The nuclear option

andy-stirlingAndy Stirling, professor of science and technology policy at the University of Sussex and co-director of the ESRC-funded STEPS Centre (Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability), argues that social science can play a vital role in unpicking policy arguments to challenge the real reasons behind nuclear energy decisions

Social science can play many useful roles in controversies over science and technology. The tricky bit is that what counts as ‘useful’ in any policy debate will often depend on the perspective. After all, it is inherent to democracy that different values and interests yield contrasting conclusions. This is especially so in controversies like the current one bubbling away around intense UK Government commitments to nuclear power.

There is of course, huge value in facilitating better understanding of why different perspectives disagree – and (where possible) identifying common ground. Beset by contending forces, it is understandable that hard-pressed policymakers will find it useful to understand how best to foster qualities of ‘trust’, ‘confidence’ and ‘acceptance’ around their own institutions and procedures.

For the most powerful incumbent interests in any given setting, social research can also play ‘useful’ roles in helping to justify, present or implement the most favoured policies. Here, social science can be a vital input to the ‘closing down’ of debate, allowing political attention to move on.

is236-014But what if the most powerfully-backed policies are actually (on deeper reflection), not a good idea and where the evidence base at the time was unduly shaped by vested interests and constrained imaginations? It is here that social science can play a further crucial role: helping to ‘open up’ policy debates where they are unduly ‘locked-in’. This focuses less on society as a target for policymaking, and more on the social processes of policymaking.

This syndrome is apparent in recent debates over Hinkley Point C where the Government is planning to forge ahead with what its own data show to be a far more expensive low-carbon energy option than is offered by alternative renewable and efficiency resources.

With the UK enjoying the best renewable resource in Europe and holding a competitive
advantage in crucial offshore industries, industrial policy arguments are also much better on renewables. The same applies to jobs. Compared to nuclear safety and security challenges, renewables are far less vulnerable. And ‘baseload’ arguments are repudiated even by National Grid. So officially stated reasons for nuclear simply don’t stack up.

The contrasts with Germany are especially strong. Here, arguably the world’s most successful industrial country had a nuclear industry far larger and more successful than that of the UK, and a much less attractive renewable resource. Yet it is this country – with a strong record of far-sighted industrial policy decisions in the past – that has made the opposite move to the UK towards renewable energy, rather than the British ‘nuclear renaissance’.

istock_000000347706mediumOne explanation for this contrast with Germany lies in the comparative circumstances of the two democracies. The post-war German constitution and a more critical political culture arguably make it easier for Germany to resist incumbent industrial interests and ease itself out of lock-in.

All the more crucial for being so neglected, there is a particular factor that seems to underlie the intense attachment of successive UK governments to civil nuclear power. This involves parallel commitments to maintain ‘nuclear submarine capabilities’. Without the cover provided by low-tier contracts in a civil nuclear construction programme, it seems the diminishing UK manufacturing sector would simply not be able to build these formidable technological artefacts. Nor could they easily be operated without civil infrastructures for research, design, training, maintenance and regulation.

So, a consequence of withdrawing from nuclear power might also be very serious for a particular (topical) version of British identity – in which nuclear military prowess supposedly allows the country proudly to ‘punch above its weight’ on the world
stage. Yet, although this kind of reason for intense UK nuclear commitments is very clearly documented on the military side, it is entirely unacknowledged anywhere in official civil nuclear policy statements – or even in British energy debates more widely.

What this might mean for policy is a moot point. But it is by opening up this kind of wider discussion about power dynamics that social science can undertake its trickiest but arguably most useful task in a controversy. And with discussion otherwise so silent on this point in energy policy, it seems the stakes transcend nuclear debates alone – raising questions over the health of British democracy as a whole.

You can follow @stepscentre on Twitter

This article first appeared in the autumn 2016 issue of Society Now

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