From the Material to the Imagined

In line with previous studies of populations living locally to nuclear power stations, many of our participants were positive about nuclear generation in general, and about the prospects for new nuclear power in their area in particular. Across the varying, but on the whole positive, conceptions of nuclear power, discourses of low carbon featured prominently:

‘I wouldn’t like to say [nuclear power] is carbon neutral, but it’s got a lower carbon footprint than quite a lot of other energy production methods and it’s not usually noisy, and it’s reliable, generally. I think there’s not the diurnal variation that you are going to get with wind and wave power either. So the National Grid can have a base load from it’ (Valerie).

As might be expected, our participants’ views were not formed in a vacuum and they often drew comparisons in their reasoning about differing low carbon energy technologies, situating their perspectives in a wider frame of UK energy provi­sion, climate change, historical development and socio-technical discourses. For some, nuclear power formed a straightforward preference for meeting challenges in energy provision and climate change:

‘This is why I like nuclear… allegedly there are no CO2 emissions out of nuclear power stations… I suppose there’s a finite amount of coal and the like in the world, so eventually that will go, so they will become redun­dant. So we’ve got to look at alternatives; nuclear is my alternative’

(Bob).

For many, however, positive perspectives on nuclear power were not without reservation and were contrasted with a general preference for renewable forms of energy (see also Pidgeon et al, 2008).This preference was, however, tempered by the extent to which renewable forms of energy were seen as feasible, given their levels of development:

‘I don’t want to be pro-nuclear, but at the minute, because the money hasn’t been pumped in the same way into the renewable industry as it was into the nuclear industry over the years, we are way behind where we need to be’ (Fred).

‘It’s clean energy. I mean they’ve got to do something… With nuclear the technology is there to be used and it’s safe, it has got a very good track record, but then my opinion might have changed if they were further down the road with wave power or tidal power. you’ve got that tide coming in and out, you’ve got the second highest tidal reach in the world on the Severn, and why not harness it?’ (Peter).

As the above extracts indicate, positive views on nuclear power in their locality were linked to wider issues, such as the lack of adequate investment in renewable forms of energy. This was connected with a general sense of frustration at the limited development of renewable power, and particularly tidal power, in the UK. In some sense, then, we might characterize these discourses around nuclear power as a kind of resigned acceptance in a context of limited options, rather than a strongly ‘pro’ stance (for related findings, see Bickerstaff et al, 2008). For others, renewable forms of energy represented a clear preference in terms of low carbon technologies, with possibilities for new energy sectors increasing prior reserva­tions about nuclear power:

‘I’ve more reservations [about nuclear] since they’ve decided to bring this barrage forward, because I think I would like to see other forms of energy.

I’d rather have something like that than nuclear. You know, in terms of green energy or non-carbon energy, wind and wave and all that, I’d probably prefer that but I don’t really know enough about it’ (Pat).

While development of new nuclear power and existing nuclear power in the area was on the whole regarded positively, or at least acceptable to some degree even if tempered by a preference for renewable energy forms, this was not the case for all participants, with some finding real difficulty in grappling with the notion of nuclear power as part of the means to avert climate change:

Interviewer: ‘What do you think about the argument that we need nuclear power to help mitigate climate change?’

Participant: ‘I don’t buy into it. I can’t buy into it… It just seems to me, on all sorts of levels, it is a short-term fix’ (Ruth).

This perspective was linked to a view that changing energy infrastructure did not address wider sustainability issues at their core, but instead facilitated ongoing development and continuation of a way of life which, for some, was seen as funda­mentally unsustainable.

Amidst the generally favourable perspectives on renewable forms of energy, wind turbines, in particular, were often characterized as least acceptable by participants. As has been found in other studies (see, e. g., Kempton et al, 2005), the significance of the local environment and the perceived loss of aesthetic pleasure derived from landscape played an important role in the ways in which our participants contrasted the differing technologies. Wind was conceptualized as producing small amounts of energy and thus being of little benefit for the wider social good in terms of energy provision, but at the same time causing significant loss to the local environment. This was contrasted with nuclear power (including nuclear waste), which was conceived as contained and confined to particular areas, as opposed to depictions of wind farms as sprawling industrial developments:

‘In the right location in an industrial area I don’t think [wind generators] really create a problem, but then if you visualized the skyline across the Mendip Hills or the Quantock Hills… I wouldn’t accept them because they are not creating sufficient energy to justify losing something that we really all ought to be enjoying and that is the heritage of the landscape’ (Charlie).

