New World Heritage site in Norway
UNESCO adds the site of the famous Vemork power plant to its list of cultural treasures
M. Michael Brady
On July 5, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee approved the inscription of five cultural sites on the World Heritage List, including the Rjukan-Notodden Industrial Heritage Site in Telemark County, bordering on the west bank of the Oslo Fjord.
The Rjukan-Notodden industrial complex was built in the early 20th century to produce fertilizer from nitrogen extracted from air by the Eyde-Birkeland electric arc process, named for two Norwegians, industrialist Sam Eyde (1866-1940), who first saw its industrial potential, and physicist Kristian Birkeland (1867-1917), who discovered its basic function.
As the UNESCO citation reads, “the Rjukan-Notodden site manifests an exceptional combination of industrial assets and themes associated to the natural landscape. It stands out as an example of a new global industry in the early 20th century.”
The site includes two large hydroelectric power plants. The largest and now most famed of them is Vemork at Rjukan (photo). Finished in 1911, it delivered 147 megawatts of power, ranking it then as one of the world’s largest hydroelectric facilities. In 1934, the world’s first commercial facility to make heavy water was located there. As one of the uses of heavy water is in nuclear reactors, during the World War II occupation, the heavy water facility at Vemork became the object of a successful sabotage action to slow German development of an atom bomb. After the war, the daring saboteurs were hailed as heroes, and the story of their raid was told and retold for years, in eight books, four films, and three TV documentaries.
The site also includes electric transmission lines, rail and ferry transport systems, and towns, with their housing for workers and their social institutions. Some aspects now are historical curiosities that attest to the technologies of their time. The Birkeland-Eyde arc process is relatively inefficient in terms of energy consumption. So from the 1920s on, it was replaced by the more efficient German Haber-Bosch process. At the same time, the efficiency of electric power transmission was improved. So with time, the production of bulky fertilizer shifted to plants located more conveniently for transport by ship.
Yet, one aspect of the Rjukan-Notodden site remains significant today. Norsk Hydro, the company founded in 1905 to develop it, now has operations in 50 some countries and is Norway’s second largest company, behind oil and gas giant Statoil.
Learn more about UNESCO World Heritage at whc.unesco.org/en.
This article originally appeared in the July 10, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.