Go back to article: Networks of knowledge and power: working collaboratively on the HoNESt project

Future research

HoNESt’s main aim is to further understand how, why and when groups in society engage, positively or negatively, with nuclear power. Given that nuclear power is not a new invention, it is necessary to learn from the past, to build more equitable and successful relationships in the future (whether they include increasing or decreasing the amount of nuclear power that is employed). Although the Country Reports are a very good introduction to our historical research on the way nuclear energy and society have interacted across Europe, they represent only a small portion of the work undertaken. As work on the project continues, we have had to work closely to examine opportunities for new work, and to be ruthless in an effort to focus our collaborative efforts on a manageable number of publications which contribute not just new information, but a new way of understanding the way in which nuclear energy and society have interacted across Europe.

Understanding the mechanisms through which anti-nuclear movements can become part of broader societal concerns is a key part of the second phase of the project’s work, as is understanding the role of attempts to communicate (or indeed obfuscate) on both sides of the nuclear debate. By understanding the way in which society and nuclear power have interacted in the past we can learn lessons from past successes and failures (in communication, planning, engagement and representation) that have led to vastly differing national experiences of nuclear power across Europe. Through our collaboration with social scientists, we set the groundwork for a new type of relationship between nuclear power and society.

The scope of this project has also led us to conclusions which would be hard to verify if the work had not been undertaken simultaneously across such a wide range of countries. One of the most interesting findings has been in identifying and understanding the growth of anti-nuclear protest across Europe. Although the growth of anti-nuclear protest in the 1970s is a key part of many national histories, there is a tendency to generalise when extracting lessons which apply across the continent, or even multiple countries (for example, Hultman and Koomey, 2013). It is a seductive short-hand to track the growth of anti-nuclear protest to reactor accidents at Three Mile Island (1979) or Chernobyl (1986), and suggest that a safe, and otherwise well-regarded nuclear industry was simply unlucky. However, the HoNESt studies show that well before these accidents occurred, key anti-nuclear movements were being formed and societal perceptions and discourses were changing across Europe and beyond. Accidents, and subsequent attempts by politicians and nuclear industry managers to communicate to the public, reinforced growing scepticism and mistrust about civil nuclear power. A simple attempt to classify the events examined in each of the Country Reports gives us a striking and easy to read picture of the growth of public concern in the early and mid-1970s (see, for example, Kirchoff and Trischler, 2017, pp 25–27; Meyer, 2017, pp 21–38).

Figure 3

Coloured graph plotting number of nuclear events by type versus year

A codified events timeline for Western Europe highlights the growth of protest in the early 1970s

There is no simple explanation for how, why, or specifically when this occurred across Western Europe, but what is clear is that the majority of those opposing civil nuclear power found it an issue through which they could express a variety of wider societal concerns. For example, the anti-nuclear protests at Wyhl (West Germany) in 1975 became focused as much on the citizen’s right to protest as they were focused on citizens protesting against civil nuclear power specifically. In Spain, conflicts over nuclear power plants encompassed Basque nationalism, regional and local political concerns and water-usage rights (among others) (Rubio-Varas et al, pp 36–67). Protests in France were as much connected to concerns of American influence in Europe as they were about the safety of American licensed reactor designs (Lehtonen et al, p 50). What has struck all of us on this project is that nuclear concerns and nuclear ‘events’ are never solely nuclear. People’s reasons for opposing nuclear power plans range from the highly political or moral on a national or international level to the highly personal and highly local.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180907/005