Computer Simulation and Nuclear Energy 1960-1980
Dr. Sebastian Vehlken
On March 21, 1991, Bundesforschungsminister Heinz Riesenhuber announced the termination of a project which 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 DM, this Fast Breeder project not only faced tremendous technical predicaments, but also massive public resistance. Effectively, the remains of this epitome of FRG’s nuclear technology were bargained to a Dutch scrap merchant and investor for the amount of 2,5 Million DM. Since then, the site drags out its after live as an amusement park, with its brutalist 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 – thus his neologism. 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. On the one hand, Wolf Häfele, who also was employed as the director of the Department of Energy Systems 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. On the other, contemporary critics like Robert Jungk described the same future as an obnoxious ›plutonium world‹ which would shatter all prospects for mankind.
While the atomic age is about to come to an end in Germany, my research project seeks to reconstruct this age from a media-historical viewpoint, with the »German Manhattan Project« (Der SPIEGEL) of SNR-300 as its centerpiece. The research project thereby concentrates on a technology which can be seen as the epitome of ›nuclear thinking‹ in the civilian sector, set up to reclaim technological leadership for the FRG. 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 energy consumption and production scenarios in the 1970s and early 1980s. Because it was the latter that provided the rationale for the conception of Fast Breeder programs as viable ›alternative energy sources‹ in the first place.
Dr. Sebastian Vehlken