This is the third 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.
“First you go to the old mill village “Forsmarks bruk.” Once there, you find a road towards the lake with the sign “Power plant.” There by the lake you see two gigantic sugar cubes with pipes on their roofs—those are reactors one and two, now up and running. Next to them you see this huge construction site with large cranes—that is reactor three being built. Together they form one of the largest nuclear power plants in the world. Follow the road next to the cooling water canal and travel further on the stone pier out to the artificial lake. There, in a small enclosure, you find four seals.” (Bäckman 1981)
This freely translated description is from “Fuss over four seals in a pond,” an article published in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter in June 1981, when the nuclear power plant in Forsmark, Sweden, had been operational for a year. The text goes on describing a seal breeding project run at the Forsmark nuclear power plant by researcher Mats Olsson from the Swedish Museum of Natural History. What Olsson—or anyone else for that matter—did not know at the time was that the project would continue for as long as twenty-six years. And that the so-called fuss would turn into widespread engagement and care.
But how come seals were being bred next to a nuclear power plant in the first place? When the article was written, the seal population in the Baltic Sea had been decreasing for years. The seals were sterile and suffering from physical malformations caused by the industrial and agricultural release of the chemical compounds DDT and PCB. These symptoms of the so-called “Baltic Seal Disease Complex” were common during the 1970s and the 1980s, and there was a general concern that the Baltic Sea seals would die out (Persson et al. 2021).
The plan was to feed seals with non-toxic fish to get healthy pups. The pups would then be released into the south Baltic Sea where the population was on the verge of dying out …
It was against this background that Olsson’s idea took shape. The plan was to feed seals with non-toxic fish to get healthy pups. The pups would then be released into the south Baltic Sea where the population was on the verge of dying out, to help rebuild the seal colony, and at the same time show that the seals were in acute need of non-toxic food. However, it proved difficult to find a breeding place since the project required the enclosure of an entire seaside area. Olsson had been searching for a suitable location for quite a while when a friend of his got in touch. The friend was employed at the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency and worked at the Biotest basin at the Forsmark NPP. He proposed to Olsson that the seals could be bred there (M. Olsson, pers. comm., March 17, 2023).
Just to clarify, the Forsmark Biotest basin is an artificial lake/water reservoir around 90 hectares in size. The lake was built from leftover stone alongside the construction of the nuclear plant, and it was finished in 1977. In 1980, when operations at Forsmark’s reactor 1 started, large amounts of cooling water started being released into the Biotest basin. The lake has since then been subject to a biological recipient control program, which investigates the effects on the marine environment of the release of cooling water. In the beginning, it was run by The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, now the surveys are carried out by the Department of Aquatic Resources at the Swedish University of agricultural sciences (SLU 2020).
The suggested seal breeding area next to the Biotest basin was not affected by the cooling water and turned out to be the perfect spot. An enclosure was built with the help from Forsmarks kraftgrupp, the company running the nuclear power plant, starting a rather peculiar collaboration between the NPP, the Swedish Museum of Natural History, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, and WWF. In September 1980, four seals—two males and two females—were transported from Skansen, an open-air museum with wild and domesticated animals in Stockholm, to their new home in Forsmark (Figure 2). This setup was described to me by biologist Anna Roos who worked with the project from 1989–2006 (A. Roos, interview, March 16, 2023).
The researchers had the primary responsibility for the seals, but they were not always present, and the day-to-day care had to be managed by people who were locally engaged. Here the NPP was of assistance since the project was taking place on their grounds. One person who became involved in the seal breeding was a technician who worked with maintenance at Forsmark. He was responsible for feeding the seals daily during the last ten years of the project (1996–2006) and with that he became the official seal keeper. He told me that local school kids would sometimes come and feed the seals and at one point in 2001 the Swedish Crown Princess fed the seals together with him. If you visited the power plant via a guided bus tour, the bus would drive out to the Biotest basin and the guide would talk about the seal project (interview with said technician, April 22, 2023). Other findings also indicate how the seals became a mascot for the employees at the nuclear power plant. At the time there was a Forsmark NPP staff magazine called Curiren, which had a little seal head as a logo on the cover page (Figure 3). According to archive finds the logo appears for the first time sometime during 1987. At one point seal sweaters were also printed and sold in the staff clothes shop at Forsmark NPP according to a small notice in Curiren (ÖMA).
