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Reactions To Fukushima In Finland, France And The UK – Rupture Or Continuity In The Nuclear Techno-Politics?

Markku Lehtonen
University of Sussex and Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée

This think-piece presents a first sketch for a research project comparing the trajectories of the development of nuclear power in Finland, France, and the UK in the wake of Fukushima. In an ambition to provide insights into scholarship in comparative inter-cultural analysis, and taking as preliminary starting points literatures on techno-political regimes[1] (Hecht 1998), techno-political cultures[2] (Felt & Müller 2011, see also Jasanoff 2005), and ‘state orientations’[3] (Dryzek et al. 2002; Teräväinen et al. 2011), it seeks to place Fukushima within the context of the evolution of the nuclear sector in the three countries throughout the post-War period. Key questions hence concern the two-way relationships between Fukushima and the longer-term dynamics in the trajectories of nuclear power development (whether that trajectory be conceptualised in terms of techno-political regimes, and cultures or state orientations). The challenge hence consists of 1) explaining the degree to which Fukushima has shaped the dominant trajectory and institutions (regime/culture/orientation) and 2) in which ways the prevailing national trajectories and institutions explain the varying reactions to Fukushima. The analysis would be based on document analysis, interviews with nuclear industry and NGO communities, and more targeted media analysis with the ‘Prospéro’ software (e.g. Chateauraynaud 2003).

As for the first question, it has indeed been argued that instead of marking a rupture, Fukushima reinforced the existing trends. Szarka (2013) has claimed that the French-led “nuclear renaissance” had stalled already prior to Fukushima – for economic, financial and organisational reasons. Analysis of opinion polls has highlighted the continuing decline – confirmed and reinforced by Fukushima – of public support for nuclear in France since around 2000, and a steady rise in support in the UK since around 2005. The shifts in governance of nuclear safety at the international level, manifested notably in the EU stress tests, can also be seen as part of a longer trend. The second question leads us to the heart of inter-cultural comparison: how to explain the country-specific reactions to Fukushima (government policy and public debate)? While none of the three countries opted for nuclear phase-out, the accident seemed to 1) further strengthen the UK government’s efforts to support nuclear, 2) marginally change the Finnish policy and discourse, and 3) generate very lively political debate in France, with nuclear phase-out probably for the first time on the agenda as a potentially feasible long-term option, and leading the commitment to the reduction of the share of nuclear from 75% to 50% by 2025-30.

Why compare Finland, France and the UK?

As the first Western country to decide on new-build since Chernobyl, Finland constitutes the pioneer of the European ‘nuclear renaissance’; the nuclear super-power France has its self-evident place in any analysis; while the UK constitutes key player for the future of the French-led nuclear renaissance. Given that all three remain committed to nuclear, the comparative analysis concerns the ways in which the nuclear ‘establishment’ (techno-political regime) survives and reproduces itself in a context of a major external shock provoked by a major nuclear accident.

In the following, I shall outline a few starting points for comparison.

Economics, markets, state and subsidies

The three countries represent distinct examples in terms of the role of economics in the political culture. A detailed analysis of the historical evolution in what could be called ‘state vs. market debate’ in three countries allows a critical re-examination of the role of the ‘state orientations’ (Teräväinen et al. 2011): the ‘state-knows-best’ in France, ‘market-knows-best’ in the UK, and ‘technology-and-industry-know-best’ in Finland. It also highlights the constant evolution of the place of economics in the three countries nuclear policy and discourse. This evolution seems to lead to partly contrasting directions. In France, economics has become progressively more central in the argumentation and possibly also in actual decision-making, as cost calculations are becoming publicly available (e.g. on nuclear waste disposal, decommissioning, new-build, and alternative future energy scenarios). In the UK, the long-standing market fundamentalism (e.g. Rutledge & Wright 2011) is giving way to a view seeing state support as a necessary enabler of new-build, accompanied by a rise of energy security as the central concern of energy policy (partly surpassing climate change). Internationally, the UK appears as an ‘outlier’ with high citizen concern for security of supply despite a comparatively low dependence on imported electricity (Ipsos 2012). In Finland, the hitherto widely prevailing belief in nuclear as the cheapest low-carbon option may be slowly losing credibility, not least because of the increasing cost and construction delays in the EPR plant under construction since 2005. The role of economics can usefully be analysed through the debate concerning subsidies – their acceptability and necessity – for nuclear and renewables.

