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Technology and Political Change: Nuclear Power in the Post-Soviet Union

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - TechPolChange (Technology and Political Change: Nuclear Power in the Post-Soviet Union)

Reporting period: 2017-02-28 to 2019-02-27

The project aimed at understanding the governance of nuclear technology in the context of political change and focused on the atomic energy development in post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine. These two formerly Soviet Republics inherited most of the Soviet nuclear reactors after the collapse of the USSR. Today 35 reactors are operating in Russia and 15 in Ukraine. Both countries navigated through major political transformations such as collapse of the Soviet Union and gaining independence, political and economic liberalization, a return to authoritarianism in Russia, and a series of major political crises in Ukraine, and finally the Crimean annexation and Russia-supported separatist war in Eastern Ukraine. On top of these political changes, both countries had to deal with the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster.
Chernobyl and the political and economic uncertainties of the 1990s left the nuclear sector in a deep crisis. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, the nuclear industries have regained the support of governments in Moscow and Kiev, both of which have committed themselves to a "renaissance" of the civilian atom. A post-Chernobyl anti-nuclear mobilization turned out to be short-lived, and the public in both countries, according to polls, supports nuclear energy development, even if it doesn’t always believe in nuclear power safety. TechPolChange set out to investigate what this renewed support of nuclear energy really meant: a return of Soviet approaches and institutions to governing atomic power or a “transition” to a more democratic nuclear governance in post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine?
This research is important for understanding the governance of risky energy technology in Europe and Eurasia faced with economic, political, and military challenges. Ukraine and Russia are indeed both on the periphery of Europe and yet integrated into Europe through energy politics, trade, and now war.
On the basis of interviews with different actors involved in nuclear politics, and the collection of documents and publications produced by state institutions, nuclear industry organizations and NGOs, the research project identified several areas in which political change affected the most the nuclear enterprise: reforms of institutions, public engagement and public communication, national nuclear imaginaries and international openness.
From the point of view of institutional reform, the process of creating, restructuring, re-naming different bureaucracies responsible for promotion and regulation of nuclear power has continued for almost three decades. These changes paradoxically indicated the persistence of Soviet institutional legacies. The persistence manifested itself in Russia through recentralization and consolidation of nuclear institutions in late 2000s and weakened regulation. In Ukraine, Soviet legacy made it hard for the state to develop a coherent national institutional and legal framework for nuclear development and to manage its energy and technological dependence on Russia.
Public involvement has added another crucial component to nuclear governance. The political liberalization starting from the late 1980s increased the opportunities for social mobilization. Another innovation is the introduction of such formal public participatory procedures as hearings on environmental impact assessments of reactor or waste storage construction, decommissioning and operating license extension. Granted, in post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine citizens’ trust in the NGOs is low and there are several obstacles that prevent the them from influencing efficiently policy-making through accepted participation procedures. However the changes mentioned above might be a game-changing element in the long run: they allow accumulation of independent activist expertise and more extensive information about industry problems, and create pressures for the industry to show somewhat greater accountability.
The potentially critical influence of the public also changed the way the nuclear industry engineers and scientists communicated with the citizens as the creation of local information centers and, more generally, new instruments and forms of communication testify. This communication became more local, more active, more consumer-oriented and aimed at separating nuclear energy from Chernobyl. Current nuclear energy promotion strategies are different from Soviet heroic-utopian depictions of the nuclear energy and its significance for the Motherland. But the patriotic and nationalistic discourse has also developed in parallel as part of the promotion of the nuclear energy. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine embarked on nation-building policies and tried to define nuclear energy development as essential to ensure the independence and grandeur of the respective nations.
But perhaps the most important aspect of political change with an impact on the governance of nuclear power is the change with regard to the international context. Nuclear industries in Russia and Ukraine became much more open to international scrutiny, regimes, and cooperation after the fall of the USSR. At the same time the international and Western regulatory and safety regimes were greatly redefined in the post-Chernobyl/post-Soviet era.
To summarize the findings of TechPolChange one can say that the persistence of Soviet legacy makes it impossible to describe the change in terms of "transition" to democratic governance of nuclear energy. However, one can observe accumulations of small changes that over time and in some circumstances these can suddenly result in a bigger shift.
TechPolChange refines understandings of the nature of transitional regimes by taking into account the scientific and technological dimensions of political transformations beyond existing work on electoral systems, the structure and functioning of the executive and the legislative branches of government, the behavior of political elites, the workings of the judicial system and so on. It shows that changes in the governance of nuclear technologies have not always followed exactly the same pattern and chronology as changes in political institutions. For example, the introduction of some participatory elements in nuclear policy-making in the 2000s coincided with the gradual return of political authoritarianism under Putin’s presidency.
TechPolChange also shows that the effect of political change on the governance of large-scale science and technology cannot be understood without taking into account the influence of the nation-building politics. In post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine nationalism has had a contradictory impact on democratization of nuclear governance. Indeed, for example, one can say that Ukrainian nationalism helped promote more open nuclear energy institutions and stronger independent regulation to distance the national nuclear industry from its Soviet legacy. At the same time, both in Russia and Ukraine, nationalist discourses about how crucial the civil atom is for the nation’s might and survival justified limitations on public criticism of nuclear industry portraying it as unpatriotic or even treasonous. This nationalist rhetoric became in particular prominent in the recent five years since the Euromaidan (also called the Revolution of Dignity) in Ukraine in late 2013, Russian annexation of Crimea and support to the separatist war in the Eastern Ukraine since 2014.
The view of the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plan in the city Sosnovyj Bor on the Gulf of Finland, Russia