Nuclear Research and Social Sciences in Europe

Last september, we were asked by an Euratom team to give a viewpoint on civil nuclear research in Europe after Fukushima. A survey was launched by Euratom to gather multiple standpoints from stakeholders and researchers, with a window open for social scientists. Even if, in our professional practices, we use to keep the question of acceptability at a distance, after a short deliberation, three of us have accepted to give the following answers, but not before reformulating the set of questions. Until we discover the true career of this contribution in their final report, we put it on this research blog … Enjoy this exercice of free sociological expression …

Decision Making, Risk Management and Euratom Research. Questions to social scientists

 A viewpoint from Francis Chateauraynaud (GSPR, EHESS, Paris, France), Soraya Boudia (Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée, France) and Markku Lehtonen (Sussex Energy Group, Brighton, UK)

Euratom : Who are the end-users of EU energy research (especially in the nuclear domain) ? should this research be driven principally by public concerns or by industrial needs ? who are then the best representatives (e.g. environmental organisations or technological platforms, resp.)

The question of end-users should certainly be addressed differently. The design of « end-users » reflects a certain conception of the process of research and innovation activities that draws a line between production and use. However, many studies in science, technology and innovation studies show that there is often a co-production between different actors, for exemple industrial sector or NGO may be at the origin of the question addressed in nuclear research. In this perspective, the question concerning who should design the research agenda, public concerns or industrialists, or who are the best representatives has no easy answer. In fact, many actors co-produce the energy research and each of them can have a different agenda and should be represented. In France for exemple, due to the political history of the nuclear industry, four major categories of users can be distinguished: large research institutions, mainly CEA, but also IRSN which became independent in the late 1990s, and ANDRA which has a separate status and in an intermediary position between research and industry; nuclear firms like EDF and AREVA; public authorities (Ministry of Industry, Ministry of environment, etc) including the different agencies and institutes around, and Parliament (especially OPECST : Parlementiary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Options); and last but not least, NGOs involved in the energy sector – as WISE or Global Chance.

Concerning the EU research agenda, as social scientists, we think that it should be driven primarily by public concerns – industry have its own resources for conducting research to serve its own needs and agenda. Indeed, the plurality of actors, and the multi-scales logics of actions and decisions imply a process of research driven by public concerns, since industrial operators tend to reduce research to technological innovation based on economical patterns developed in confined spaces. By opening the black boxes of nuclear research, environmental or labour organizations for exemple can contribute to defining research programs, and they must be involved, especially in the production and discussion of scenarios and choices for the future of energy. In this perspective, rrepresentatives (for decision-making concerning research orientations and priorities) should include all stakeholder groups. However, particular attention should be paid to ensuring that the weaker and marginalized groups – and indeed the views and perspectives that diverge from the « mainstream » – are taken on board. This is particularly important in view of the need for innovation and creativity that are prerequisites to sustainable energy transitions. Various pathways towards sustainability need to be explored – not only those that seem the most feasible within the current institutional, political and economic context.

Euratom  : What is specific to EU nuclear fission research ? to what extent is it distinct from energy research in general ? should it be driven by EU legislation ? (e.g. similarly to the « Bataille law » which proposed a long-term research programme to support the French strategy [1])

What is the best way to define a research agenda and how it should be conducted and implemented is a question to which there is no simple answer. In historical perspective, research programs that led to several results have been those who have benefited in many ways, which have explored several parallel tracks on the same subject. We do no think that research defined by an EU legislation would be the best option : 1/ since Member States disagree rather fundamentally on many of key aspects relating to nuclear fission. 2/ a research based on legislation is rarely effective due to a lack of flexibility and because it will limit the importance of exploring topics that seem unpromising. However, concerning some topics, a research driven by EU legislation would be a good option. This specially concerns public concerns on safety. Nuclear fission research needs  appropriate safety measures – indeed, security is a general requirement crossing all areas and fields but each radioactive process (from mining to the waste management) generate specific concerns, that other sources of energy do not share. Something like a EU legislation with long phases of deliberation providing broad social debates on research programmes relevant to parliamentary level of policymaking.


