The History of Nuclear Energy and Society in Europe: First Results and Perspectives for further research
By Robert Bud and Helmuth Trischler
The HoNESt – History of Nuclear Energy and Society project is the most ambitious attempt hitherto made by historians and social scientists to understand the development of civil nuclear power. Public engagement and attitudes to this range of technologies have made into almost a cliché the observation that technology is a broad social, and indeed political, phenomenon. But how did this happen, over time and across space in the past? And, correspondingly, can we use such understanding to make sense of the present – and indeed the future?
In the heat of the moment, it could feel to actors that each experience was distinctively national, or even regional. That sense of distinctiveness is a social fact and, and it has been respected by HoNESt’s approach to the issue. Our first step, now completed, has thus been to look at 19 countries in Europe and, in addition, the United States. Indeed, American influence has been a looming presence across this continent since 1945. At the same time, to make it possible to compare, contrast and synthesise, the analyses of the apparently diverse national stories have been structured in parallel ways. For each country, we have identified five crucial events characterising the relations between nuclear energy and society, and, for each of those, the actors, timing and location, type of process (e.g. regarding communication or technology) and intentions have been identified. A case study and contextual narrative have given a sense of historical specificity to each national study. At the same time, analytical depth is added by pointing to patterns that occur across borders or are due to transnational linkages. Facts, figures and references have filled out each national report. A brief abstract has now been published, both online and in a brochure, with the complete document to come.
This project has brought out a variety of commonalities. In many countries, whether East Germany, Denmark, Italy or the United States, a sense of national ownership was built: ‘“We” did the work that made this possible.’ At the same time, there are profound differences in early national patterns of adoption which can be related to subsequent experience and provoke analytical reflection. At first sight, a typology of four species jumps at the observer. There were a few “early adopters” including the superpowers (USA and USSR), France, Britain, West Germany, Italy and Sweden. Their early commercial reactors were built and stakeholders committed during two decades of optimism between the 1940s and 1960s. A second group of Western European countries were would-be later adopters, starting with nuclear energy programmes only in the 1970s. Austria and Denmark are examples of this second group. Their early commercial experience coincided with a more critical international debate and widespread scepticism since the turning point of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when civic protest and new social movements emerged. Despite the support of powerful stakeholders, reactors were either not operated at all or limited. Thirdly, we can observe three Southern European countries (Spain, Portugal and Greece) whose adoption took place in a period of dictatorship in which a determined and undisputed deployment of this high technology was promoted as a means of manufacturing the breakthrough to an industrial future. For these countries, the United States was an important technological model. Not only was it now the world’s richest and most powerful country, it had also exemplified industrial modernity throughout the century. Conveniently, it made available reactors at a subsidised price. As a mirror image of this American nuclear culture, there was fourthly, a group of countries which had been drawn into the nuclear era as part of the Soviet sphere of influence, either as part of the Soviet Union (Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania), actual parts of the Warsaw Pact (East Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria) or necessarily close to the Warsaw Pact (Finland). These countries installed, without public question, Soviet-style reactors.
Soviet nuclear politics showed patterns of hegemony, colonialism and imperialism, and hence points to the formative role of the Cold War. Accordingly, the United States strove for hegemony in Western Europe, as historian of technology John Krige has rightly observed in his splendid study on Europe’s postwar reconstruction in science. Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace”-campaign, launched in December 1953, promised to bring peace and harmony to Europe. After all, the campaign aimed at stabilizing United States’ global hegemony by fostering scientific and technical collaboration in Europe. Consequently, U.S. government hoped that Euratom as a multinational programme would knit its European allies more closely together, distract them from pursuing autonomous national programmes, and procure for the United States a technical and economic lead in the atomic domain. European states responded to the threatening dominance of U.S.-American interests by efforts to pool their techno-scientific resources, as joint initiatives in fast breeder and nuclear fusion technologies exemplified. The geographies of nuclear collaboration in Europe were multiple, as Martin Kohlrausch and Helmuth Trischler have shown in their study of experts’ cultures in Europe, and these multiple geographies point to the inextricable interrelations of national and transnational ideas, initiatives and interests in Europe’s nuclear past – and present. Many issues will be addressed through the resource of these studies.
