Engaging the Atom (Kaijser, Lehtonen, Meyer, Rubio-Varas, 2021)
Arne Kaijser, Markku Lehtonen, Jan-Henrik Meyer, Mar Rubio-Varas (eds), Engaging the Atom: The History of Nuclear Energy and Society in Europe from the 1950s to the Present (Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2021).
The edited volume Engaging the Atom: The History of Nuclear Energy and Society in Europe from the 1950s to the Present (Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2021) successfully brings together sociologists and historians to study the public engagement with nuclear power in Europe from the 1950s to the present. With their study, the authors show the diversity and complexity of the pro- and antinuclear stances in various European countries, shedding light on the different pathways these countries followed in the nuclear energy transition.
The history of public atom certainly is one of the fields in energy history where the historian is constantly reminded of the rapidly passing of time. In almost every session on the public engagement with nuclear energy during the 1970s there will be someone in the room making remarks on how they actually experienced, or even participated in, the anti-nuclear protests, stating how remarkable it is this now has become history studied by academic historians and sociologists. That this public engagement is a topic worth studying however is almost never contested. On the contrary, over the past few years many historians, sociologists, political scientists, psychologists, philosophers, and law scholars have shown interest in the subject, culminating in a rapidly growing body of scholarly work on the public side of atomic energy.
The edited volume Engaging the Atom: The History of Nuclear Energy and Society in Europe from the 1950s to the Present (Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2021), edited by Arne Kaijser, Markku Lehtonen, Jan-Henrik Meyer, and Mar Rubio-Varas, offers a recent addition to this debate by bringing together different viewpoints from various disciplines on the history of public engagement with peaceful nuclear energy in Europe. The book, a spill over from the overarching HoNEST project, a large collaborative research project funded by the European Atomic Energy Agency (EURATOM), combines the studies of 18 scholars from several highly regarded research institutions throughout Europe.1 Among these researchers are both historians and sociologists, a combination proving fruitful in posing refreshing research questions, analysis, and articles. The best example of the added value of this collaboration is the introduction of the concept of “public technology” to describe the relationship between society and nuclear technologies.
The concept, which plays a central role throughout the whole edited volume, is elaborated on by Stathis Arapostathis, Robert Bud and Helmut Trischler in chapter eight, after already being introduced by two of the authors in an earlier article from 2018.2 With the concept of “public technology” the authors aim to “provide a structure for reflecting on the specifics of the history of nuclear power in Europe”.3 In analogy to the more familiar concept of “public science”, the term is used to understand nuclear technology as a distinct cultured entity, shaped independently from pure scientific developments. This frame enables the authors to research nuclear power in the context of other public technologies, like the motor car and the zeppelin; technologies which development depended heavily on trends in public perception. During the period studied, the 1950s to the late 1970s, the new nuclear technology was widely identified by journalists, engineers, and politicians to be the driving force behind a renewed industrial revolution, while there was also a strong societal movement against nuclear energy framing the energy source as a symbol for destruction and pollution. The duality of these views brings the authors to argue to expand academic research on nuclear energy “beyond the anti-nuclear movements and incorporate implicit or explicit public support for and positive attitudes toward nuclear energy”.4
This more open view toward the societal relations with nuclear technologies is represented throughout the book. The first part (of three) of the book deals with the context nuclear energy as public technology from the 1950s onward. In chapter one, Paul Josephson, Jan-Henrik Meyer, and Arne Kaijser discuss the historical timeframe of the “nuclear age” in Europe and how the nuclear-society relations evolved over time. By touching on big developments like the public reception of the “atoms for peace” programs in the 1950s, the rise of environmental activism in the 1960s and public nuclear disasters, such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the authors argue that public involvement in nuclear technologies dates back to the 1950s. In this period, the public reception developed from “largely enthusiastic responses of many citizens worldwide to atoms for peace programs”,5 to more anti-nuclear activists starting to shape nuclear policies in the 1970s, leading to several referenda on the future of nuclear energy production in many European countries. The second chapter by Mar Rubio-Varas takes a somewhat different approach by focussing on the changing economic contexts influencing nuclear decisions in this period. By reframing society as a “group of people who live together in an organized way making decisions on how to do things”,6 Rubio-Varas creates the opportunity to include harder to assess economic considerations on nuclear electricity production made by industrialist and governments, instead of solely focussing on anti-nuclear activist groups as “the public” in relation to nuclear technologies in the 1970s.
