For the workshop’s third session, Allison Macfarlane, University of British Columbia, moderated a discussion drawing on the field of science and technology studies (STS), also called science, technology, and society studies. The speakers were Sheila Jasanoff, Harvard University; Andy Stirling, University of Sussex; Behnam Taebi, Delft University of Technology; and Pierre-Benoit Joly, Institute for Research and Innovation in Society.
NUCLEAR RISK, STS, AND THE DEMOCRATIC IMAGINATION
Sheila Jasanoff, Harvard University
As new technologies emerge, so too does scholarship around their consequences for society. The field of STS, which is the study of how societies understand themselves within a world informed by and dependent on science and technology, has evolved in close parallel with the nuclear energy field itself. Jasanoff described how scholarship in and related to STS, such as Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky’s Risk and Culture and Gabrielle Hecht’s The Radiance of France, engaged with the domain of nuclear power and helped shape discussions around nuclear risk (Douglas and Wildavsky 1983; Hecht 1998).
Nuclear risk can be viewed through two distinct analytic lenses: the technocratic approach and the social-cultural approach. The technocratic approach, favored by those within the nuclear energy community, focuses on risk quantification; assessment, management, and communication; rationalization of new methodologies; economic framing of costs and
benefits; measuring public perceptions; and depoliticization of the nuclear issue. The social-cultural approach taken by STS scholars, by contrast, asks how risks are recognized and why some are ignored; examines the roots of international differences; recognizes the roles of history and framing discourses; and considers how political cultures affect risk recognition, assessment, and management.
The technocratic approach sees risk assessment as distinct from risk management, and separates the former from economic, social, and political concerns. On the other hand, the social-cultural approach recognizes that such factors cannot be separated from the assessment of risk, and that all nuclear discussions inevitably cross social, cultural, and political boundaries. A thorough examination of these issues can uncover new ways to think about risk, Jasanoff said.
WHAT DOES STS SAY ABOUT THE ISSUES FACING NUCLEAR POWER?
Andy Stirling, University of Sussex
Through its scrutiny of the dynamics of power and privilege within science, Stirling described how the field of STS has demonstrated that information about nuclear power that is presented as sound, evidence-based science and policy is in fact quite political. For example, he said that estimates of reactor reliability or energy costs have often been overly optimistic, and uncertainties have been seriously downplayed. Despite these weaknesses, optimistic claims for advanced nuclear technologies are still asserted without reference to past mistakes.
In addition, Stirling asserted that there are often more pathways for innovation in energy technology than proponents of nuclear energy acknowledge. An example of how a new technology can very quickly and unexpectedly come to dominate electricity supply is that of combined-cycle gas turbines moving out of aviation to energy in the 1980s. Similarly, despite earlier skepticism about the sufficiency, reliability, and affordability of renewable energy, renewables are now recognized to be a fast-growing possible solution to global energy dilemmas.
Last, Stirling stressed that all technologies, infrastructures, and institutions embody power relations which shape the knowledge they produce in strong—if sometimes hidden—ways. The nuclear industry, which is stabilized by military interests, has used this power to frame the debate by assuming inevitability, asking “What can nuclear do?” instead of “What would be best?”
Given this context, Stirling outlined features that can lead to a rigorous and honest debate about nuclear energy. First, he said it is important
to recognize—and talk about—how hidden power dynamics can influence decision making. Second, he recommended a shift in the current disproportionate focus on nuclear energy to also give balanced attention to the relative pros and cons of non-nuclear zero-carbon alternatives. In pursuing climate targets, he urged a focus as much on empirical realities as on theoretical modeling; he argued that a currently neglected factor is how some technologies can lock in or crowd out other technologies; and he noted that valuing energy diversity does not mean “do everything”—it is reasonable that a specific option might be excluded from a mix if is too slow, too expensive, or otherwise too problematic. Last, he stressed the need for candid appraisals of what is driving nuclear infrastructure and its components, and a recognition of what happens when nuclear technologies eventually, and inevitably, reach obsolescence.
