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Arne Kaijser / Markku Lehtonen / Jan-Henrik Meyer et al. (eds.): Engaging The Atom. The History of Nuclear Energy and Society in Europe from the 1950s to the Present (= Energy and Society), Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press 2021, IX + 337 S., ISBN 978-1-952271-32-8, USD 34,99
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Matthias Heymann
Aarhus Universitet
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Matthias Heymann: Rezension von: Arne Kaijser / Markku Lehtonen / Jan-Henrik Meyer et al. (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, in: sehepunkte 22 (2022), Nr. 10 [15.10.2022], URL:

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Arne Kaijser / Markku Lehtonen / Jan-Henrik Meyer et al. (eds.): Engaging The Atom

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Nuclear technology, arguably one of the best-researched postwar technologies in the history of technology, still receives unabated attention. The editors and authors of this volume put the focus on public engagement with nuclear power in Europe in a transnational and comparative perspective. They conceive public engagement as a broad concept, which encompasses both (limited) public communication about nuclear energy since the 1950s to pave the way for its expansion as well as antinuclear opposition in the European public since the early 1970s. A major focus of this volume is the analysis of increasingly sophisticated approaches of local public participation strategies in nuclear project planning in the late 20th century.

The volume offers nine mostly co-authored chapters on nuclear-society relations in (Western and Eastern) European countries (and to a small degree the USA). These chapters present and analyze outcomes of the HoNESt Project (History of Nuclear Energy and Society). HoNESt profited from "unprecedented large-scale funding" (11) from the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) from 2015 to 2019 and provided the resources for a large collaboration that involved some 50 scholars from 23 research institutions (22 from Europe, one from the USA). It enabled the project partners to conduct empirical research in 20 countries. HoNESt covered only civilian production and use of nuclear power and had the objective "to understand how societies have engaged with nuclear energy, and how the nuclear energy sector has engaged with societies, and how this has changed over the course of the past 60 years". [1] One main product of the project are country reports (SCRs) for all countries selected for investigation (Austria, Belarus, Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, France, East Germany, West Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom, Ukraine, and the USA). These reports comprise together over 1500 pages and are published online. [2] The chapters in the volume draw from these country reports along with a large body of secondary literature.

The book is organized in three parts, "Context" (two chapters), "Actors" (two chapters), and "Perspectives" (five chapters), a structure which however appears somewhat random. The first chapters provide broad-brushed overviews, chapter 1 on nuclear-society relations from the 1950s to the present, chapter 2 on nuclear power use and its economic conditions. This chapter by Maria del Mar Rubio Varas gives a very useful account of the quantitative development of nuclear power and analyzes its rise and demise. Nuclear technology has been adopted by over thirty nations worldwide with most nuclear programs launched between 1950 and 1970. As quick as its rise was its subsequent stagnation and decline, at least in most industrialized countries. The constructions of two thirds of all reactors worldwide (308 of 478) started before the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. About half of the countries pursuing nuclear power had already halted orders before that date. Around two decades later, nuclear power generation peaked with a share of 17.5 percent of worldwide electric power generation and declined since then. In the European Union in December 2019, 126 nuclear power reactors in fourteen countries were still in operation, ninety had been shut down and three decommissioned. Only six nuclear reactors were under construction. Rubio Varas argues that one major, but often overlooked factor for the demise of nuclear power were sharply rising interest rates and capital costs since the early 1980s - along with public opposition, slowing growth of electricity demand, and rising planning and construction costs.

The core of the book is part three, which discusses the public role, public perceptions of and participation in nuclear power decisions. Particularly interesting is chapter 6 by Markku Lehtonen, Matthew Cotton, and Tatiana Kasperski, who provide case studies about trust- and mistrust-building in nuclear waste management in Finland, France, Sweden, the UK, and Russia. In Finland and Sweden, nuclear operators abandoned the strategy to identify the geologically best-suited site because of a lack of local acceptance. In contrast, they approached potentially suitable municipalities, including those, which already operated nuclear reactors. With the help of additional attractive benefit schemes, this approach along with a mandatory participatory process led to the successful selection of nuclear repository sites for nuclear waste in both countries (174-182). In France and the UK, in contrast, long-established mistrust in institutions and top-down siting decisions for nuclear waste undermined public confidence. Matthew Cotton (chapter 7) deepens the point for the case of the UK and argues that a securitization-led approach (military security, energy security, economic security) limited the openness to empowering public stakeholders in nuclear planning processes and decisions.

Stathis Aropostathis, Robert Bud, and Helmuth Trischler (chapter 8) analyze nuclear technology as an important example of a "public technology", which is characterized by becoming "part of public culture, beyond the control of the manufacturers and engineers" concerned with it (231). Nuclear technology represented a political and cultural asset that served interests far beyond energy needs such as national pride, national identity, and techno-nationalism, which led even small countries such as Greece, Denmark, Bulgaria and, more recently, Belarus to pursue (or claim to pursue) the development of nuclear power plants based on national technologies. Arne Kaijser and Jan-Henrik Meyer (chapter 9) investigate transnational conflicts caused by nuclear installations at European borders, for example between Denmark and Sweden and Portugal and Spain. According to the authors, currently 15 out of 120 nuclear power stations in operation are less than 6 miles from national borders and another 33 less than 25 miles (including sea borders).

The editors close the book with strong and far-reaching conclusions. One major result pointed out is the crucial role of public engagement and participation and trust in institutions to create democratic legitimacy and successful project planning. The editors emphasize that "open dialogue and deliberation must start early and demonstrate a sincere desire to take seriously the concerns of affected stakeholders and communities" (281). Public participation, however, does not guarantee a successful outcome of planned nuclear projects. Nuclear projects have a particularly strong tendency to generate social conflict because they involve a strong "propensity to alter the social fabric and ways of life" and have been perceived as highly transformative of local societies and landscapes (282). Major future questions raised by the editors include the high age of reactors (two-thirds of all reactors worldwide are more than thirty years old), the associated challenges of decommissioning, the open question of nuclear waste repositories and the ongoing efforts in developing new generations of nuclear reactors with improved safety, assembly line production, and quicker planning and construction times. The editors are not convinced about the future of nuclear power in many European countries. A major problem is the loss of industries, experienced staff, and students of nuclear technology. The future of nuclear technology rather lies mainly in Asia with China currently covering half of the worldwide 62 construction projects of nuclear power plants started since 2009, India 7 and South Korea 4.

This book offers a comprehensive account of relations between nuclear technology and the public, which is accessible to a broad readership. While most information provided is not necessarily new or fully original, many useful perspectives are developed based on the latest state of research. The book can thus serve experts as well as non-experts as a good overview on the topic with reference to a large body of literature. Not addressed in the book are questions that the research funding by a major nuclear institution in Europe raise. What does it mean to keep historical interest in nuclear power high with the help of large-scale funding? To what extend do historians and interested parties shape historical research interests and agendas? The authors notably do not speculate about the future of a technology that has passed its peak and appears particularly challenged (at least in Europe) by the aging of nuclear plants. Similar funding for historical research in renewable energies in an age of rapid energy transitions would likely not be less important, even though an institution such as Euratom for renewables does not exist.


[1] See the project website: Project members are listed on: [07.04.2022].

[2] All reports are accessible online: [07.04.2022].

Matthias Heymann