The second section then focusses more specifically on the question who the actors are within this framework of nuclear energy as “public technology”. First, the chapter by Albert Presas i Puig and Jan-Henrik Meyer makes a convincing argument to more critically assessing the diversity of the many anti-nuclear movements in Austria, Denmark, Spain, Sweden and West-Germany by showing there were various, often not aligned, reasons for the different movements to oppose specific nuclear plants and policies. Not every anti-nuclear movement was opposing nuclear energy as a whole, but just as often was solely focussing on the location or participation processes surrounding one local nuclear installation. The protest strategies and frames widely differed, showing that the often highlighted international link between the different protest organizations often was limited to personal and fragile relations between specific protesters. On the other side of the public debate, Paul Josephson and Markku Lehtonen focus on the role of international organizations like Comecon, Euratom and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency in creating societal debates on nuclear energy. The authors show the aims and strategies of these organizations in promoting nuclear energy changed toward more public activism in relation to the growing societal scepticism. Also, the chapter shows the effort made by Euratom and the OECD to “Westernize” the Eastern European nuclear reactors after the Soviet Union ended and former Soviet nuclear states in Europe became part of the Western European organizations.
In the third section, the five different chapters are loosely organized around the theme of “perspectives”. Here too, the different authors deal with nuclear power as “public technology” while focussing on the diverse field of opinions, interests, and perceptions on the topic. First of all, chapter five authored by Josep Espulaga, Wilfried Konrad, Ann Enander, Beatriz Medina, Ana Prades, and Pieter Cools sketches the landscape of how perceived risks and benefits developed over time in various European countries while arguing that public perception and reactions to nuclear energy were highly context-dependent and that social cultural factors and trust in institutions are crucial aspects in creating consensus and conflict on nuclear energy debates. These findings are underlined in Markku Lehtonen, Matthew Cotton, and Tatiana Kasperski’s chapter on trust and mistrust in radioactive waste management. In this chapter, the authors contrast the policies and public debates in the United Kingdom, Finland, France, and Sweden with Russian policies. In chapter seven, Matthew Cottons also focuses on nuclear policies in the United Kingdom, but here he looks at the development of the fairness in the distribution of environmental risks and benefits, opportunities for citizen participation and the role of local cultures in decision-making processes on determining the sites of nuclear facilities. In this way, Cottons further elaborates on the argument of the diversity of anti-nuclear activists made by Meyer and Presas i Puig in chapter three. After the concept of “public technology” introducing chapter eight, Arne Kaijser and Jan-Henrik Meyer deal with transboundary aspects of public engagement with nuclear facilities in the last chapter. In this chapter, the authors interpret “public” in the broad sense also focussed on by Rubio-Varas, including power companies, nuclear authorities, anti-nuclear movements, and local, regional, and national governments.
Overall, the edited volume succeeds in bringing together various disciplines and subjects under the umbrella of nuclear energy as a public technology in a very coherent book. The concept of “public technology” serves as an useful vehicle to connect the different chapters by putting forward two refreshing ways to engage the atom from a historical and sociological points of view: firstly, a focus on the diverse characteristics of the many anti-nuclear movements, and the acknowledgment that public engagement is an interaction between both opposition and proponents, and secondly, the reframing of nuclear energy as a technology that is, in a way, not unique, but its interactions with the public encompass some similar characteristics as other public technologies like the automobile.
Regarding the first contribution, the edited volume builds on the debate that is slowly taking shape on how to address the influence of pro-nuclear perception by the public contrary to the anti-nuclear views. Traditionally research on public engagement with nuclear energy has the tendency to focus on scientists, policymakers and corporations as the pro-nuclear forces trying to influence public opinion, and framing the anti-nuclear activism as “the public” becoming more and more sceptical of the nuclear promise in the 1960s and 1970s. This classic account has already been nuanced with studies of nuclear scepticism, which was already present during the 1950s, but for a long time left unanswered on the basis of what public opinion policymakers and elected politicians had the tendency to stuck with nuclear power in the 1970s and 1980s despite anti-nuclear protests.7 This edited volume offers a couple of ways to further this debate. First of all, by focussing on the diversity of the anti-nuclear sentiments and showing that many of the anti-nuclear activist were at first not really against nuclear power in general. Secondly, by expanding the concept of “the public” by including more economic, regional, and transboundary arguments. Finally, by arguing that institutional trust was an important factor in reaching nuclear consensus.
The second aspect, nuancing the “uniqueness” of nuclear energy and framing this technology in the context of other public technologies ends up being less addressed in this edited volume. Nevertheless, this is an important point to further consider in follow-up studies. As the authors of the chapter on nuclear energy as “public technology” point out themselves, the trope of nuclear exceptionalism is easy to overstress. Nuclear power as an energy source certainly has different properties in waste disposal, generation, and resource extraction than others, such as fossil fuels like oil and coal, and these properties have often been magnified in public and academic discussions, thus gaining a status of their own. However, this does not make nuclear energy unique perse, but rather partly comparable to other public technologies like the zeppelin, where public opinion also determined the developments of the technology to a significant extent.8
In conclusion, Engaging the Atom offers a rich contribution to a growing field of academic studies into the public engagement with the atom by productively combining the research of sociologists and historians on European atomic energy. Everyone interested in learning more about the diversity and complexity of the arguments used for and against furthering the nuclear energy projects on the European continent or wanting to further study the broad spectrum of positions towards atomic power, should start with this edited volume.