català | castellano | english home   sitemap   aviso legal   créditos   contacto  
home home

Angela Gastl, ETH, Zürich

"Successful Setup of the Archives of the History of Nuclear Energy in Switzerland. A role model project for the archiving of historical scientific collections?"

Switzerland has always played an important role in global industrialization. It is therefore a very versatile and also very interesting setting for an archivist to collect historical scientific data. This becomes obvious in the archiving project which is described in the following. The project for the setting up of the Archives of the History of Nuclear Energy in Switzerland (ARK) shows a good – and in some ways outstanding – example of how historical data is gathered and how the collections are handled at the Swiss federal institute of technology (ETH).

The essay will first give some background information on the ARK-Project, as it is very interesting to see that the initiative for the archive came from physicists and time witnesses as well as from researchers interested in the history of technology. The second part deals with the archiving project itself and will conclude with a few thoughts which ask why this project was so successful and what lessons we can learn for future projects.

1 Development of Nuclear Energy Technology in Switzerland

The history of nuclear energy in Switzerland began after the Second World War and experienced its heyday during the 1950s and the early 1960s. This period was significantly shaped by two personalities: Paul Scherrer and Walter Boveri. Paul Scherrer was a professor for theoretical physics at the ETH Zurich and in this function Paul Scherrer was not only very popular, but also a leading figure among more than a generation of nuclear physicists. Besides his chair he also played an important and influential role in Swiss research policy: He presided over the Swiss Commission for Nuclear Energy and was therefore responsible for the distribution of huge amounts of research funds.

Scherrer also maintained intensive contacts with the Swiss industry, and one of his close associates within the field of nuclear energy was Walter Boveri. Boveri was the president of the former BBC (or Brown Boveri Company) located in Baden, Switzerland. His last-name is the origin of one of the ‘B’s in today's global player ABB-Holding. Boveri was – like Scherrer – a very visionary person. Together, they founded a company called Reaktor AG which pursued the industrial development of nuclear energy technology.

In the middle of the 1950s, quite a large number of industrial projects were pursued in Switzerland. These projects had one common goal: the development of a Swiss-made nuclear reactor for the production of energy. But the only project which was finally realized with the support of federal funds, failed pitifully: When put into operation, the prototype reactor was ruined by a destructive incident. However, at this time, the Swiss industry had already given up the dream of its own reactor and several nuclear power stations with foreign reactors, especially of American origin, were already in use.

Despite these developments, if the Swiss population today were asked about milestones in national nuclear power history, a majority would surely mention the resistance of the population against the nuclear power station in Kaiseraugst. This facility, which was projected in the 1970s, was never realized after local and later on supraregional resistance of the population arose.

These two phases – the departure phase in the 1950s and 60s and the resistance in the 1970s – are the two focal points of the Archives for the History of the Nuclear Energy in Switzerland.

2 Initiative of the contemporary witnesses

In a small country like Switzerland and in a very specialized field such as nuclear energy, there were only a limited number of scientists, technicians and managers involved. In fact, regarding the nuclear power technology, this circle consists of no more than a very small number of companies and institutes.

It was in the early 1990s, when a technician at the Paul Scherrer-Institute, Dr. Peter Tempus, initiated the first comprehensive archive project in this field. It was a time at which pioneers of the Swiss nuclear power development where already retired for many years. Tempus was triggered by the fear that the accumulated knowledge, the manifold experiences and the pioneers’ life’s work could vanish with the death of these people. He contacted them as well as their descendants, and he convinced them to hand over their documents to a dedicated archive. This was the development of AKS, the Swiss Archives of Nuclear Energy. The documents were stored in an auxiliary building at the Paul Scherrer-Institute, and they were even partly arranged and marked.

The first initiative thus originated from a natural scientist with the cooperation of contemporary witnesses, which was quite unusual. Of course, from an archivist’s point of view it cannot be enough to secure such documents in a building in order keep them accessible for future generations. But the initiative of Peter Tempus was a first and important step. The second step was to follow soon afterwards.

3 Initiative of researchers

The history of nuclear energy in Switzerland is politically highly explosive and strongly polarized even today. It is therefore not surprising that it aroused the interest of Professor David Gugerli, head of the Institute for the History of Technology of the ETH Zurich. In 1999, he initiated the research project ‘Nuclear Energy and Society’.

From this project derived two doctoral theses. One of the scientists, Tobias Wildi, concentrated his work on the aforementioned archives at the Paul Scherrer-Institute, which were founded by Peter Tempus. His goal was to examine the ‘Swiss dream of its own reactor’ as described above. His colleague Patrick Kupper looked at the resistance of the Swiss population against the nuclear power plant project at Kaiseraugst. He worked with documents of the operating company which were stored by its successor organization at that time. It is an important fact that there is no legal obligation for private companies in Switzerland to keep any documents for a longer period than 10 years, and it became obvious that the successor company showed no interest in keeping the Kaiseraugst-documents - significantly more than 100 linear meters - forever.

The scientists around Prof. Gugerli therefore realized that the documents they had worked with were by no means secured on a long-term basis. After the provisional conclusion of their research work they therefore initiated an archives project. The goal was to implement a central archive for the history of nuclear energy and to bring together the different records. The library of the ETH soon became a partner in this project, and thus its department ‘Archives and Personal Papers’ became involved.

