Publicatie Laka-bibliotheek:
Technology Risk and Democracy. The Dutch nuclear energy debate (1981-84)

AuteurRob Hagendijk, Arjan Terpstra
Datumjuni 2004

Uit de publicatie:

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

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.