The Carp and the Reactor

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This is the second post in a series highlighting the work of the Nuclear Natures project, a 6-year research project funded by the Swedish Research Council, based at the Department of Thematic Studies at Linköping University in Sweden and led by Prof. Anna Storm. You can explore all essays in Nuclear Natures: A Concept Explored in Six Briefs on their project page.

I drive at dawn from Budapest along the Danube down to Paks, Hungary’s only nuclear power plant, providing half of the country’s electricity. I turn left, and there it is, the Behemoth, as I like to call nuclear power plants, lazily humming away at sunrise. But this is not a nuclear research trip, it is a fishing trip. To get to the fishing spots, I need to drive around the entire plant; the reactors, the interim spent fuel storage and underneath the high voltage power lines, until I finally reach the house of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant Fishing Association. This is not “wild” fishing, whatever wild means, but highly managed “recreational fishing.” The power plant’s fishing association maintains several artificial lakes which are fed with water from the cooling canals of the plant. And there are big fish. Really big fish. Restocked and carefully monitored, to satisfy the visiting nuclear anglers.

Autoethnography of nuclear fishing at Paks in 2020
Figure 1. Autoethnography of nuclear fishing at Paks in 2020. Photo: Kata Varsanyi.

I enter the house of the association and buy the fishing license and baits. I get a visitor’s license, while employees of the plant have the right for another, discounted, one. Also, I need to decide if I want a “sport” license or a “fish” license. The latter allows for a maximum of two fish of up to five kilograms to be taken home. The “sport” license is for catch and release, and even though I often cook and eat the fish that I catch, here, next to the nuclear power plant, I always go for this one. Then a coffee, and back to the parking lot to stow all the gear into a carriage which I could pull by foot the last bit. Right before entering the premise, I also need to sign into the fishing log where every angler is required to write in their name, the number of the fishing license and the precise hour of starting and ending their fishing. Now, a last decision is to be made, which lake to choose. There are four large, perfectly rectangular, lakes, and one former dead tributary of the Danube, which looks the most “natural.” This is also where the large pike and catfish reside, but today I am after a different species: the ignoble carp. That is also why I need the carriage, because carp fishing requires a full car of gear, ranging from the tent, the chair, and the rods, to lots of other paraphernalia. Among the four big lakes, one is out of bounds, since it is the “competition” lake. I am already tired, so I choose another lake not too far away. The closest fishing spots are specially designated for people with disabilities. I pass these and reach the area where I am allowed to put up the tent. The tent must be green or brown so that it does not stand out on arial imagery and could affect the security of the power plant. Mine is blue, so I have to put an extra green cover over it. There are many more rules that one must respect. Otherwise, the guards checking all the anglers every two hours will not-so-kindly ask you to leave. Yes, this is the former East, but it is in some way still the welfare nuclear utopia of the 1970s. And this is what fascinates me most about this place, and why I come here so often. 

It takes me at least one more hour to have the rods and the baits set up. Then, finally, I can throw them into the water. Afterwards I set up the tent, put up the chairs, take out a book and wait. And wait, and wait, and wait. This is what carp fishing is all about. Days of waiting, hoping for a bite from one of these massive beasts, the pigs of the water. The comparison is not far-fetched, since among freshwater fish, humans have the longest relationship of domestication with carp. It is not particularly tasty, yet highly resilient, and it has been bred for centuries as the fish of the common people. There are strong religious and popular mythologies surrounding it, especially in Christian Orthodox countries. And this aspect is still very visible in places where fishing basically means carp fishing, like Hungary. There is a distinct class divide between people that recreationally fish carp for food, and people that fish carp for “sport,” going for the very large trophy specimens. Carp can be fished with a simple floater rod and just one piece of corn on the hook. “Sport” anglers, however, usually have a car full of gear that is worth many thousands of Euros. While waiting for my nuclear carp, and I have a lot of time to wait, I am wondering which category I fall into. I do eat carp sometimes, and I do have a lot of gear, but cheap. I conclude I must be somewhere in between, which is a satisfying thought. The evening sets in, then the night. I see the power plant at all times of the day, lurking in the background. But the foreground is beautiful, it is “nature.” I doze off. 

This is not a species native to Europe, but it is intensively stocked in recreational fishing lakes, and by now is very common in wild waters as well. In Hungarian it is called “The Amur Carp,” referring to its “natural” habitat.

At one point in the middle of the night, the bite alarm goes off. I jump out of the tent, turn the headlamp on, and run to the rods. It is three o’clock in the morning and one of the rods is close to breaking from the tension. Fish on! So, the action begins, which is why carp anglers put themselves through the tedious waiting game. Close to four o’clock I have the fish close to the shore. It is a beautiful grass carp, very large. This is not a species native to Europe, but it is intensively stocked in recreational fishing lakes, and by now is very common in wild waters as well. In Hungarian it is called “The Amur Carp,” referring to its “natural” habitat. I need to be most careful when the fish is next to the shore. If it is not tired enough, it could jump when I attempt to net it and unhook itself. With one hand I am holding the rod, with the other the net. In the very last moment, the fish jumps right in front of me with a massive splash, and it’s gone. 

The further I get, the more I feel I am leaving utopia behind, with its perfectly ordered and intensely policed “nuclear nature.” Or was it dystopia?

At five the sun rises, and it will be close to 40 degrees later today. I decide there is no point to torture myself in the scorching heat, but rather go back to Budapest. I pack everything in the carriage, walk to the exit and check out in the logbook. I mark that I did not catch any fish. Others did, from what I see, but it does not matter, it was worth it. I put my stuff in the car and go to the little house next to the fishing association’s house. I clean myself at the facilities, in a similar “decontamination” ritual as after visiting a nuclear power plant. I take a last look at the Behemoth, calmly humming away in the background, then I jump into the car and leave. The further I get, the more I feel I am leaving utopia behind, with its perfectly ordered and intensely policed “nuclear nature.” Or was it dystopia? I brush off the thought, since I am getting close to Budapest, back to the present. 

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Sergiu Novac

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