From the Material to the Imagined:. Public Engagement with Low Carbon. Technologies in a Nuclear Community

Catherine Butler, Karen Parkhill and Nick Pidgeon


In debates around low carbon energy technologies, renewable forms of generation are often the focus. In contrast, nuclear power, while being a low carbon form of electricity generation, does not invoke quite the same synonymy with the concept of low carbon energy. In this chapter we examine public engagement with these differing forms of low carbon technology – nuclear and renewable – focusing on tidal and onshore wind power as renewable technologies.

Both renewable forms of electricity production and nuclear power have been the source of vociferous public contestation. Renewable forms of energy, while having widespread support at the national level, have frequently met with local opposition; this is particularly true of onshore wind developments (Bell et al, 2005). In this context of widespread public approval for renewable forms of technology, such local objections have often been characterized as NIMBYism (‘Not in my back yard’). This particular interpretation of local public opposition has been heavily critiqued for failing to adequately address complexities associ­ated with opposition, power dimensions of local siting, and the significance of place attachments in these controversies (Wolsink, 2000; Devine-Wright, 2005, 2009).

Nuclear power shares some of the difficulties associated with newer forms of energy production but is also distinct in many senses. Nuclear power has long been associated with high levels of controversy and public opposition at both local and national levels. Indeed, recent efforts in the UK to develop new nuclear power stations have met with some strong opposition from non-governmental organiza­tions such as Greenpeace. However, due to increasing political concern over climate change (and indeed issues of energy security), the low carbon credentials of nuclear power are being extolled, making the development of new nuclear power increasingly likely in the UK (Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, 2008). While nuclear power does not represent a new energy sector in itself, it does present an interesting case for examining transitions to a low carbon electricity sector.

In this chapter, using the case site of Hinkley Point in the west of England, we examine the local public(s) engagement with different forms of low carbon energy development either existing or proposed in the locality (i. e. nuclear power, tidal power and onshore wind energy). We trace the ways in which our partici­pants relate to and contrast these three differing energy technologies; from their materially rooted and situated conceptions of nuclear power to their imaginings of the new energy infrastructures proposed in their locality.

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