. The self-perception of engineers and nuclear workers was shaped by technological pride and the awareness of one’s privileged position within Soviet industrial society. At the same time, the atomshchiki were aware of the risks, restrictions, and health hazards connected to their working place. But though workers were familiar with accidents, risk awareness seems to be of lesser importance to pre-Chernobyl nuclear social identities.

This latter aspect refers to the scope of my investigation between “utopia and disaster”. “Utopia” refers to pioneer self-perceptions, engineer’s views on nature and technology, Soviet patriotism, nuclear proletarian pride, and utopian concepts connected with electricity, modern urban settings and allegedly “clean” industrial working places. “Disaster” is, first and foremost, related to the epochal impact of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Chernobyl gave a heavy blow to technological pride, and deeply shocked the ever-optimistic Soviet nuclear community. It had a long-lasting influence on cultural representations of the Atom in Eastern Europe. Additionally, “disaster” also refers to the mass experience of Soviet disintegration in the 1990s. Catastrophic event, economic crisis, and the decline of the imperial nuclear industry were regarded as different aspects of the same process by the Atomograd inhabitants.

However, we cannot observe a total demise of urban nuclear utopia in Eastern Europe as one would have expected after Chernobyl and Fukushima. More precisely, it has been transformed by global knowledge and technology transfers, the globalization of energy markets, and the so-called “nuclear renaissance” since 2000, which was accompanied by patriotic renaissances, especially in Russia. Today, most of the nuclear cities in my sample are prospective cities. The persistence of Soviet style nuclear pride, specific cultural representations of nuclear, and specific urban identities coexist with neo-liberal management newspeak and post-Chernobyl/Fukushima safety culture discourses. This enrichment of old with new elements – the former displaying an astonishing viability – is perhaps the most striking aspect of nuclear city history until 2011.

The investigation is based on a multi-faceted array of sources. In addition to “classical” archival materials from central and republican authorities I am investigating “grey” literature (enterprise journals and brochures, non-classified materials from enterprise archives), special literature on nuclear engineering and urban planning, visual materials (mainly photography) from official sources, enterprise, and family archives, and on-site biographical interviews. The material is from ten nuclear cities in Ukraine, Russia, and Lithuania: Energodar, Iuzhnoukraiinsk, Netishyn, Kuznetsovsk, Prypiat/Slavutych, Desnogorsk, Kurchatov, Sosnovyi Bor, Zarechnyi, and Sniechkus/Visaginas.

Projektbild AVWendland
Construction site of the nuclear power plant in Rivne, ca. 1985. RAES/O. Kyslyj