Mats Olsson and WWF made it clear from the beginning that they did not want this to be a public project or a “PR-thing” for the nuclear power plant. They did, however, want to spread awareness about the environmental disaster that was going on in the Baltic Sea. That wish was granted. The seals became more and more famous through extensive media coverage. When it was time for the yearly cub-release, journalists and curious onlookers would line up at the beach in the south of Sweden where they were released. Newspaper articles written about the seals throughout the years never fail to mention the threat posed by environmental toxins, so in that sense the project was successful.
In the eyes of the involved researchers, the Forsmark seals had nothing to do with nuclear power, they just happened to be bred next to a nuclear plant since that was the best and safest place to be found. But inadvertently or not, as time passed, the seals at Forsmark became part of the power plant’s “eco-nuclear” internal framing as well as publicity (Tilson 1993; 1994; 1996). The seals became intertwined with the NPP in multiple ways and just as the people working at the plant the seals became part of an atomic history—they became “nuclear animals” in the same sense as the wild elk and laboratory dogs at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington, USA (Bolingbroke 2020).
The seal breeding program in close vicinity to the plant also created a contrast between the chemicals threatening the seals in the Baltic Sea and the “clean and contained nuclear plant” helping to protect them (Storm 2018, 62). This contrast was not articulated in plain words, yet it was conveyed through the stories told via the widespread reporting around the seals. From the beginning it concerned a handful of people, but soon more and more people got engaged in “saving” these charismatic animals. This type of care adheres to a kind of logic that can be discerned in connection to certain archaeological sites or materials. At the onset, the seals were saved because they were valued, but soon a shift took place and they became valued because they were being saved (DeSilvey 2017, 178).
This particular case shows how animal care programs can be used to emotionally engage a nuclear community.
This particular case shows how animal care programs can be used to emotionally engage a nuclear community. A “net of care” was cast around the seals in their enclosure. Slowly, this figurative net reeled in more and more people; the researchers, the employees at Forsmark, the NPP visitors, the school kids, the people watching the seals being released and following them through the media—they were all part of an emotional web that was created through and around the Forsmark seals.
Bolingbroke, David Cleve 2020. Nuclear animals and an atomic restoration: an environmental history of the Hanford nuclear site. Dissertation, Washington State University.
Bäckman, Anna-Lisa 1981. Fjäsk för fyra sälar i damm. Siste jägaren minns myllret. Dagens Nyheter, June 21, 1981.
DeSilvey, Caitlin 2017. Curated Decay: Heritage beyond Saving. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Persson, Sara, Britt-Marie Bäcklin, Markus Ahola & Anja Carlsson 2021. Delprogramsbeskrivning Sälhälsa. Naturvårdsverket: Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. [https://www.naturvardsverket.se/4957fa/globalassets/vagledning/miljoovervakning/delprogramsbeskrivning-2021-nrm.pdf]
Storm, Anna 2018. Atomic fish: Sublime and non-sublime nuclear nature imaginaries. Azimuth VI(12), 59–75.
Sveriges Lantbruksuniversitet (SLU), October 25, 2020. The Biotest basin. https://www.slu.se/en/departments/aquatic-resources1/contact/research-infrastructure/biotest-basin/
Tilson, Donn James 1993. The shaping of ’eco-nuclear’ publicity: The use of visitors’ centers in public relations. Media, Culture and Society 15, 419–435.
Tilson, Donn James 1994. Eco-nuclear publicity: a comparative study in Florida and Scotland. Dissertation, University of Stirling.
Tilson, Donn James 1996. Promoting a ‘greener’ image of nuclear power in the U.S. and Britain. Public Relations Review 22(1), 63–79.
Östhammar municipal archive (ÖMA), Local security council (Lokala säkerhetsnämnden), Kallelser och bilagor 1987, 1988.
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