It’s been another turbulent month in the long-running saga over the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station. Having looked as if she might be contemplating a rethink, Theresa May unveiled an apparently decisive approval just before the Conservative Party conference. But with longstanding issues still unaddressed – and new problems emerging even since the PM’s announcement – the debate over Hinkley is far from over.
Now might be a good moment, then, to reflect on the contribution that social science can make to these kinds of controversies over science and technology. Of course, what counts as useful in any given controversy will depend on your perspective. It is inherent to democracy that different values and interests yield contrasting conclusions. This is especially so over deeply-fractured faultlines like those which run through the UK’s commitments to nuclear power.
Social science can provide a better understanding of why different perspectives disagree – and help (when possible) to identify common ground. Hard-pressed policymakers often find it useful to understand how to foster trust, confidence and “acceptance” of their institutions and procedures.
For powerful interests in any setting, social research can also play a useful role in helping to justify, present or implement favoured policies. Here, social science can be part of the closing down of debate – helpfully enabling political attention to move on.
But what if, on deeper reflection, powerfully-backed policies are a bad idea (perhaps as with the Hinkley decision? History is replete with examples – like asbestos, heavy metals, carcinogenic pesticides, chlorine bleaches, toxic solvents and ozone depleting chemicals – where it only emerged in retrospect that the pictures being given of “sound science” or the “evidence base” at the time were unduly shaped by vested interests or constrained imaginations.
It is here that social science can play a further crucial role: helping to open up policy debates where they are being prematurely “locked-in”. This focuses less on society as a target for policymaking, and more on the processes of policymaking themselves. The production and interpretation of evidence is, after all, as much a social phenomenon as public attitudes or political mobilisation.
It is a striking feature of the Hinkley example that even the government’s own evidence base is strikingly damning. The assessment of value for money itself acknowledges Hinkley C to be more expensive than other low carbon energy strategies. And the picture in other official sources is even more negative. With nuclear costs rising and renewable costs falling – and a worldwide turn towards wind and solar power – global trends compound the picture.
With the UK enjoying the best renewable energy resource in Europe and holding a competitive advantage in offshore industries, industrial policy arguments are also manifestly stronger for renewables. The same applies to prospective jobs. Compared to nuclear safety and security challenges, renewables are less vulnerable. And simplistic “baseload” arguments are shown by numerous official reports to be superseded by technology – and repudiated even by the National Grid. So the officially-stated reasons for nuclear enthusiasm simply don’t stack up.
The contrast with Germany is especially strong. Here, arguably the world’s most successful industrial power had a nuclear sector far larger and more successful than that of the UK, and a much less attractive renewable resource. Yet it is Germany – with a record of far-sighted industrial policy decisions in the past – that has made the opposite move to the UK: an “Energiewende” towards renewable energy, in contrast to the British “nuclear renaissance”.
So, here emerges another role for social science: critical interrogation of what lies behind the official picture. Our own recent research on the Hinkley question suggests the best way to understand this continuing commitment – and the contrast with Germany – lies in the relative qualities of the two democracies. The post-war German constitution, and a more critical political culture, makes it easier for Germany to resist incumbent industrial interests and ease itself out of lock-in.
And our research suggests there is a further – seriously neglected – factor that may underlie the intense attachment of successive UK governments to civil nuclear power. This involves parallel UK commitments to maintain nuclear submarine capabilities. Without the cover provided by lower-tier contracts in civil nuclear construction, the diminished UK nuclear manufacturing sector would simply not be able to build these formidable technological artefacts. Nor could they easily be operated without civil infrastructures for nuclear research, design, training, maintenance and regulation.
So a consequence of withdrawing from nuclear power might also be very serious for a particular version of British identity – especially in the coming post-Brexit era. It is nuclear military prowess that supposedly allows the UK to “punch above its weight” on the world stage. Yet, although this rationale for continued UK nuclear commitments is clearly documented on the military side, it is unmentioned anywhere in official civil nuclear policy statements – and in energy debates more widely.
What this might mean for policy is a moot point. But by opening up this kind of wider discussion, social science can undertake its trickiest – but arguably most useful – task in any controversy. The stakes in this particular case transcend nuclear debates alone – and raise questions about the overall health of British democracy, according to The Guardian.