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The technopolitics of nuclear megaproject pathologies, economic controversies and varieties of socioeconomic appraisal

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - TENUMECA (The technopolitics of nuclear megaproject pathologies, economic controversies and varieties of socioeconomic appraisal)

Reporting period: 2019-02-01 to 2021-01-31

"Large nuclear-sector projects are a specific example of megaprojects, i.e. “large-scale, complex infrastructure projects usually commissioned by governments and delivered through partnerships between public and private organisations, with multiple partners, high uncertainties, and considerable political stakes."" This project explored the potential of multiple forms of socioeconomic appraisal, and the associated controversies, to address the ‘pathologies’ frequently faced by nuclear megaprojects. Public controversies can strengthen the evidence base for democratic governance, sustainability, and ‘social licence to operate’ of megaprojects. This can happen especially through ‘civic vigilance’, which by mobilising the virtues of mistrust and distrust, alongside the multiple forms of trust.

Public controversies involving issues of trust, mistrust and distrust in science and technology, are central for current societal challenges of sustainability, with the current Covid pandemic as a prime example. By exploring the nuclear megaproject controversies – and the associated constant balancing between trust, mistrust, and distrust – the project helps to identify ways for strengthening the evidence base underpinning decision-making, in the pursuit of sustainability and democratic governance of megaprojects at large.

The project examined historical and contemporary examples of controversies over nuclear-sector megaprojects, in the context of the socioeconomic appraisal practices in a number of European countries. The aim was to explore the preconditions under which controversies could play a constructive role and help address megaproject pathologies in socioeconomic appraisal, within diverse technopolitical regimes and cultures."
TThe analysis focused on controversies over nuclear energy and nuclear waste management megaprojects, with particular attention to the various manifestations of civic vigilance in high-trust and low-trust societies. Controversies were analysed in a range of contexts and venues. The research examined 1) the role of ideological trust (relating to more abstract entities and higher-level institutions, such as democracy, the state, market, and planning, and their legitimate roles in society) in the emergence of counter-expertise organisations in the nuclear sector (in Finland, France, Germany, and Spain); 2) civic vigilance by the nuclear waste repository host municipalities (Finland and Sweden); 3) discursive framings of nuclear waste repository projects in the news media in Finland and France; 4) discursive framings by experts at the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency concerning the problems of nuclear megaprojects; 5) the promises and controversies relating to the current European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) projects in Finland, France, and the UK; and 6) OECD peer reviews and Social Licence to Operate as tools for channelling mistrust to constructive purposes. The main research methods were media and document analysis, and stakeholder interviews.

Two key preconditions were identified for controversies to play a constructive role in megaproject governance. First, megaprojects need contextualisation, that is, the multiple material and non-material elements of these projects need to be aligned. This implies going beyond the narrow ‘iron triangle’ perspective of cost, timetable, and predefined project specifications when analysing project success, and adopting a broader socioeconomic perspective. The analysed framings by OECD-NEA experts draw on these insights but tend to attribute the blame for megaproject problems to external factors, rather than to insufficient contextualisation. The formidable difficulties of the EPR to gain sufficient legitimacy and credibility illustrates the particular challenges of contextualisation in the nuclear sector, characterised by a long history of failed promises, as well as extraordinary safety requirements.

Second, controversies can facilitate contextualisation via various types of ‘civic vigilance’. The conditions for both trust in megaprojects and mistrustful civic vigilance vary across the historically shaped cultural, political, and institutional contexts. Building the necessary trust in nuclear waste repositories and their promoters has been far easier in the Nordic high-trust societies than in the low-to-medium trust societies of France, Germany, Spain, and the UK. Yet, the high-trust context can also undermine mistrustful civic vigilance, as shown especially by the Finnish experience: The leading Finnish newspaper has tended to reproduce government and industry frames in its reporting on the country’s nuclear waste repository megaproject, unlike the French Le Monde, with its more conventional, liberal watchdog role. The Finnish host municipality also has been passive in its partnerships with industry and government. High trust alone does not explain the differences, given the significantly more critical tone of nuclear waste reporting in the high-trust Sweden (finding from earlier research), and the active partnership role of the Swedish host municipalities. As a further illustration of context-dependencies, the strong ideological trust in the state has suppressed the development of counter-expertise in Finland but spurred it in France and Germany, when state institutions failed to live up to the high expectations placed upon them. In the unique Spanish politico-institutional setting, in turn, the weakness of ideological trust in the state has undermined the demand for counter-expertise.

Social Licence to Operate (SLO) and international peer reviews can help manage trust-mistrust-distrust relations and foster constructive mistrust. To do so, SLO frameworks need to integrate the different dimensions of trust, mistrust and distrust, recognise the potential virtues of mistrust and distrust, and nuance its assumptions concerning the virtues of trust. Lessons from OECD international peer reviews invite caution in efforts at ‘hardening’ the tools of ‘soft governance’. Hardening does not automatically make governance and appraisal more effective, and can instead undermine the delicate balance between trust and mistrust underpinning ‘soft governance’.
The project contributes to academic scholarship in particular by
• linking the hitherto distinct research traditions on framing and megaproject governance
• contributing to theorisation around the notion of civic vigilance, via empirical analysis of its concrete manifestations (media, counter-expertise, megaproject host communities, international peer review, social licence to operate)
• further developing the notion and analysis of ideological trust, in particular its role in shaping civic vigilance
• elaborating on the cultural, political, institutional preconditions for the expression of civic vigilance

The project makes a contribution to policy practice by
• fostering self-understanding and facilitating 'frame reflection' within the nuclear community
• recommending international nuclear-policy peer review as a method for ‘frame reflection’ that could be employed by the NEA
• enhancing awareness and understanding of the virtues of civic vigilance and the preconditions for its emergence and existence
• contributing to the on-going debate on the virtues and downsides of ‘hardening’ soft governance in EU energy and climate policies
Background photo of TENUMECA