Historical co-evolution of the nuclear sector and democracy

Placing Fukushima within its long-term historical context entails an analysis of the links between civilian and military nuclear (close link in the UK and France, but officially none in Finland, the technical successes, problems, and incidents (repeated technical problems and incidents in the UK since the 1960s, the French rapid and successful deployment of the American PWR technology, and the high load factors and absence of incidents in Finnish reactors) that have shaped the images of ‘national technologies’. Insights can also be gained of the ways in which the development of nuclear has contributed to shaping democracy in the three countries, with the arguably major role of nuclear in producing the French “delegative democracy” (Callon et al. 2009).[4]

The nuclear sector may have exerted a less profound impact on democracy in Finland and the UK, yet in Finland, the collusion between the nuclear and the hegemonic energy-intensive forest and paper industry provides a fascinating point of comparison. Furthermore, especially nuclear waste management policy has been a laboratory for experimentation on deliberative and participatory procedures in all three countries (e.g. Barthe 2006; Chilvers 2007; Lehtonen 2010a; 2010b), highlighting the challenges associated with the ‘participatory turn’ (Sundqvist and Elam 2010) and ‘technical democracy’ (Callon et al. 2009) in a highly technical and politically charged policy domain. The Finnish experience illustrates the exercise of discursive power, as it it is frequently evoked in international arenas of nuclear policy as an example of a highly democratic and consensual process of nuclear policymaking (e.g. OECD 2002; Vira 2006).

Dynamics of knowledge-production; role and construction of expertise

Knowledge-production in the nuclear area is traditionally highly concentrated – manifest e.g. in the weight of the ‘Corps des Mines’ in France, and the alliance centred around the energy ministry in Finland (e.g. Litmanen 2009). In the UK, the power of the nuclear technocracy has declined since the split-up of the UKAEA[5] in the early 70s. A second topic of analysis concerns the appearances in the media of the technical experts, notably the national safety authorities and experts after Fukushima. A preliminary analysis suggests a key difference between the UK and France: in the UK, the government scientific advisers were highly visible in not only toning down public concern for risks, but also in advocating nuclear new-build, whereas in France, the directors of national safety regulators (ASN and IRSN) were highly visible, but refrained from taking a stand on the country’s energy policy. Striking in the early post-Fukushima debate in Finland were the national safety authority’s claims about its superior technical competence, contrasted with the incompetence of its Japanese counterpart.

The role of pro-nuclear environmentalists in the aftermath of Fukushima merits attention. In France, the post-Fukushima debate was marked more by news of pro-nuclear environmentalists (esp. Nicolas Hulot) turning against nuclear, whereas a handful of high-profile pro-nuclear environmental journalists occupied a central place in the British public space, and backed up their arguments by referring to some of the highly reputed environmentalists turned into nuclear advocates. In Finland, Fukushima did not seem to change the opinion of pro-nuclear environmentalists, active especially in the blogosphere, while a brief debate erupted within the Green Party on the treatment of ‘dissidents’, i.e. the right of party members to express pro-nuclear views in public.

Varying degrees of trust of citizens in state institutions, authorities, technology, and the nuclear industry

The exceptionally high trust of the Finns in their authorities, nuclear industry and Finnish engineers contrasts with the ‘institutional distrust’ in the UK (Bickerstaff et al. 2008), and the ‘society of defiance’ in France (Algan and Cahuc 2007). Opinion polls suggest that nuclear constitutes an exception to the extent that French citizens distrust nuclear experts while exhibiting high trust in scientists in general. The reverse side is the contradiction between the far lower trust of Finns in NGOs as a source of information on nuclear risks, as compared with the situation in France and the UK. The concept of transparency, omnipresent in the French nuclear debate, is far less visible in the British debate and virtually absent in Finland. This could be partly attributed to the opacity and state-centeredness of the French political culture and nuclear policy, and the military-civilian nuclear links in France and the UK, yet cultural explanations are likely to play a role. For instance, research on public participation in biotechnology policy in Finland demonstrated the weak importance that experts and authorities attribute to citizen participation (Rask 2003), and Finland is frequently claimed to lack a truly democratic discussion culture. The varying status enjoyed by different professions, especially engineers and economists, in the three countries is likewise potentially crucial. At present, only anecdotal (and experiential!) evidence is available (i.e. I haven’t done my homework yet…) about such roles in the three countries. The origins and the discursive role of the virtually infallible ‘Finnish engineer’ (Lammi 2004) merit further analysis, as an explanatory element for the operation of trust in nuclear policy and discourse. The social scientists arguably have an increasingly significant role in shaping the debates around nuclear in the three countries, exemplified in the role of public opinion polls in the national media. An analysis of the public visibility and operation of pollsters and social scientists in public debate seems important.

Cross-national comparison in an international context

In the end, the analysis of national dynamics and cross-country comparisons would remain incomplete unless situated in the broader international context. Key international dimensions include the evolving dynamics of nuclear safety regulation at the international level (e.g. EU stress tests), increasing collaboration in the area of nuclear waste management, notably on public and stakeholder engagement, and corporate dynamics (mergers and competition) in nuclear industry.

