Plutonium Worlds. Fast Breeders, Systems Analysis and Computer Simulation in the Age of Hypotheticality


This article examines the media history of one of the hallmark civil nuclear energy programs in Western Germany – the development of Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor (LMFBR) technology. Promoted as a kind of perpetuum mobile of the Atomic Age, the "German Manhattan Project" not only imported big science thinking. In its context, nuclear technology was also put forth as an avantgarde of scientific inquiry, dealing with the most complex and 'critical' technological endeavors. In the face of the risks of nuclear technology, German physicist Wolf Häfele thus announced a novel epistemology of
"hypotheticality". In a context where traditional experimental engineering strategies became inappropiate, he called for the application of advanced media technologies: Computer Simulations (CS) and Systems Analysis (SA) generated computerized spaces for the production of knowledge. In the course of the German Fast Breeder program, such methods had a twofold impact. One the one hand, Häfele emphazised – as the "father of the German Fast Breeder" – the utilization of CS for the actual planning and construction of the novel reactor type. On the other, namely as the director of the department of Energy Systems at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Häfele advised SA-based projections of energy consumption. These computerized scenarios provided the rationale for the conception of Fast Breeder programs as viable and necessary 'alternative energy sources' in the first place. By focusing on the role of the involved CS techniques, the paper 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 1980s, as well as their conceptual afterlives in our contemporary era of computer simulation.