A Welcome to HoNESt by Albert Presas i Puig (Universitat Pompeu Fabra - Barcelona)

Albert Presas I Puig - HoNESt Coordinator

Dear reader,

It is a pleasure to open this News Channel and to have the opportunity to present our project HoNESt to you. HoNEST’s aim is to study the history of nuclear energy and its relationship with European society. It is funded within the European Union’s HORIZON 2020 research framework programme by EURATOM.

Science and technology clearly shape our present lives, and for at least the last two centuries have influenced the course of history. In public perception, science and technology have long been associated with progress, overcoming of natural limitations and ensuring the convenient, prosperous and healthy conditions of modern societies. Nuclear technology, however, while initially mostly understood as the ultimate embodiment of progress, soon became more contentious, as critics increasingly highlighted its risks and consequences.

However, societal perceptions and societal acceptance of a technology matter for the future development of this technology. At the same time, it was becoming increasingly evident to those taking decisions about technologies and infrastructures that societal perceptions and technology’s relations with society cannot adequately be studied on the basis of quantifying technocratic conceptions that tended to only insufficiently acknowledge citizens’ appraisals. An adequate assessment requires a different kind of expertise. Against this backdrop, EURATOM, with the Call NFRP 12–2014: "Nuclear developments and interaction with society" invited historians and social scientists to study the relationship between this type of energy and European society. In a call that guaranteed an open, comprehensive and self-directed enquiry, EURATOM recognised for the first time the expertise that historical and social science research can contribute to better comprehending what nuclear energy meant for European societies from its arrival in Europe up to now, and what nuclear energy, as we call it, means in our days.

A project of the scope of HoNESt requires long-term forward planning. As early as 2008, we, a group of colleagues, met in Barcelona to discuss the significance of nuclear energy in our respective countries. In the following years, we met quite a number of times, but it was the course of history that obviously accelerated the process. HoNESt certainly owes a lot to the unfortunate Fukushima accident. The meltdown in Japan in March 2011 had an important impact on the debates on future energy resources for our societies, reigniting the controversy over nuclear power. Almost immediately, the familiar lines of conflict reappeared. For those seeking a nuclear moratorium, Fukushima clearly demonstrated the fundamental flaws of nuclear energy. For those who supported nuclear energy as a clean technology which apparently offered an elegant solution to the dual challenges of climate change and import-dependency, Fukushima seemed a major set-back on the road to the so-called nuclear renaissance. While in some European countries Fukushima led to decisions to phase out nuclear power, in other countries governments have continued to pursue their nuclear strategies without meeting with major opposition.

Nuclear energy is facing great challenges which are a major concern to modern societies. The problems are complex and encompass not only economic, national and international policy- and security-related issues, but also include cultural, social and environmental factors. In this context there is a clear need for systematic reflection on the nuclear energy option, this time taking historical experiences into account. In this sense, one of the main goals of HoNESt is to improve the understanding of processes involved in the formation and growth of the nuclear energy sector, and to identify the associated key challenges for policy makers who manage the social transformation process.
Historical reflection has not only captured the structural characteristics and dynamics of large technological systems, such as nuclear energy programmes, but also the dynamics of a number of key processes (political, economic, technological, cultural, societal, etc.) which directly influence the development, diffusion and use of new technology and, thus, the performance of what has been studied as a large technological system.

Public and expert debates concerning the production of energy (demand, efficiency and market) have been dominated by economists and technocrats. The aim of HoNESt is to explain variety and change in European societies’ relations with nuclear energy, on the basis of the historical experience. In this sense HoNESt aspires to contributing to the debate on the future of nuclear energy in Europe and its relationship with European society.

Our project is of an experimental and innovative character: it constitutes the first comprehensive comparative and transnational analysis of nuclear developments and their relations with society covering more than 20 countries over the past 70 years. With the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, as lead institution, it involves an interdisciplinary consortium of 24 partner institutions across Europe and beyond. Its innovative interdisciplinary framework combines insights into the history of technology, science and technology studies, environmental history, economic and business history, social movement research, and the study of societal engagement.

If we scrutinize a variety of historical sources including archival materials, documents publicly available and conduct a substantial number of oral history interviews, the development of nuclear energy appears as a far less predictable result of the “forces of progress” than one might assume. The narratives we will be able to tell on the basis of research will question any assumptions about a presumed logic inherent in the development of technology. HoNESt understands the history of the development of nuclear energy as the history of contradictory ambitions of the various actors involved and technological problems inherent in a technological development, while stressing in particular social, economic, cultural and political contexts.

From the methodological point of view, we will adapt core concepts from Large Technological Systems (Thomas Hughes) and Integrated Socio-technical System (Jens Rasmussen) which emphasize the complexity of systems that contain both technological and social elements to devise a framework that can help explain nuclear-societal relations.

HoNESt’s interdisciplinary approach and the features of the subject matter determine its structure. HoNESt is divided into different WPs whose task it is to construct the historical narrative (WP2), to bring together social scientists and historians in interdisciplinary collaboration (WP3), to study the record of societal engagement (WP4) and to provide evidence for the backcasting exercise (WP5). HoNESt’s findings will not stay within the ivory tower: dissemination to and engagement with the various stakeholder groups are also essential aims of HoNESt.

Producing history means the representation of past events and processes based on a number of interlocking moments; identification, exhaustive scrutiny and evaluation of sources to data; their comparison and interpretation, in order to arrive at an account that is traditionally rendered in writing, but also in other media, such via audio and audio-visual media. HoNESt includes a podcast channel and will produce a number of videos.

As I said, nuclear energy in its development does not follow a straight line nor any established rationale. Nor does it follow one single pattern. On the other hand, the controversy about nuclear energy does not appear as a uniform development with an exchange of fixed and unchangeable stereotypes either. We are facing complex processes and developments.

That is why, dear reader, it gives me great pleasure to be able to offer to you via this channel the results of our project and to be able to get a feedback from all of you who are interested in this subject. In this way, we will come closer to understanding what nuclear energy was to our European societies.

And again, I hope you find our insights interesting. Please keep following our project!