ETHICS OF NUCLEAR ENERGY: VALUES AND NUCLEAR REACTORS
Behnam Taebi, Delft University of Technology
Taebi discussed how ethical considerations inform discussions and decisions around nuclear energy. He stressed that ethical frameworks for nuclear energy exist to facilitate nuanced discussions, not create a wholesale endorsement or rejection. No energy source can be studied in isolation, and so nuclear energy must also be viewed relative to other options. In addition, he said, it is valuable to examine and compare particular considerations within nuclear energy, such as the benefits and drawbacks of different fuel cycles (Taebi and Kloosterman 2008), and to anticipate the long-term ethical implications of advanced nuclear technologies.
When a subject elicits such divergent values as nuclear energy does, it is important that these values be incorporated into reactor designs to facilitate more nuanced comparisons. Nuclear ethics discussions usually emphasize safety, especially in the wake of an accident. Safety was traditionally addressed through reactor design, but newer designs incorporate other public values, concerning issues such as security, responsible handling of waste, sustainability, economics, and nuclear weapons proliferation. Incorporating these values improves upon probabilistic risk assessments and helps society better understand the implications of reactors and technologies, Taebi said. It can also help nuclear scientists anticipate future values and assess how reactor designs may support or compromise them.
Balancing values in the implementation of nuclear facilities can help to optimize designs, inform decision making, reduce conflict, and improve flexibility. Emerging designs, such as a reactor that uses a fuel that precludes meltdowns or one that uses thorium in place of some uranium,
may also offer new opportunities to satisfy certain values such as safety or durability (Taebi and Kloosterman 2015).
NUCLEAR POWER AND SOCIETY: TECHNICAL DEMOCRACY ON TRIAL
Pierre-Benoit Joly, Institute for Research and Innovation in Society
Joly discussed how the field of nuclear energy represents a prime example of “technical democracy”—when experts and non-experts collaborate to address socio-technical controversies (Callon et al. 2009). Technology and democracy share several features: both follow principles of good governance and regulation; value scientific expertise, independence, plurality, and transparency; and emphasize technical assessment. When technology and democracy intersect, several key questions arise: What is being debated? What is the link between the debate and the decision-making process? Is the issue divisible (more/less) or indivisible (yes/no)?
Divisible conflicts benefit from negotiation and usually end in value-added compromise or co-design, but indivisible issues cannot be negotiated and usually require an agreement of mutual tolerance or the elimination of an opposing group. In France in the 1960s and 1970s, the nuclear energy discussion was approached from an indivisible mindset. The public was told to follow the technocratic solution, partly because nuclear science is so complex that it is considered outside of the realm of what can reasonably be debated by non-experts. However, Joly argued that it is possible to view nuclear energy decisions as divisible: Can reactor size or type be negotiated? Can other technologies be part of a diverse decarbonization mix? Is nuclear energy compatible with sustainability goals? To meaningfully advance debates around nuclear power, Joly suggested that the nuclear field and society more broadly must work to answer these questions.
Macfarlane moderated a discussion that covered power dynamics, the knowledge deficit model, the role of nuclear in the broader energy transition, and nuclear energy security.
Several speakers mentioned the important role of power dynamics in nuclear energy. Macfarlane invited panelists to expand on who holds power in nuclear energy, and who benefits from it. Jasanoff answered
that decision-making power is organized differently in every country, so it depends on the individual government, for example, how separated the military nuclear sector is from the civilian. However, the power of expertise is different from political or decision-making power, and emerges through specialties such as risk assessment and complex quantification. She said that in the U.S. political culture, problems outside the bounds of traditional quantification or expertise, such as the psychological ramifications of restarting a nuclear power plant after an accident, have been ignored. While that is exactly the sort of problem STS can shed light on, she said that experts in the field of STS are rarely invited to the table, partly because “soft” (or human and social) sciences such as STS are seen as belonging on the risk management side of the policy process.
Macfarlane agreed that certain areas of expertise are given more power than others, and described the U.S. nuclear field as more centralized after the Atomic Energy Act. Jasanoff agreed that in some respects the U.S. nuclear field is centralized, but noted that if a coherent national policy never develops, centralization at the federal level does not really matter. Deliberation is the key to building such a policy, and social sciences including STS can inform democratic deliberation, she noted.
Stirling agreed that a reason why social sciences are sometimes misconstrued and overlooked is that they can cast an inconvenient light on the asymmetries of power and privilege that shape prevailing discussions. Such asymmetries exist within science, too, so it is important to explore how the ways questions are asked are shaping the answers that emerge. He stressed again how framing debates around what energy options are best (rather than what nuclear energy can do) will bring more balance and rigor to the debates.