To the historian, one question then jumps out. What happened in the 1970s to distinguish the experience of later from early adopters? To be sure, the phenomenon occurred before Three Mile Island. Societies started to get involved more actively – and critically – with decisions on nuclear developments. It was international and protests built on earlier Anti-American international collaborations that had grown during the Vietnam War. It was associated with the environmentalism that grew so remarkably in the decade – and in particular with the rise of the “counter-expert”, challenging the authority of science as an unquestionable force for good. For many of the protest groups, opposition to nuclear power was an expression of a wider scepticism of American hegemony, and all that it stood for.
Such observations begin to suggest themselves to readers of the nationally-based accounts which underpin this assembly. Now the project is looking at transnational issues. Border issues would be important to any viewer of this history. Reactors and waste disposal at national borders have been most controversial whether we are looking at the construction site of the power station at Wyhl on the Franco-German border, reactors on the Danube or the pumping of British waste into the Irish Sea. The history of nuclear waste, and its disposal, has been a matter not just of international implementation (both technical collaboration and shipments of material) but also international controversy. Issues of transnational governance are candidates for examination.
Further research perspectives offered by the national case studies as fruitful candidates for a deeper exploration in the project’s second phase include the role of the public in shaping nuclear technologies. Based on user-oriented concepts that have looked at processes of active consumption, creative appropriation and visionary imagination of technical artifacts, we will consider the larger methodological and theoretical issues associated with nuclear energy as an exemplary “public technology”.
The Harvard analyst of science technology and society, Sheila Jasanoff has developed the concept of “sociotechnical imaginary” which she defines as “collectively held, institutionally stabilised and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology.” Even the words used make clear the relevance to nuclear power and her book includes a study of the Korean case by her colleague Sang-Hyun Kim. Clearly nuclear power has also served as a template which has deeply influenced the development of public engagement with such diverse technologies as biotechnology, nanotechnology and wind power.
The great research institutions of nuclear energy, both in the United States and in Europe, have been among the very largest centres of science. Italy’s Ispra and the large-scale research centres in Jülich and Karlsruhe in Germany provided the roots not just of Euratom but of Europe’s research enterprise more generally.
In its turn, the very public technology of nuclear energy had its roots in the complex history of nuclear weapons, widely anticipated before the Second World War, built in secret during the War and the subject of huge investment during the Cold War. Against widely-feared threats of annihilation, for a generation it seemed that nuclear power was the benevolent face of the outcomes of nuclear research – as expressed by Eisenhower’s slogan “Atoms for Peace”. Because the reactors produced plutonium potentially useful for bombs, and deployed reactors developed for submarines, the separation between energy and weapons was never as clear as presented.
The future associated with nuclear power has been contested and has changed as it has been variously portrayed as a clean alternative to the polluting coal-fired power stations, a dangerous technology producing waste that needed to be guarded for hundreds of thousands of years, and a climate-protecting sustainable technology which would be part of a low-CO2 mix of electrical generation. Among the exciting opportunities in which HoNESt will now be able to engage in the second half of its research, we can include therefore the better understanding of nuclear power in Europe as a “sociotechnical imaginary”.
1 John Krige: American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe (Cambridge, MA, and London: MIT Press, 2006).
2 Martin Kohlrausch and Helmuth Trischler: Building Europe on Expertise. Innovators, Organizers, Networkers (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
3 Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim (eds.): Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 4.
Chernobyl led to society-wide questioning of nuclear power in the late Soviet Union, in fact fueling independence movements in Ukraine and Lithuania in the Gorbachev era. Chernobyl challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to demonstrate that the “openness” – glasnost – he declared as a sign of his leadership was indeed an operating principle of the government. In the late 1980s many citizens embraced glasnost and protested openly against nuclear power. After the breakup of the USSR, Chernobyl factored heavily in moratoria in reactor construction, the mothballing of several units in Russia and Ukraine, and the closing of Ignalina station in Lithuania.
Such nuclear disasters as Chernobyl reveal that public concerns about nuclear power often devolve from scientific uncertainty, lack of openness from the authorities, and the confused and sometimes piecemeal way in which the media cover nuclear power. The Soviets took a bit of glee in reporting the partial meltdown at TMI on March 28, 1979, in making the claim that such an accident could not occur in the USSR. Pravda reported on April 1st that “thousands of panic-stricken people,” women and children first among them, had fled the region in the face of the dangerous, “unexpected and uncontrollable” leakage of radioactivity. On April 11th the cultural weekly Literaturnaia Gazeta reported that this was “a serious, major accident, one that threatened at any moment to turn into a catastrophe,” and intimated strongly that inadequately trained personnel and poor emergency systems were to blame, as well as the “objective factor – the interests of private companies” who sought only profits and ignored public interests.
