Sunday, October 22, 2006

Oral History and On-Power Fuelling

As I mentioned in class on Wednesday, I would have maybe been better off doing these readings last spring, before I embarked on about 20 interviews with former Douglas Point Nuclear Generating Station employees to help me put the text together for the exhibit. I was disappointed with trying to put the text together based solely on the official AECL history, Nucleus: The History of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, which largely regarded the station as a failure, and The Douglas Point Story (AECL’s history of the station released after its retirement in 1984), which wrote the stations history from a largely engineering and managerial stand-point. These two official histories from ‘higher-up’ weren’t going to appeal to the former employees, their families and friends in town, or to the town – the large proportion of which works in the nuclear industry- in general. I organized interviews because I wanted a more well-rounded narrative, to fill in gaps in my research, and to find a story with less focus on failure. [all the photos I've inserted are of Douglas Point's calandria]

Portelli’s The Peculiarities of Oral History [1] points to the uniqueness of oral history that I felt rang so true when I was putting together exhibit text after my interviews. Portelli highlights that oral history is less about events as such than about their meaning and that the unique and precious element of oral sources is the speaker’s subjectivity, what people wanted to do, believed they did and what they think now they did.

The interviews that I did ended up being quite interesting (and I heard quite the stories ‘off the record’). In the end what I didn’t end up with was an objective narrative of the history of D.P, or even very many gaps in my research filled in (I had to go elsewhere for that), but I was left with an overwhelming sense of what the worker’s felt was the significance of their work, the greater significance of the station. It came across not only in their words but in the enthusiasm in their voices, their gestures, and the excitement in their eyes: they were proud of the camaraderie of the staff, the hard work and long hours that it took to get the station up and running; they put Canada into the world nuclear power scene along with the United Kingdom and the United States and putting Canada in the export field internationally, when a duplicate station at Rajasthan India was committed in 1963; and most importantly they proved that a full-scale nuclear power plant was viable for commercial use in Ontario.

Portelli indicates the importance of oral testimony may lie not in its adherence to facts, but in its divergence. At first I found this frustrating doing the interviews, that I wasn’t getting facts to fill in my research gaps and some areas of my research were becoming more clouded with discrepancies between interviews and official histories; but as Portelli discusses, there mistakes said a lot.

The example I brought up in class (with less detail) involved on-power re-fuelling of the reactor. A source of pride among several interviewees was that Douglas Point proved the concept of on-power fuelling (i.e. putting new fuel into the reactor and taking old fuel out without having to shut the reactor down). The problem was that Douglas achieved on-power refueling for the first time on March 1 1970, but NPD (Nuclear Power Demonstrator, near Rolphton ON) had first achieved on-power re-fuelling 7 years earlier, on November 23 1963.

I still wanted to convey the significance of this achievement that people clearly felt, but needed to present objectively that NPD had done it first: in the end, I explained that NPD achieved it first but that it was a source of pride at Douglas Point, who proved it was successful in full-scale commercial power use (NPD was only a demonstrator). I fear that I may have mis-conveyed in class that I ended up distorting the truth in favor of the retirees I interviewed.

The biggest controversy I felt I faced was that the official AECL history portrayed Douglas Point as very much a failure, whereas from the interviews I conducted I got a sense of the retirees’ pride for Douglas Point’s successes. So, what to write? I had to present the truth of the matter, but I didn’t want to anger anyone, so I told it like it was but took a ‘glass is half full’ standpoint. In addition to the exhibit text:

Douglas Point attracted criticism in the beginning as repairs were costly in both finances and time and more than half of the time between 1968 and 1971, the generating station was ‘down.’ The system was delicate, shutting down frequently and easily

(which was objective), I placed a greater emphasis on the successes (discussed in paragraph 3). Did I do bad public history? Like Lauren mentioned in class, it feels bad to take someone’s memories and present them publicly as misinformed, so I tried to get around this by incorporating their thoughts into my text but not put down exactly what they said, so that I didn’t have to say it wasn’t true. It will be interesting to see, in the course of our Museum London interviews, how people’s oral testimony will diverge from the facts and what that will tell us, and how we’ll deal with it.

Just in conclusion, and briefly as this has come to be quite a long post, I’d like to point out again from Frisch’s “Memory, History and Cultural Authority” [2] that many assume oral history is a way to bypassing historical interpretation. From my digital history lab exercise this week, on disadvantages in using digital moving picture images, I also mentioned that with only snippets its possible to tell almost any story one wants. With using oral history either for the exhibit or its website, I think this will be important to have in mind, that people will often take oral history as definitive historical interpretation and that they might be wary that any sort of ‘clips’ are being used to tell the story the way we want it.

[1] Alessandro Portelli, “The Peculiarities of Oral History,” History Workshop Journal 12 (Autumn 1981), pp.96-107.
[2] Michael Frisch, “Introduction” and “Memory, History, and Cultural Authority,” A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (New York: SUNY Press, 1990), pp.xv-xxiv and 1-28

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