Will Fukushima halt the “nuclear renaissance”? Tentative analysis of media debates in Finland, France and the UK

Markku Lehtonen, The Sussex Energy Group

Just over a month ago, nuclear power was still experiencing what some had come to call a “nuclear renaissance” – a renewed interest by governments and industry in nuclear power as a means to tackle the problems of climate change and energy security. A number of countries were planning to construct or already constructing new nuclear plants, after a pause of more than two decades in the Western countries. In Europe, Finland was at the forefront of the “renaissance”, with a parliamentary decision in 2002 to authorise nuclear new-build, soon followed by a decision by Europe’s nuclear superpower, France, to construct a new reactor in Flamanville, Normandy. In the UK, the government has taken successive steps to facilitate the construction of new nuclear plants ever since the announcement by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair in May 2006 that nuclear power was “back with vengeance”. In the US, nuclear power has been a significant element of Obama administration’s energy and climate policy, and several plants were under construction in Asia, notably in China.

The extraordinary events in Fukushima have quickly and fundamentally changed the nature of the “nuclear debate”, with several countries taking steps to reassess the safety of nuclear power plants and/or revisiting their plans for new-build. The impacts of Fukushima events have obviously been particularly significant in countries with far-developed new-build programmes, such as Finland and the UK, as well as countries with a strong nuclear industry and high reliance on nuclear for electricity supply – France as a key example. Arguably, the consequences of the current events and debates on the future of nuclear power will crucially depend on the ability of various protagonists to mobilise public opinion in support of their own positions. This in turn highlights the importance of the argumentative skills, resources and strategies deployed by the different players in the process of seeking public acceptance.

This presentation will examine the consequences of Fukushima events on the debates around of nuclear power – and thereby on the future of nuclear power – with an emphasis on Finland, France and the UK. The analysis draws on recent work concerning the key discursive strategies and their use in the context of different ‘state orientations’ in the three countries: 'technology-and-industry-know-best' in Finland, 'government-knows-best' in France, and 'markets-know-best' in the UK. It is argued that the consequences of Fukushima will be largely determined by such historically shaped state orientations. Examples of the media discussion concerning Fukushima will be given to illustrate these different orientations and national particularities, and the help predict the actual consequences on these countries’ nuclear policies. On the basis of this preliminary analysis of media reporting on Fukushima in Europe, tentative hypotheses will be made about the future of Japan’s nuclear programme and energy policy.

About the speaker
Markku joined the Sussex Energy Group in October 2005. His current research projects at SPRU analyse decision-making on nuclear power and radioactive waste management in Finland, France and the UK, the role of indicators in policymaking, and debates and technological innovation in the area of biofuels.

Date: 14 April 2011

Time: 12:30 - 02:00