Technology Risk and Democracy. The Dutch nuclear energy debate (1981-84)
|Author||Rob Hagendijk, Arjan Terpstra|
|Classification||1.01.1.10/48 (PUBLIC OPINION - BROAD SOCIETAL DISCUSSION)|
From the publication:
1. Introduction Current debates about public participation in scientific and technological innovation may profit from a closer analysis of earlier attempts to involve the public in such matters. The Dutch public debate about nuclear energy in the early 1980s provides an interesting case. The debate was the first in its kind in the Netherlands and displays many of the issues, problems, antagonisms and dynamics that characterize current attempts to involve the public. The EU funded STAGE project seeks to develop a comparative framework for the analysis of such public involvement. The project focuses on the framing of public debates, their organization and the roles of various actors in the process of defining, deliberating and deciding questions, facts, risks and opportunities. It challenges us to look at how exercises to engage the public draw on existing institutional arrangements and structures in defining the consultation agenda and the questions that can be legitimately raised and addressed in the debate, by whom and in what form. The STAGE project is itself part of a trend in which policy makers increasingly embrace public involvement in decision-making and public deliberations about new and risky technologies. Such involvement is seen as a way to promote legitimacy and acceptance for policies and to inspire trust among the public.2 Although still lurking in the background, the dismissive approach in which references to the publics’ ignorance are used to discredit public opposition has itself been discredited and officially abandoned in speeches by politicians and high ranking policy makers. Experiments to enhance public participation in deliberations over technological policies abound; attempts to standardize procedures and to identify best practices are underway.3 In The Netherlands the roots of this trend towards enhanced public participation goes back to the 1960s and 1970s. The emergence of environmental activism, the general movement for democratisation from the late sixties and early seventies and the growing awareness of the increasing importance of science-based technologies for society led to more inclusive policies in fields like science policy, physical planning, nature conservation, and health care. In the 1970s the Dutch government established so-called sector councils for research policies. In these tripartite sector councils representatives from science, government and society (industry, NGOs) would discuss the research needed to formulate adequate governmental responses to social problems.4 Yet, such forms of deliberation were inadequate to address the public turmoil about nuclear energy that emerged at that time. In this paper we will follow the emergence of nuclear energy technology as a solution to the energy needs of the Dutch economy after the Second World War. For long optimistic views about nuclear technology dominated policy making and research. Sceptical and critical voices were seldom heard and easy to ignore. In the early seventies, however, when the technology became operational, widespread public concern and opposition emerged. Governmental measures to fund the introduction of new technology with additional taxes on energy use helped a lot to mobilize public opposition. A political stalemate developed between industry and government on the one hand and social movements campaigning against nuclear energy plans on the other. To assuage the tensions and to get out of the dead ally the government agreed with a proposal from moderate civic groups to organize a broad social debate about energy policies. This would become known as the BMD debate. It was the first in its kind in The Netherlands. From the beginning, it was as much a debate about the debate as it was a debate about nuclear energy. The approach taken and subsequent events tell us about the pitfalls of attempts to combine broad public involvement in technological and economic decision making with representative democracy and economic liberalism. It shows us public debates as essentially contested ‘political machines’ (Barry, 20). How the issues and questions thrown up are handled and managed is decisive for their political impact and for the answer to the question whether it is yet another form of politics as usual or a genuine enhancement of democracy. As the Dutch debate shows us, organizers walk on a thin line from which one easily falls to one side or the other.