Euratom : What is an acceptable level of (nuclear) risk for the public at large ? what kind of EU research is needed to improve the risk governance ? e.g. technical experts aiming at technological risk minimisation, or social scientists aiming at public fear minimisation, or a mix of both

The question of the definition of the ‘acceptability’ and the ‘public’ are quite problematic and nowadays questioned by many scholars, activists or policymakers. In one hand, acceptability is challenged by the questions of socio-economic alternative choices, and the type of consensus on a “level of risk” depends on two main parameters: the availability of catastrophes used as precedents (Chernobyl and Fukushima); the list of connected or discussed risks in the public arenas (global warming, chemicals, air pollution, GMOS, nanoparticles etc). In other hand, several studies show that there is not something like “a public” (but many publics which are defined and mobilized through different types of social processes). Attempting to give a general representation of the public opinion is a political strategy seriously criticized in social sciences, as for the unquestioned division between ‘experts’ and ‘public’, ‘technical’ solutions and ‘social’ fears is unsustainable since new ways of thinking public problems have been developped (see for instance Frank Fisher, Democracy & Expertise. Reorienting Policy Inquiry, Oxford, 2009). So, we do think that neither of the proposed approaches « technical experts aiming at technological risk minimisation, or social scientists aiming at public fear minimisation » seems reasonable to me as an overarching strategy. A key challenge for future research is to take social science research seriously to better understand what are the stakes at work in the risk issues.

Markku Lehtonen

Euratom : How to deal with and how to communicate about uncertainties ? (e.g. climate change, GMOs, stem cells) How about strategic questions in nuclear ? e.g. is plutonium an asset or a liability? what is the impact of low dose radiation (linear no-threshold model versus hormesis) ? etc

Since many decades, all these questions are engaged in huge controversies. The issues around the so-called ‘uncertainties’ are not matter of communication but of : 1- the transparency of decision making concerning nuclear activities and the confidence in nuclear institutions regarding their relationships with the public in the past; 2- the different interpretations of the precautionary principle, which in fact is a key principle for risk governance in Europe. Appraising uncertainties is not only a scientific exercise but also a social one, in which technical experts play a crucial role, but they cannot alone define what the uncertainties actually mean for different groups (workers for example or people living around nuclear plants for example). So, the main challenge is not communicating about uncertainties, but rather developing a better understanding on what is at stake in the debates concerning uncertainties and taking seriously the adverse arguments.

Some dangers created by nuclear activities are out of doubt and the issue is more oriented to prevention, preparedness and management of historical legacy. Activists connect Plutonium with military uses and this artificial radioactive element leads to questions on the borders between civil and military industries. Concerning the recent evolutions of low dose issues, see the report coordinated by S. Boudia, F. Chateauraynaud and Co, Scientific Exposure and Exposure to Low Doses (2011 – French version available on line).

Euratom : What is the public perception of Euratom research programmes ? what could be improved to better « serve » the end-users ? more generally, how is the role of the technical (especially nuclear) experts perceived ? in comparison with scientists in other areas of energy research

Euratom is not well known to ordinary people. There is little visibility outside the circles of experts and, on the opposite side, of activists involved in the battle over nuclear power and its future. The most part of technical experts seem away from the places of discussion and debate, because of the large containment that still characterizes the nuclear world, including in its research. This is much less the case in other areas of research (biomass, wind turbines, even petrochemical sector do not have the same set of confined practices).

Euratom : What is the impact of the Fukushima event on the public debate and on policy making in the different EU Member States ? is this impact going to be permanent ? should Euratom research focus more on socio-political issues ? (including stronger links with EU decision making).

The disaster that hit Japan on March 2011 has had a profound effect, producing a chain of impacts beyond Japan, by reintroducing, in many places all over the world, deep questions on nuclear reliability. The political consequences of the disaster were clearly visible in different countries in Europe – Germany at first, but also Italy, Switzerland, Belgium– and in France the political debate is re-launched for years. Even if in UK or Finland for instance there is no, or not yet, clear shift in nuclear policy, the myth of perfect safety as well as a secure technological society has been definitively shattered in the aftermath of Fukushima. And we are at the beginning of a very long process with many tipping points in the next future. The question of how do democracies deal with extreme risks, and how are collective preferences toward risk translated into the public decision-making are on the european agenda and it is clear that Euratom should contribute to these debates. So yes, Euratom should certainly focus more on socio-political issues, but the crucial question is what kind of socio-political research approach will be taken. It would be harmful and counterproductive if Euratom conducted and financed mainly research aimed at enhancing the trust and acceptance of nuclear power in its member countries. There are several other issues very important to be study, for example how nuclear world frames the several safety issues in a manner that cannot be easily shared but other groups (the stress test for example). In addition, to understand the collective processes at stake in different countries, a long run observatory of debates and mobilizations, economical strategies and policymaking must be built.

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