Plutonium Worlds. Computer Simulation and Nuclear Energy 1950-1980

Projekt: Forschung


On March 21, 1991, former Bundesforschungsminister Heinz Riesenhuber announced the termination of a project which by then had developed into the biggest white elephant of federal funding in Western Germany: The Fast Breeder SNR-300 in Kalkar. Once promoted as a kind of perpetuum mobile of the Atomic Age, and funded with about 7 Billion Deutschmarks, this Fast Breeder project not only faced tremendous technical predicaments, but also massive public resistance. As an effect, the remains of this epitome of FRG’s nuclear technology in the end had been bargained to a dutch scrap merchant and investor for the amount of 2,5 Million DM. Since then, the site drags out its afterlive as an amusement park, with its brute architecture and its mascot ›Kernie‹ as eerie remembrances of its past.

Nonetheless, SNR-300’s techno-history can be perceived as an outstanding example for an era when apostles of civil nuclear energy production portrayed nuclear technology as the avantgarde of scientific research. Western Germany’s physicist and ›father of the Fast Breeder‹, Wolf Häfele, celebrated this leading-edge status with the announcement of a novel epistemology fostered by the uncertainities and scaling effects involved in nuclear technology: He declared the age of hypotheticality. Where the coventional trial-and-error-based knowledge production was utterly prohibitive because of the involved nuclear endangerments, the time had come for the application of computer simulations and ›virtual experiments‹.

As an effect, not only the planning and construction process of complex large-scale nuclear facilities like Fast Breeders made use of various computer simulation softwares and tools. Their development (and its funding) was also backed by broad-scale systems analyses which delineated possible (world-wide) energy production scenarios. Häfele, working also as the director of the department of Energy System at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) between 1973-80 was eager to depict the indispensable role of nuclear technology for an endurable planetary future. At the same time, contemporary critics described these as obnoxious ›plutonium worlds‹ (Robert Jungk), ruining the future of all mankind.

Just at the end of the atomic age in Germany, and by addressing merely the »German Manhattan Project« (Der SPIEGEL) of SNR-300, my research project seeks to reconstruct this age from a media-historical viewpoint. It thereby concentrates – in a comparative perspective with the early breeder development in the US and projects in France similar to the FRG’s program – on a technology which can be seen as the epitome of ›nuclear thinking‹, and which was set up in the FRG in order to reclaim technological leadership on a broad scale. By focusing on the role of the involved computer simulation techniques, the project thus investigates the intertwined systems thinking of nuclear facilities’s planning and construction and the design of large-scale engergy consumption and production scenarios in the 1970s and 1980s. For only the latter provided the rationale for the conception of Fast Breeder programs as viable ›alternative energy sources‹ in the first place.
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