Kirsty Gogan, LucidCatalyst, posited that it might be useful to reframe the question away from who holds power to who is being harmed, such as those whose health suffered from increased coal production after Fukushima. Stirling replied that material harm is an important issue, but the literature of precise calculations of harm is uneven and displays a high degree of uncertainty, such that radically different conclusions are often equally legitimate. Macfarlane noted that while there may have been no direct casualties from the Fukushima accident, by other units of measurement, such as job losses, there was a large impact. Jasanoff agreed that coal production harms more lives than nuclear power but added that, in STS, the term “asymmetry” refers to the observation that people have certainty about their own beliefs but attribute uncertainty to those of others. The public is good at recognizing such asymmetries, and it is complicated to compare recorded deaths from coal-based energy production to potential deaths from nuclear production. STS analysis is not only about the comparability of numbers, however; it is also concerned with how
something like coal mining affects peoples’ daily lives. STS researchers have learned that people do not necessarily focus a great deal on mortality figures if they feel taken care of by their company or by society. Experts who focus on numbers alone run the risk of ignoring the wider context in which people interpret the numbers, which is part of the reason why there is often such a disconnect between experts and the public. In addition, Jasanoff noted that risk aversion changes when the topic changes—for example, COVID-19 has been viewed very differently from nuclear risk in different countries, although both involve unseen, incompletely understood, harmful agents.
Joly agreed that the number of deaths should not be the only unit of measurement. Fukushima will have contaminated soil and low-level radiation for a very long time, and the residents who have returned may experience real long-term harm. The many nuances in energy production make it difficult to come to straightforward conclusions about who is being harmed, and by how much, he said.
The Knowledge Deficit Model
Macfarlane asked speakers to comment on the knowledge deficit model, which posits that people are skeptical about technology because they do not understand it, something that can be overcome with more information. While the idea was originally posed generically in reference to the role of science in society, Jasanoff said that, used in the context of nuclear decisions, the model misconstrues the nuanced relationships between the public, expertise, and decision making. One key danger lies in seeing the public as both monolithic and deficient in knowledge, a tendency that she suggested emerges from the culture of academic specialization. While it is true that some areas of knowledge that are valued by experts, such as probabilistic thinking, are not generally well-understood among the broader public, this misses the point. Rather than what people know about quantifying risk, she said, the key question is often what people care about and whether experts are addressing their actual concerns.
Building on this point, Joly noted that studies have shown that the deficit model fails to accurately describe the disconnect between the public and scientists (Rayner 2012). He suggested that other reasons should be examined more broadly and in the context of power dynamics. In addition, he suggested that governments should study technologies that successfully overcame public uncertainty.
Taebi agreed, cautioning against framing the debate as one of “rational” experts against an “emotional” public. Often, the experts are overly optimistic and assign probabilistic assessments more precision
than they deserve, ignoring the subtle, yet important, moral dimensions within the public’s concerns. When there are so many unknowns, he argued, it is inappropriate to give experts all the decision-making power or allow them to dismiss public opinion. Stirling also agreed with this summary of STS insights and added that even findings in the (very different) field of rational choice theory agree that in a plural society, it is not just difficult to derive a single objective picture, but basic principles of rationality conflict. Therefore, looking for one definitive reconciliation among multiple energy choices is neither possible nor meaningful.
The Role of Nuclear Power in the Broader Energy Transition
Macfarlane asked panelists to comment on the role of nuclear power in the current energy transition. Stirling replied that the long track record of nuclear energy does earn it a place in the discussions, but it is important to remember that the promise of nuclear energy has been repeatedly overestimated in terms of its costs, lead times, and required infrastructure. It is especially unfavorable when compared to renewable energy technologies, he said, and cautioned against investing in nuclear technologies to the detriment of renewables. In his view, the question should not just be (as is normal) “how much” nuclear to include, but also whether it is a reasonable contender at all. To answer crucial questions over requisite energy diversity, he encouraged consideration of timescales, resource curves, and relative pros and cons. This involves analyzing diversity more rigorously than simply lumping together “renewables” and comparing these with nuclear energy. Depending on context, disparate kinds of renewables may offer the same, or even greater, resource contributions than nuclear, at lower cost. He suggested disaggregating each resource in order to enable more accurate comparisons.