Indeed confusion reigned in Pennsylvania when officials could not get their stories straight, triggering a mass exodus of 140,000 people; most local residents remained. The Kemmeny Report to the President of the United States on the accident criticized accident response as well as the poor safety culture of the plant operators and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Seven years later in another nuclear power, the USSR, the authorities failed their citizenry as well. On Monday, April 28, two days after the accident, Tass finally announced that “an accident has occurred” and that “measures are being taken.” On Tuesday, this message was repeated and noted “damage” to the reactor and “a certain leak” of radioactivity plus two deaths. The next day, “work was underway” to deal with the situation, and the Soviets criticized western media for rumors that 1000s killed, claiming that “enterprises [and] collective farms” were “functioning normally.” They restricted coverage by journalists to all but the most mundane reports – and only from Kyiv, 90 km away. Obviously the dangers and losses were far greater.
Some twenty years later, the Russian nuclear industry giant, Rosatom, embarked on a self-proclaimed nuclear renaissance with the goal of installing at least 11 new reactors by 2030 (down from earlier estimates of 30). Rosatom officials regularly engage the public in licensing hearings and other forums, although rarely uttering the word “Chernobyl.” In the US, with promises of loan guarantees, the government has received some 14 applications to build, ending a virtual interregnum in construction after TMI. On the other hand, costs to install a reactor have skyrocketed, and the Fukushima disaster has worried investors and the public; 160,000 Japanese may never be able to return home, while significant radiation contamination and public health problems will persist for decades.
In early July 2016, Rosatom subcontractors dropped a 334-ton reactor vessel being installed in Belarus or, according to Rosatom, it gently “touched the ground.” Rosatom has agreed, apparently, to replace the vessel which it claims is not damaged, but must do so given the still strong memory of TMI, Fukushima, and Chernobyl in Belarus – and the rest of the world – should it wish its “renaissance” to continue.
It seems that no government, democratic or authoritarian, Eastern or Western, and no particular design of a nuclear reactor can guarantee safety, let alone emergency evacuation, nor keep costs down. The solution may be the careful involvement of the public in determining how safe is safe enough and which costs are worth bearing.
Further reading on Chernobyl and its lingering impact:
- Arndt, Melanie. 2012. “Memories, commemorations, and representations of Chernobyl. Special issue.” The Anthropology of East Europe Review 30 (1). Available from here.
- Arndt, Melanie, ed. 2016. Politik und Gesellschaft nach Tschernobyl. (Ost-)Europäische Perspektiven. Berlin: Chr. Links.
- Josephson, Paul. 2003. “Technological Utopianism in the Twenty-First Century: Russia’s Nuclear Future.” History and Technology 19 (3): 279-294.
- Kalmbach, Karena. 2013. “Radiation and Borders: Chernobyl as a National and Transnational Site of Memory.” Global Environment 6 (1):130-159. Available from here.
- TKasperski, Tatiana. 2015. “Nuclear Dreams and Realities in Contemporary Russia and Ukraine.” History and Technology, 31(1), 2015: 55-80.
- Medvedev, Zhores. 1990. The Legacy of Chernobyl. New York: Norton.
Albert Presas I Puig - HoNESt Coordinator
It is a pleasure to open this News Channel and to have the opportunity to present our project HoNESt to you. HoNEST’s aim is to study the history of nuclear energy and its relationship with European society. It is funded within the European Union’s HORIZON 2020 research framework programme by EURATOM.
Science and technology clearly shape our present lives, and for at least the last two centuries have influenced the course of history. In public perception, science and technology have long been associated with progress, overcoming of natural limitations and ensuring the convenient, prosperous and healthy conditions of modern societies. Nuclear technology, however, while initially mostly understood as the ultimate embodiment of progress, soon became more contentious, as critics increasingly highlighted its risks and consequences.
However, societal perceptions and societal acceptance of a technology matter for the future development of this technology. At the same time, it was becoming increasingly evident to those taking decisions about technologies and infrastructures that societal perceptions and technology’s relations with society cannot adequately be studied on the basis of quantifying technocratic conceptions that tended to only insufficiently acknowledge citizens’ appraisals. An adequate assessment requires a different kind of expertise. Against this backdrop, EURATOM, with the Call NFRP 12–2014: "Nuclear developments and interaction with society" invited historians and social scientists to study the relationship between this type of energy and European society. In a call that guaranteed an open, comprehensive and self-directed enquiry, EURATOM recognised for the first time the expertise that historical and social science research can contribute to better comprehending what nuclear energy meant for European societies from its arrival in Europe up to now, and what nuclear energy, as we call it, means in our days.
