Comparing Nuclear Power Trajectories in Germany and the UK: From 'Regimes' to 'Democracies' in Sociotechnical Transitions and Discontinuities
89 Pages Posted: 8 Mar 2016
Date Written: June 16, 2015
This paper focuses on arguably the single most striking contrast in contemporary major energy politics in Europe (and even the developed world as a whole): the starkly differing civil nuclear policies of Germany and the UK. Germany is seeking entirely to phase out nuclear power by 2022. Yet the UK advocates a ‘nuclear renaissance’, promoting the most ambitious new nuclear construction programme in Western Europe. Here, this paper poses a simple yet quite fundamental question: what are the particular divergent conditions most strongly implicated in the contrasting developments in these two countries. With nuclear playing such an iconic role in historical discussions over technological continuity and transformation, answering this may assist in wider understandings of sociotechnical incumbency and discontinuity in the burgeoning field of ‘sustainability transitions’. To this end, an ‘abductive’ approach is taken: deploying nine potentially relevant criteria for understanding the different directions pursued in Germany and the UK. Together constituted by 30 parameters spanning literatures related to socio-technical regimes in general as well as nuclear technology in particular, the criteria are divided into those that are ‘internal’ and ‘external’ to the ‘focal regime configuration’ of nuclear power and associated ‘challenger technologies’ like renewables. It is ‘internal’ criteria that are emphasised in conventional sociotechnical regime theory, with ‘external’ criteria relatively less well explored. Asking under each criterion whether attempted discontinuation of nuclear power would be more likely in Germany or the UK, a clear picture emerges. ‘Internal’ criteria suggest attempted nuclear discontinuation should be more likely in the UK than in Germany – the reverse of what is occurring. ‘External’ criteria are more aligned with observed dynamics – especially those relating to military nuclear commitments and broader ‘qualities of democracy’. Despite many differences of framing concerning exactly what constitutes ‘democracy’, a rich political science literature on this point is unanimous in characterising Germany more positively than the UK. Although based only on a single case, a potentially important question is nonetheless raised as to whether sociotechnical regime theory might usefully give greater attention to the general importance of various aspects of democracy in constituting conditions for significant technological discontinuities and transformations. If so, the policy implications are significant. A number of important areas are identified for future research, including the roles of diverse understandings and specific aspects of democracy and the particular relevance of military nuclear commitments – whose under-discussion in civil nuclear policy literatures raises its own questions of democratic accountability.
Keywords: democracy, transitions, nuclear power, UK, Germany, sustainability transitions
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation