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Satellites and nuclear information. Production, communication and reception of nuclear-related information generated with satellites.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - NucSat (Satellites and nuclear information. Production, communication and reception of nuclear-related information generated with satellites.)

Reporting period: 2019-07-01 to 2021-06-30

The goal of the project was to understand how information about nuclear disasters is produced, analysed, rendered evident, disseminated and consumed from Earth-orbiting satellites, and how it contributes to frame public opinion. It aimed at clarifying the processes that transform satellite raw data into knowledge about nuclear accidents, focusing on Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011)*. Opening the black box of satellite data production, circulation and use has contributed to alert us to how knowledge from space is generated as it is transformed into information that is used to advance multiple intellectual, institutional and policy-related objectives.

The investigation was structured around 2 research goals: 1) Analysing the chain of production and circulation of satellite-based information related to these accidents; 2) Analysing the impact of satellite-based information in framing public meanings of nuclear energy and its risks.

The investigation reached the following conclusions:

- Using SPOT’s data to communicate the Chernobyl meltdown was crucial to transform the accident from a nuclear to an environmental disaster.

- Cold War secrecy dynamics between URSS and USA enabled French authorities to promote the satellite at the international community as an independent, neutral means of assessing what was happening at the nuclear plant.

- Private media companies were central in disseminating Chernobyl’s SPOT data worldwide and in establishing a global market of environmental data for journalistic private benefit.

- Commercial SPOT’s imagery prompted a debate on who had the right to access, interpret and reproduce satellite data: national intelligence, civilian technical experts, scientists, the media.

- SPOT’s data barely contributed to the rise and consolidation of anti-nuclear movements in France. SPOT’s data success in being associated with environmental and not nuclear-related narratives, made it very difficult to be considered as nuclear-relevant.

*The Covid situation had an important impact for research activities. I took the decision to focus only on the Chernobyl case study.
Work package 1 focused on mapping technical and material aspects to understand what kind of data was gathered with satellites and what information was generated from them. Secondly, I examined socio-historical arrangements involved in transforming raw measurements obtained by the satellite sensors into knowledge about Chernobyl.

As part of work package 2, I examined how technical and regulatory terms of data circulation and sharing produced a specific meaning of Chernobyl. I first examined the sociotechnical infrastructures through which satellite data flowed. Secondly, I analysed the means and activities through which data was visualised and communicated.

in work package 3 I analysed the discursive framings amongst experts in data production and circulation concerning Chernobyl. I also carried out media analysis focused on how different media picked up satellite material, how it was presented, to whom it was addressed and what were the messages transmitted.

I analysed the publications, reports and archives that were available through online archival databases and repositories of the following organisations: CNES, Spot-Image Corp, OPIT, SSC, EOSDIS, EOSAT, LERTS, CEA, World Space Organisation, and Earthnet, ANDRA, “Pour un avenir sans nucléaire” and Greenpeace. Additionally, I also consulted press releases and news articles issued by le Figaro, Le Monde and Libération as well as French public TV news.

Research also included literature review on: theoretical literature on large-scale technological systems, co-production of science, technology and society, techno-scientific controversies; studies related to nuclear technologies and nuclear industries; studies about the Chernobyl meltdown; legislative framework regarding satellite data sharing; scientific communication and popularisation in mass media;and studies of anti-nuclear movements in France.

The research has so far resulted in 2 peer reviewed articles and 1 more article that is still in peer review. I am currently co-editing 2 special journal issues, including the writing of 3 more articles. Further dissemination includes 7 conference presentations, as well as the organisation of 1 cycle of 4 conferences. The dissemination actions have also included lectures at master’s students and broader-public actions (3 public talks and 1 press article).

In addition to the research and dissemination work, I wrote and submitted 5 research proposals and applications: ERC Starting Grant 2021 (I have successfully passed to step 2 of evaluation); Leonardo fellowship (successful); Gerda Henkel Foundation fellowship (unsuccessful); Ramon y Cajal grant (not yet published); Associate Professor Accreditation of the Catalan Agency for the Quality of University Research application (successful).
This study has gone beyond state-of-the-art in nuclear energy historiography by providing new narratives about the role of satellite technology and the data generated with it in these stories. It has brought together space, nuclear, environmental and media studies, which had so far majorly run in parallel. It has also demonstrated the potential of the proposed methodology combining technical and socio-historical analysis, by illuminating every step of the chain of production, dissemination and use of satellite data, and all the complex processes involved in transforming raw radiometric measurements into knowledge about the Chernobyl disaster. It is potentially applicable to study other topics that require the production and use of information and knowledge.

This study has revealed the complex system involved in obtaining meaningful knowledge about a nuclear disaster from satellite data. It is relevant for issues regarding the commercialisation of data and information. This is of particular interest to the EU, now that it is engaged in a large scale program, Copernicus, which aims to produce environmental information (most of it obtained with satellites) and to promote its commercialisation. The study has demonstrated the central role played by the private media industry that redistributed the data commercially and how data was interpreted in the process. It has also highlighted the debate on who is legitimate to interpret and reproduce satellite data.

The study is also relevant for current debates about how to communicate nuclear related issues and, more generally, about public understanding of large-scale technologies and their role in governing contemporary societies. It has unravelled, for instance, that sattellite data was not considered relevant for nuclear debates in the public arena and that the role that data played in risk assessment and governance was related to environmental monitoring and planning, but not directly associated with nuclear regulation. These outcomes will be useful in providing guidance, evaluating the efficacy of national/European experience, developing policy options and understanding public image of both satellite and nuclear technology.
Image over Chernobyl by SPOT Satellite, 1986