For this participant, wind power was only acceptable in particular places where losses to landscape were perceived as minimal or where electricity was otherwise difficult to obtain (such as islands). The focus of engagement, in this sense, was around whether the particular development was representative of, or synergistic with, the values, meanings and working practices of place; that it was ‘in place’ (see Cresswell, 1996; Parkhill, 2007).

It should be noted that, in contrast to the more negative conceptions of wind power, some participants expressed ‘despair at the human race’ (Hilda) that the proposed wind farm at Hinkley Point had met with local opposition, while others depicted such reactions as short-sighted, and even invoked the notion of NIMBYism.

Our participants frequently drew on negative wider social discourses around wind power (e. g. alleged poor generating capacity, visual and environmental impacts) to inform their views. Other social and media discourses were also drawn upon to reinforce such positions, e. g. notions that wind power develop­ments were frequently rejected in other areas. This contrasted with nuclear power, where more negative social discourses (about, for example, safety, visual impacts or health) were countered through direct experience, localized social trust (in the safety of the power station at least), experiential knowledge, and familiarity with Hinkley Point in particular (see also Parkhill et al, 2010):

Interviewer: ‘Did you have any thoughts about the wind farm proposed at West Hinkley?’

Participant: ‘Only that I think it would be better not to do that if you’ve got nuclear power. you keep hearing about the wind farms on Scottish islands and whatever and out there they seemed to be turned down, nobody ever goes ahead with it because the residents complain and they think “okay we’ll go somewhere else then” so…’ (Matthew).

Interviewer: ‘What did you think about that proposal for a wind farm at West Hinkley?’

Participant: ‘It’s a bit complicated here, because I think that would have spoilt the coastline. Somebody could come back and say, you’ve got two great big blocks of concrete there anyway. That’s something I’ve grown up with, so I’ve tended to accept that as a skyline’ (Bob).

In this sense, the familiarity and direct material experience of nuclear power served to temper wider negative social discourses about this form of power gener­ation, whereas for wind, such negative discourses and perception of public dislike served as the main point of engagement for our participants. While wind power was viewed with greater scepticism regarding its capacities in energy generation, as well as its aesthetic and environmental impact, tidal power was on the whole regarded more positively:

‘if you could generate a similar amount of power [to nuclear] from tidal then I suppose anyone with any sense would say “go for that one then”… because ultimately it would have less impact on the environment’ (Dave).

In the case of tidal power, very limited experience led participants to draw on general notions of the dependability of the tide, high generating capacity, associa­tions with naturalness, and it being environmentally better than other forms of generation. Such wider social discourses and ideals were drawn upon in the absence of any material experience on which to base views:

‘I don’t think people know too much about tidal power because it’s not there that you can see, it’s not as if it’s over in the field around the corner’

(Mel, Bridgewater).

Negative conceptions of tidal power tended only to come after greater thought (in the second interviews) or were expressed in terms of uncertainty about unintended consequences, or were again drawn from media or social discourse. Concerns tended to be focused around technological, engineering and environ­mental issues, e. g. that the turbines would be ineffectual or inefficient because of high levels of silt in the estuary, questions about the effect that a barrage would have on bird life. Such issues were discussed vaguely and reported as derived from media coverage but they did not feature as strongly as positive impressions.

The wider social discourses that surrounded both tidal and wind were of significant importance in contrast to those which surrounded nuclear power, as our participants’ material and socio-historical familiarity with and experience of nuclear detracted from or tempered reliance on such discourses.

The way that our participants talked about these differing energy infrastruc­tures in the context of their local area reveals a great deal about the way in which our participants were engaging with and thinking about these kinds of low carbon energy developments in quite informal ways. Their perspectives on formal struc­tures for engagement with the development of such energy infrastructure add a further facet to our understanding.

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