Below La Maddalena


Bruno Cordioli: La Maddalena, 2010 (CC)

by Aimée Plukker

Davide Orsini
The Atomic Archipelago: US Nuclear Submarines and Technopolitics of Risk in Cold War Italy 
Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2022. 328 pp.

In 1972, the US Navy installed a nuclear submarine base in La Maddalena, a group of islands located at the northeastern coast of Sardinia, Italy. The creation of the base had an enormous impact on the small local population, boosting the military-industrial economy of the island that already hosted an Italian navy base. The installment of the US submarine base caused several disputes, mostly centered on the possible consequences for the environment and public health. Although Italy created a radiation surveillance program to oversee the nuclear submarines, perceptions of risk varied among residents, local administrators, Italian experts, US Navy personnel, and politicians. What can we learn from the technopolitical debates of this nuclear Cold War case study? In The Atomic Archipelago: US Nuclear Submarines and Technopolitics of Risk in Cold War Italy, Davide Orsini provides a detailed account of the history of nuclear expertise in La Maddalena, situating the submarine base in its local and national political context, to show the complexities of technopolitics from the bottom up.

The book offers a chronological overview of the Maddalena US Navy base from its inception in 1972 to its closure in 2008, including its aftermath. Orsini highlights the particularities of the navy base and of Italy’s dual nuclear regime, split between military and civilian agencies. Different from the large overseas US military bases that could almost be compared to small villages, the base in Maddalena was more integrated in the local society. The installment of the base caused many protests in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly from the Italian Communist and Socialist Parties (PCI and PSI) and environmentalists, which the author vividly illustrates by discussing photographs, posters, flyers, and newspapers. Noteworthy is the fact that because most of the local population was in favor of the US submarine base, since it would provide economic opportunities, a large number of the protesters thus traveled from mainland Italy. The pragmatic stance of the local population toward the nuclear navy base forms one of the main threads in the work; Orsini tries to understand and explain how modes of knowledge production and material entanglements of techno-scientific practices caused different perceptions toward the navy base and the surrounding disputes.

Photographer’s Mate Airman Wes Marquis: The sun rises behind the submarine tender USS Emory S. Land, Santa Stefano, Italy, 2004 (CC)

In his thorough research of the Maddalena base, Orsini discusses a wide variety of documents, including local newspapers, transcripts of city council debates, and scientific reports, derived from local and specialized archives, such as the Archive Center for the Study of Marine Environment in La Spezia. Orsini conducted many interviews with US and Italian people who were involved with the base, includes materials from personal archives, and actively shares his own reflections and struggles in searching for “lost” documents throughout the book, all of which contributes to a better understanding of the complex history of the Maddalena navy base and of Cold War technopolitics more broadly. For science and technology scholars, the book offers a more entangled approach beyond the expert/nonexpert divide, and especially the third part of the book will be of interest, in which the author discusses in detail the radiometric reports and practices of different scientific laboratories and organizations that researched levels of radioactivity in Maddalena.

One of the major insights of Orsini’s work is how the case study of the nuclear submarine base in La Maddalena sheds light on practices of scientific knowledge production in Cold War Italy. Firstly, Orsini points at the amount of secrecy and knowledge gaps in the documentation related to the base as well as for the mostly Italian (expert) workers and locals. Scientific reports remained unpublished, information was omitted or compartmentalized, and legislative gaps and organizational shortcomings caused “institutionalized ignorance” (p. 102). A good example of this is a Centro per le Applicazioni Militari dell’Energia Nucleare (CAMEN) report that “affirmed that concerns regarding the risks of nuclear contamination were not justified” (pp. 63-64). However, as the author shows, the report was not independent because it plausibly made use of US Navy documents, an element that the PCI also pointed out in a 1972 flyer—“il CAMEN è un organismo militare: CAMEN is a military institute” (pp. 68-69). Secondly, Orsini tries to explicate how especially workers and locals dealt differently with the frequent fraud and scarce information in their assessment of risk. Through semiotics he explains how the notion of risk was approached in various ways; an analysis of fishing practices in the waters that were located close to the submarine base reveal local responses to the lack of information about potential radioactive hazards. While making these theoretical interventions, Orsini disentangles the political and ideological context in which the installment and operations of the navy base took place. Local authorities often had different objectives than the national government. The latter, and in particular the Italian Christian Democrats (Democrazia Cristiana), had a lot to gain in actively supporting the US nuclear submarine base, while US diplomats willingly provided “unclassified data to help Italian officials shield the US Navy installation from domestic ‘politically inspired attacks’” (p. 108).

An elevated starboard bow view of the U.S. Navy submarine tender USS Orion and two submarines anchored at Naval Support Activity La Maddalena, Sardinia, Italy, 1 September 1983 (CC)

Orsini’s political disentanglement of the Maddalena base raises some questions that invite a debate from a more international and wider perspective. Although the author hints at the fact that the United States needed secrecy for the base to successfully operate, he could have placed his excellent local case study more explicitly in the Cold War context throughout the book. What was at stake for Italian politicians defending their “American friends”? How was the Maddalena base discussed among US politicians? How must we view La Maddalena as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s defense strategy? And to what extent do the technopolitics of the navy base resemble other state-induced and imperial Cold War nuclear and technological practices? More detailed information on the socioeconomic circumstances of the local community in La Maddalena before and during the installment of the base would also have contributed to the examination of the “localized imperial effects” of the US submarine base and economic dependency (p. 12). Orsini does refer multiple times to the potential of tourism for the islands, but the exact scope of tourism and other sources of income and work for the islanders remain unclear.

Besides these small points for further investigation, Orsini excels in providing a comprehensive account of a local nuclear case study. His thorough research, wide variety of sources, and usage of personal accounts and documents present the reader with not only an extensive analysis of a nuclear submarine base in Cold War Italy but also a compelling theoretical lens and case study to explore the practices and politics of scientific knowledge production.

laura_aura71: Arcipelago Maddalena, 2013 (CC)

About the Author

Aimée Plukker is a Ph.D. student in the History Department. She is a historian of modern and contemporary Europe with research interests in cultural and intellectual history, transnational history, urban history, the Cold War, and politics and aesthetics. Her dissertation focuses on post WWII U.S. Tourism to Western Europe and the idea of “the West” as a cultural and political identity.

Publication Rights

First published at H-Net. Republished here under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.


Aimée Plukker. Review of Orsini, Davide, The Atomic Archipelago: US Nuclear Submarines and Technopolitics of Risk in Cold War Italy. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. September, 2022.

Comments are closed.