Joly stated that the energy transition is generally considered to be more about addition—more of everything, including nuclear, coal, and renewables—rather than necessarily being about substitution. A key point in the discussion needs to be reducing the individual, and global, consumption of energy. Raising taxes can curb consumption, but it also raises distributive justice issues, he noted.
From the perspective of what it would take to get public acceptance for nuclear energy, Jasanoff urged a focus on taking public concerns seriously. “The societal challenge of public acceptance should be part and parcel of any comprehensive cradle-to-grave thinking about these issues,” she said. While the drivers of resistance will differ place to place, it is important to understand how to frame the message, learn from past errors, and focus efforts on finding the wisest, most inclusive, and most honest way forward.
Michael Ford, Argonne National Laboratory, added that research funding for renewable technology currently dwarfs that of nuclear energy. Macfarlane replied that this comparison depends where the money comes from, but agreed that it can look unbalanced in favor of renewables. However, she noted that the nuclear field has numerous other exclusive benefits, such as the Price-Anderson Act,1 that make valuation very difficult.
Richard Cupitt, Stimson Center, asked how issues around security may impact public acceptance of nuclear energy in the United States and worldwide. Could peaceful uses of nuclear energy be perceived as a distraction from the idea of disarmament, for example? Taebi replied that national security and knowledge proliferation are important considerations, because sabotage or theft is possible with any nuclear technology. Some advanced reactors will decrease or even completely remove the possibility of proliferation, he posited, because they have no need for more uranium, enrichment, or recycling facilities. While that argument may appear to disconnect the military and civilian uses of nuclear technology, he noted that in many instances there will be a way to keep, make, or expand nuclear technology for weapons purposes, which also holds true with advanced reactors.
Joly added that comparing commercial and military applications of nuclear technology is complicated and has a high degree of uncertainty, making it difficult to develop valid economic models of nuclear energy costs. Stirling noted that, depending on underlying views, the industrial interdependence between military and civilian nuclear applications might be invoked variously to criticize or make a case for nuclear technology. Governments have in the past been nervous about acknowledging the civil-military interlinkages around military technologies, and this in itself has a negative effect on policy debate. Jasanoff noted that STS has studied energy security, for example, in overcoming opposition to nuclear energy in South Korea. While it would not be easy, the United States could learn from their strategies to promote energy security while acknowledging Americans’ skepticism of top-down claims.
Ford asked if the fact that nuclear energy is accepted as part of the U.S. national security policy can be used as a case for continuing to promote and host sustainable nuclear infrastructure. Stirling expressed
1 U.S. Congress, House. 2010. 42 U.S.C. § 2210 - Indemnification and Limitation of Liability. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Publishing Office. December 30. https://www.govinfo.gov/app/details/USCODE-2010-title42/USCODE-2010-title42-chap23-divsnA-subchapXIII-sec2210.
agreement that arguments over the military and security implications of nuclear power are legitimate areas for debate. In the United Kingdom and the United States, where military drivers of civil nuclear power are evidently strong, he cautioned that support for nuclear technology is too often justified solely by reference to other factors, with data asserted that underestimates costs and does not adequately recognize the uncertainties. Greater candor about underlying motivations might ease reliance on flawed data and enable greater rigor and accountability, he suggested.
Callon, M., P. Lascoumes, and Y. Barthe. 2009. Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Douglas, M., and A. Wildavsky. 1983. Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental Dangers. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hecht, G. 1998. The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity After World War II. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Rayner, S. 2012. “Uncomfortable Knowledge: The Social Construction of Ignorance in Science and Environmental Policy Discourses.” Economy and Society 41(1):107–125. https://doi.org/10.1080/03085147.2011.637335.
Taebi, B., and J. Kloosterman. 2008. “To Recycle or Not to Recycle? An Intergenerational Approach to Nuclear Fuel Cycles.” Science and Engineering Ethics 14(2):177–200. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-007-9049-y.
Taebi, B., and J. Kloosterman. 2015. “Design for Values in Nuclear Technology.” In Handbook of Ethics, Values, and Technological Design, J. van den Hoven, P. Vermaas, and I. van de Poel, eds., pp. 805–829. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6970-0_30.