4 Archiving project at the ETH-Bibliothek

The ETH-Bibliothek is the largest library in Switzerland. The collections emphasise the areas of engineering and science, architecture and mathematics as well as sports and military sciences. Since the middle of the last century one of the library’s departments has collected private papers of former lecturers to make them accessible to the public in its reading room. When in 1998 the Swiss government released a new law on archiving, the Board of the ETH mandated the library to establish officially the Archives of the ETH Zurich. As of today the ETH-Archives hold about 2000 linear meters of archival records. On the one hand it is responsible for safeguarding, recording and making available all documents of lasting value from the university's organization units, the Executive Board and the Board of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. On the other hand it carries on the traditional collection of Manuscripts and Personal Papers. These private archives come from former ETH students and teaching staff and also from personalities active in science and technology, from scientific associations and institutions affiliated with the ETH, from student associations and also from companies. Therefore archival know-how and the necessary infrastructure are and have been available at the ETH-Bibliothek for more than half a century.

The archiving project in the field of nuclear technology history, which was accomplished by the chair for the History of Technology together with the ETH-Bibliothek, was very special because of a further characteristic, which was rather unusual but nevertheless very pleasing: The goal of the project was not only to ensure the safety of the documents for the future, but also to describe, analyze, and organize them according to archival standards in order to ensure immediate public access to the records. A number of private and public institutions contributed financially to the project.

Today, approximately one year after bringing the project to a favourable end, the archives contain 214 linear meters of records, which cover the period from 1941 to 1998. Users have access to all documents within the ARK via the internet and can research them online. The origin of the documents is as shown below. About 70% of the records come from corporate archives: the Kaiseraugst AG, BBC and Elektrowatt. About 23% come from governmental institutions like the EIR (today Paul Scherrer Institute) and the NGA, the Nationale Gesellschaft zur Förderung der industriellen Atomtechnik. Only 7% of the records were given by private persons. Unfortunately, Prof. Paul Scherrer did not leave any documents when he passed away, as he destroyed them wilfully before his death.

Origins of Documents collected in the ARK

After the opening of the ARK in January 2004 the existence of the new holding was communicated to the public in various ways. On one hand articles were published in scientific magazines, on the other hand the Archives organized an exhibition, which emphasized once more the early times of Swiss reactor history. Together with involved pioneers, the chair for the History of Technology carried out a series of lectures and panel discussions, which especially addressed scientists and involved persons from the early times as well as the following generations of technicians and historians. These events were very well attended. The ETH-Bibliothek concluded this series with a guided public tour through the ARK.

5 A role model project

The ARK-Project shows a fine example of the way scientific documents are collected at the ETH as a main Swiss institution in the field of technology. However, it has to be said that the circumstances of this project have been ideal in many respects:

-  The project had the support and the goodwill of relevant contemporary witnesses and their vocational and/or family descendants. Without their original initiative, the project would probably never have come to life.

-  The documents were currently of great interest for researching bodies. Hence the records were not only to be secured by the archiving project, there was – at the same time – also a significant need for using them and for evaluating and exploiting them for research matters. The two mentioned theses also helped to ease the access to the information hidden in the various files.

-  The financing of the project did not only cover the storage of the documents, it also covered their analysis and description, which is very remarkable and unusual for such projects.

-  As the various events (exhibition, tour, lectures and panel discussions) clearly proved, there is a high interest in this project and records even in the extended public. The efforts in the rescue of these archives were widely appreciated.

However, the starting point of the project did not reflect a strategic interest of an archive or a library. The collection strategies of the Archives at the ETH Zurich focus much more on the activities and the history of its mother institution. The archive team, which adds up to five fulltime jobs, is busy enough taking in and restoring the relevant documents of the administration, the research institutes and the scientists as well as making them accessible for the public in the reading room, in exhibitions and special events. Thus, saving corporate archives is not its first priority.

Nevertheless, this project proved to be a success story for the Archives at the ETH Zurich. It may even be concluded that this project does have a role model character for future projects. This conclusion does not only stand for the historical value of the collection itself. It stands much more for the circumstances under which the ARK came into being. This reflects a very pragmatic point of view. The project shows how fruitful it can be if during the set-up of an archive one can be sure of the support of the relevant scientists and experts in the respective field. It also underlines the importance of active support not only by people interested in the accessibility of the collected records, but also – and in the short run even more important – of ample financial contributions.

But the project also shows how important it is that archives are open-minded enough to take chances. Of course, it is necessary to respect strategic goals, but one has to decide on a pragmatic and issue-related level what to collect and secure, and what we leave to others, even with the possibility that these collection may then get lost forever. Archives cannot take in everything. But under circumstances like those in the case described, the taking-in of corporate archives was the ideal completion for the material already at hand, despite the collection strategy in use. If the Archives had strictly followed the usual paths, these documents might be lost now. It is a valuable lesson we learnt once more: Unregarding official collection strategies, it can be very rewarding for an archive to be ready for such opportunities and to react positively in such special cases. It is this flexibility which is the basis for any successful and comprehensive archival projects that go beyond the salvation of documents at hand.

6 Bibliography

Patrick Kupper, Atomenergie und gespaltene Gesellschaft: Die Geschichte des gescheiterten Projektes Kernkraftwerk Kaiseraugst, Zürich, Chronos, 2003.

Patrick Kupper et al., Dokumentation ARK: Aufbau und Inhalte des Archivs zur Geschichte der Kernenergie in der Schweiz, Zürich 2004,

Tobias Wildi, Der Traum vom eigenen Reaktor: Die schweizerische Atomtechnologieentwicklung 1945-1969, Zürich, Chronos, 2003.

Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Kernfachleute (Hrsg.), Geschichte der Kerntechnik in der Schweiz: Die ersten 30 Jahre 1939-1969, Zürich, Olynthus, 1992.