This is the fifth 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.
As I approach the former reactor site in Karlstein from the river and fight my way through a thorny strip of brambles, the first thing that comes into sight is a rusty fence topped with barbed wire. To the left and right of the large, fenced field, construction equipment and machinery are strewn about, and I can see, surprisingly, a lonely brown goat grazing in the distance. To get a better view, I make my way first to the old turbine and weather-worn information boards memorialising the two decommissioned reactors, and then to the closed gate where the paved remains of a parking lot are visible. A display case next to the metal gate tells me that a herd of goats, a special breed from South Africa, lives on the site, and I can indeed see them from a distance, looking curiously in my direction (Figure 5).
To hot-spot is to look for “sites of concern” marked by “dense relations” where nuclear politics intersect with natural environments and socio-political tensions.
The goats don’t know that I am engaging in an activity called hot-spotting. Geographer Shiloh Krupar (2013) has proposed this method for the critical examination of (post)nuclear sites. In hot-spotting, the material status of the site (contaminated, not contaminated) is not the deciding factor. To hot-spot is to look for “sites of concern” (ibid., 281) marked by “dense relations” (ibid.) where nuclear politics intersect with natural environments and socio-political tensions. Even though truly unspectacular, the green field of Karlstein looks like a proper hot spot to me.
The site where two nuclear reactors once sat next to the river Main here in Northern Bavaria, Germany, was officially declared postnuclear in 2010. Since then, the area no longer falls under the jurisdiction of the German “Atomgesetz” (‘nuclear law,’ Bredberg et al. 2019, 28f) and a lot of additional paperwork and security measures can be avoided for the final steps of decommissioning, like removing remaining building structures. The release from the nuclear jurisdiction also means that the site has reached what is commonly called the “greenfield” (‘grüne Wiese’) status, the endpoint of the nuclear power production cycle at this site (ibid.).
Every component of the plant will be taken away until only a green field, from which the building process had started, remains.
Though not a term used in nuclear jurisdiction, the notion of the “grüne Wiese” has become prevalent in German nuclear decommissioning discourses. Once a reactor has reached the end of its life, its evocation across media and official documents suggests, not only will all radioactive materials be fully removed. Every component of the plant will be taken away until only a green field, from which the building process had started, remains (Figure 6).
I find it hard to tell how exactly the “grüne Wiese” became commonplace in the nuclear realm in Germany. In fact, it consists of a curious reversal of a much more common use of the “grüne Wiese” term in urban planning—to build on the “greenfield” is, originally in the anglophone world, to plan industries and housing developments outside of the old towns, on undeveloped land. For the reverse operation, the decommissioning of (non-nuclear) industrial sites, the talk is usually of brownfields (sites with potential presence of hazardous substances after industrial use) or greyfields (sites where existing infrastructure is un- or underused).
Whether or not a conscious decision, in hindsight, putting the “grüne Wiese” term on its head—by letting it signify a return to a newly pristine, postnuclear landscape rather than a suburban development—seems like a smart branding move. Lush fields and meadows are an important component of German landscapes and identities, and the rural areas where most reactors are sited often take pride in their natural beauty as well as agricultural traditions in which green fields play an important role (i.e., in cattle grazing for dairy production). In this context, decommissioning to the “grüne Wiese” sounds like a hopeful promise. It also stands in a tempting opposition to the hyper-modernism and grey functionalism of nuclear facilities and creates a beautiful, imagined endpoint of the clean and abundant energy production that nuclear power promised at its outset.
Krupar suggests that nature often plays a central role in the “rhetorical cleanup operation” performed by the term “postnuclear” (2013, xii). The discursive construction of postnuclear natural spaces can obscure the persistent material and non-material relations forged by nuclear activity, also beyond contamination. In the case of the Karlstein site, for instance, nuclear waste has been removed and brought to various sites across Europe (Schönberger et al. 2013, 67f), among them the Asse II repository, a former salt mine which has since been declared unfit to keep the nuclear waste safely contained. Operations to recover the waste are ongoing at a high cost. Germany still does not have any concrete plans for a final repository, so a solution for highly radioactive waste from all nuclear sites, including Karlstein, remains to be found. Additionally, Framatome and Siemens continue to operate nuclear installations, a fuel assembly manufacturing centre and an interim storage site, in the community, betraying any sense of Germany as a postnuclear nation since the shut-down of its last operational commercial reactors in April 2023.
Standing in front of the gates in Karlstein, I thus cannot help but think that the term “grüne Wiese” was and is doubly deceptive. The greenfield here continues to look more like a depressing post-industrial site than the lush meadow that the term evokes. After more than a decade of “grüne Wiese” status, construction site fences section off some parts where the earth is still being dug up, and massive cable reels and piles of dirt lie around here and there. The goats, the information board tells me, belong to a private animal sanctuary. They were given an interim home at the site until it is decided what will happen with the property. Most likely, the current owner, multinational energy company RWE, will sell it for further industrial use, I learn after some googling and emailing. As I continue to lurk near the fence, it begins to rain. Having gotten used to my presence, the goats look a bit wary and bored standing in the drizzle.
The persistence of the “grüne Wiese” term … obscures the fact that the social and material relations formed by nuclear activity are sticky and persistent.
More abstractly, the persistence of the “grüne Wiese” term also obscures the fact that the social and material relations formed by nuclear activity are sticky and persistent. The hopes for purity and containment that the term carries can only be realised as the waste moves elsewhere, out of sight, where it currently fails to be fully contained. And even the non-radiated components pose environmental concerns. Decommissioning all German nuclear sites to the greenfield would cause substantial CO₂ emissions and produce large amounts of industrial waste. Instead, a repurposing of the non-radiating metal and concrete structures—and thus a visual and material confrontation with our nuclear past and present—may be the sensible way to go (Rettich & Rentrop 2023). This would also entail a reconsideration of human/waste relationships in the nuclear realm and a more open confrontation with the “difficult heritage” of the nuclear age (Storm 2016) than the dream of the “grüne Wiese” allows for. Where the greenfield obscures what once was, there must be other ways to think about these sites; to mark them, in Kurpar’s words, as hotspots—and as “sites of concern” with “dense relations” to the nuclear past and present and a (never-quite) postnuclear future.
Bredberg, Ines, Johann Hutter, Andreas Koch, Kerstin Kühn, Katarzyna Niedzwiedz, Klaus Hebig-Schubert & Rolf Wähning 2019. Statusbericht zur Kernenergienutzung in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Bundesamt für die Sicherheit der nuklearen Entsorgung.
Krupar, Shiloh R. 2013. Hot Spotter’s Report: Military Fables of Toxic Waste. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Rettich, Stefan & Janke Rentrop (ed.) 2023. Nach der Kernkraft—Konversionen des Atomzeitalters. Schriften des Fachbereichs Architektur, Stadtplanung, Landschaftsplanung der Universität Kassel, Band 7. Berlin: Jovis.
Schönberger, Ursula, Claudia Baitinger, Jutta Beckmann, Peter Dickel, Dieter Kaufmann, Lothar Krause, Peter Meyer, et al. (ed.) 2013. Atommüll: eine Bestandsaufnahme für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland: Sorgenbericht der Atommüllkonferenz. Salzgitter: Atommüllkonferenz c/o Arbeitsgemeinschaft Schacht Konrad e.V.
Storm, Anna 2016. Post-Industrial Landscape Scars. Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology. Basingstoke New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.