Supporting Table



Literature references

Algan, Y., and P. Cahuc. 2007. La société de défiance: Comment le modèle social français s’autodétruit. Collection CEPREMAP—Centre pour la recherche économique et ses applications. Paris: Éditions Rue d’Ulm/Presses de l’École normale supérieure.

Bickerstaff, K., Lorenzoni, I., Pidgeon, N.F., Poortinga, W. & Simmons, P. 2008. Reframing nuclear power in the UK energy debate: nuclear power, climate change mitigation and radioactive waste. Public Understanding of Science 17(2): 145–169.

Barthe, Y. 2006. Le pouvoir d’indécision: La mise en politique des déchets nucléaires. Paris: Economica.

Callon, M., Lascoumes, P. & Barthe, Y. 2009. Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy. Translated by Graham Burchell. Inside Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chateauraynaud, F. 2003, Prospéro. Une technologie littéraire pour les sciences humaines. Paris: CNRS, 406 p.

Chilvers, J. 2007. Towards Analytic-Deliberative Forms of Risk Governance in the UK? Reflecting on Learning in Radioactive Waste. Journal of Risk Research 10(2): 197-222.

Dryzek, J.S., Hunold, C., Schlosberg, D., Downes, D. & Hernes, H.-K. 2002. Environmental transformation of the state: the USA, Norway, Germany and the UK. Political Studies 50(4): 659–682.

Felt, U. & Muller, R. 2011. Tentative (Id)entities. On Technopolitical Cultures and the Experiencing of Genetic Testing. Biosocieties 6(3): 342-363.

Hecht, G. 1998.  The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after

World War II. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Ipsos. 2012. After Fukushima: Global opinion on energy policy. Eds. Wallard, H., Duffy, B. & Cornick, P. (March 2012).

Jasanoff, S. 2005. Designs on nature: Science and democracy in Europe and the United States. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lammi, H. 2004. Tarinat kovasta ytimestä [Stories from the hard core]. In: Kojo, M. (Ed.), Ydinvoima, valta ja vastarinta. Helsinki: Like, pp. 11–50.

Lehtonen, M. 2010a. Deliberative decision-making on radioactive waste management in Finland, France and the UK: Influence of mixed forms of deliberation in the macro discursive context. Journal of Integrative Environmental Sciences 7(3): 175-196.

Lehtonen, M. 2010b. Opening up or Closing Down Radioactive Waste Management Policy? Debates on Reversibility and Retrievability in Finland, France, and the United Kingdom. Risk, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy 1(4): 139-179.

Litmanen, T. 2009. The Temporary Nature of Societal Risk Evaluation: Understanding the Finnish Nuclear Decisions.” In The Renewal of Nuclear Power in Finland, eds. M. Kojo and T. Litmanen. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 192-217.

OECD. 2002. Radioactive Waste Management Stepwise Decision Making in Finland for the Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel: Workshop Proceedings—Turku, Finland—November 15–16, 2001. Paris: OECD. 152 p.

Rask, M. 2003. The Problem of Citizens’ Participation in Finnish Biotechnology Policy. Science and Public Policy 30(6): 441-454.

Rutledge, I. & Wright, P. 2011. UK Energy Policy and the End of Market fundamentalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sundqvist, G. & Elam, M. 2010. Public Involvement Designed to Circumvent Public Concern? The “Participatory Turn” in European Nuclear Activities. Risk, Hazards and Crisis in Public Policy 1(4): 1-27.

Szarka, J. 2013 (forthcoming). From exception to norm – and back again? France, the nuclear revival and the post-Fukushima landscape. Environmental Policy.

Teräväinen, T., Lehtonen, M. & Martiskainen, M. 2011. Climate change, energy security and risk – Debating new nuclear build in Finland, France and the UK. Energy Policy 39(6): 3434–3442.

Vira, J. 2006. Winning citizen trust: The siting of a nuclear waste facility in Eurajoki, Finland. Innovations (fall): 67-82.

[1] These regimes are grounded in state institutions, and are made up “of linked sets of individuals, engineering and institutional practices, technological artifacts, political programs, and institutional ideologies acting together to govern technological development and pursue technopolitics (a term that describes the strategic practice of designing or using technology to constitute, embody, or enact political goals)” (Hecht 1998, 56-57).

[2] According to Felt and Müller (2011, 3), technopolitical culture consists of “specific practices, structures and mechanisms through which technologies are interwoven with society.”

[3] State orientations refer to the ways in which states orientate themselves to social interests, hence shaping the possibilities for varying political claims to become articulated and recognised – the orientation but being at the same time subject to political negotiation (Teräväinen et al. 2011, 3435). States can be classified into four ideal types: actively or passively inclusive and actively or passively exclusive Dryzek et al. 2002).