A project of the scope of HoNESt requires long-term forward planning. As early as 2008, we, a group of colleagues, met in Barcelona to discuss the significance of nuclear energy in our respective countries. In the following years, we met quite a number of times, but it was the course of history that obviously accelerated the process. HoNESt certainly owes a lot to the unfortunate Fukushima accident. The meltdown in Japan in March 2011 had an important impact on the debates on future energy resources for our societies, reigniting the controversy over nuclear power. Almost immediately, the familiar lines of conflict reappeared. For those seeking a nuclear moratorium, Fukushima clearly demonstrated the fundamental flaws of nuclear energy. For those who supported nuclear energy as a clean technology which apparently offered an elegant solution to the dual challenges of climate change and import-dependency, Fukushima seemed a major set-back on the road to the so-called nuclear renaissance. While in some European countries Fukushima led to decisions to phase out nuclear power, in other countries governments have continued to pursue their nuclear strategies without meeting with major opposition.
Nuclear energy is facing great challenges which are a major concern to modern societies. The problems are complex and encompass not only economic, national and international policy- and security-related issues, but also include cultural, social and environmental factors. In this context there is a clear need for systematic reflection on the nuclear energy option, this time taking historical experiences into account. In this sense, one of the main goals of HoNESt is to improve the understanding of processes involved in the formation and growth of the nuclear energy sector, and to identify the associated key challenges for policy makers who manage the social transformation process.
Public and expert debates concerning the production of energy (demand, efficiency and market) have been dominated by economists and technocrats. The aim of HoNESt is to explain variety and change in European societies’ relations with nuclear energy, on the basis of the historical experience. In this sense HoNESt aspires to contributing to the debate on the future of nuclear energy in Europe and its relationship with European society.
Our project is of an experimental and innovative character: it constitutes the first comprehensive comparative and transnational analysis of nuclear developments and their relations with society covering more than 20 countries over the past 70 years. With the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, as lead institution, it involves an interdisciplinary consortium of 24 partner institutions across Europe and beyond. Its innovative interdisciplinary framework combines insights into the history of technology, science and technology studies, environmental history, economic and business history, social movement research, and the study of societal engagement.
If we scrutinize a variety of historical sources including archival materials, documents publicly available and conduct a substantial number of oral history interviews, the development of nuclear energy appears as a far less predictable result of the “forces of progress” than one might assume. The narratives we will be able to tell on the basis of research will question any assumptions about a presumed logic inherent in the development of technology. HoNESt understands the history of the development of nuclear energy as the history of contradictory ambitions of the various actors involved and technological problems inherent in a technological development, while stressing in particular social, economic, cultural and political contexts.
From the methodological point of view, we will adapt core concepts from Large Technological Systems (Thomas Hughes) and Integrated Socio-technical System (Jens Rasmussen) which emphasize the complexity of systems that contain both technological and social elements to devise a framework that can help explain nuclear-societal relations.
HoNESt’s interdisciplinary approach and the features of the subject matter determine its structure. HoNESt is divided into different WPs whose task it is to construct the historical narrative (WP2), to bring together social scientists and historians in interdisciplinary collaboration (WP3), to study the record of societal engagement (WP4) and to provide evidence for the backcasting exercise (WP5). HoNESt’s findings will not stay within the ivory tower: dissemination to and engagement with the various stakeholder groups are also essential aims of HoNESt.
Producing history means the representation of past events and processes based on a number of interlocking moments; identification, exhaustive scrutiny and evaluation of sources to data; their comparison and interpretation, in order to arrive at an account that is traditionally rendered in writing, but also in other media, such via audio and audio-visual media. HoNESt includes a podcast channel and will produce a number of videos.
As I said, nuclear energy in its development does not follow a straight line nor any established rationale. Nor does it follow one single pattern. On the other hand, the controversy about nuclear energy does not appear as a uniform development with an exchange of fixed and unchangeable stereotypes either. We are facing complex processes and developments.
That is why, dear reader, it gives me great pleasure to be able to offer to you via this channel the results of our project and to be able to get a feedback from all of you who are interested in this subject. In this way, we will come closer to understanding what nuclear energy was to our European societies.
And again, I hope you find our insights interesting. Please keep following our project!