[4] Drawing on Hecht (1998), Callon et al. (2009) have argued that the development of nuclear power in France decisively contributed to this type of “delegative democracy”, consisting of a two-pronged delegation of powers by citizens: 1) delegation of the development of knowledge and techniques needed to answer their questions to experts; and 2) delegation of decision-making power to political representatives.

[5] UK Atomic Energy Authority.

Markku Lehtonen is Research Fellow at the Sussex Energy Group, SPRU (Science and Technology Policy), University of Sussex, and a visiting research fellow at Ifris (Institut Francilien Recherche Innovation Société), France. His research concerns the role of various types of expertise (e.g. evaluations, assessments and indicators) in policymaking, and public debate, governance, participation and evaluation in the area of nuclear power and radioactive waste management.


  1. sociotechno permalink

    Hi Markku,

    Thanks for sharing your paper here. It is very insightful on the global impact of Fukushima. I am enlightened by the way you present a very good comparative descriptions of three countries with different structures and cultures of techno-political regimes. The eleven variables you use in explaining the differences and commonalities in France, the UK, and Finland shed light on how nuclear politics is very much influenced and determined by domestic conditions, yet at the same time they show some links to the global trends. What remains unclear in this paper, however, is the process through which the Fukushima nuclear crisis has changed or transformed the direction of nuclear techno-political regimes in each country. The paper does not provide empirical-based discussion on how the catastrophic event in Fukushima was perceived and responded by different groups in each of the countries observed.

    I’m not sure if you have read this article, but I think it’s highly relevant to what your paper seeks to accomplish in describing the impact of Fukushima on global nuclear power regimes.

    Best regards,

  2. Hi Markku,

    I very much like the framing of your paper, and am glad to see that you have been able to make the Prospero content analysis software useful for this more fine-grained analysis of the continuities and discontinuities in public and official discourse surrounding nuclear energy. Sul points, correctly, I think, to a gap in your paper, but I assume what you offer here is your initial reading of the shift in discourse that occurrs with Fukushima based on at least a preliminary compilation of the data.

    I don’t recall whether it was at SHOT or 4S/EASST (I guess it was at the latter), but Dr. Matsumoto had made the remark that the data, or at least the conclusions, seemed to align too neatly to what we might expect to be the case in each of the different technopolitical cultures/regimes. That is, the method itself seemed to reify ideal types, and so long as a majority of the data seemed to confirm the outcome, this seemed to reinforce stereotypes. Does the system given you the ability to look for anomalous data or data clusters that would reveal something perhaps less anticipated in the responses, or about fissures that exist within a particular institutional “actor” or category? For instance, the difference among the ministries as discussed in the context of Cecilia’s paper? Perhaps the differences are less prevalent at least within the nuclear establishment, which would itself be an important comment to make.

    I am continuing to push for more comparative analysis–comparative that is across disasters and kinds of disasters. I imagine for many other disasters, there is a return to normalcy, where the disaster itself does not always create an opportunity to transcend existing institutional configurations (regimes). I wonder if you looked at other disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and Deepwater Horizon (and perhaps the implicit spectrum between natural and anthropogenic disasters), how nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima fit within the scheme of disasters that alter or transform technoscientific trajectories. Is there something unique to “the nuclear” in this respect? If so, what?

    Thanks for a great paper!

    Atsushi Akera
    Department of Science and Technology Studies
    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
    Troy, NY

  3. Chihyung Jeon permalink

    Thank you for sharing with us this very interesting comparative work.

    As you noted in the beginning, it may seem that the Fukushima disaster did not affect the “existing trends” in each technopolitical regime, thus confirming our expectations or “stereotypes” for those regimes, as Atsushi pointed out.

    At the same time, one may think that to maintain the “existing trends” (esp. in pro-nuclear direction) in the wake of Fukushima requires a lot of work (discursive as well as material) on the part of nuclear establishments. I would guess that many concrete, though haphazard, strategies are being employed to keep the trend or status quo. So, another possible point of comparison would exist in analyzing the differences in those strategies in each technopolitical regime, involving different forms of expertise and mobilizing different types of citizen-state relationships, etc.

    Thank you again for giving us much to think about on this important comparative issue.

    Chihyung Jeon
    KAIST, South Korea.

  4. Marja Ylonen permalink

    Hi Markku

    Thought-provoking,very interesting paper. I’m looking forward to getting read it when it is complete. Sulfikar and Atsushi have raised relevant questions related to methodology. I would be curious to know how interviews, documents and media analysis are linked to each other, how they complement each other and what kinds of questions you pose to different data.

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