Nuclear Politics: Energy and the State in the United States, Sweden, and France

Nuclear Politics: Energy and the State in the United States, Sweden, and France

by James M. Jasper

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Why did nuclear energy policies in France, Sweden, and the United States, very similar at the time of the oil crisis of 1973 and 1974, diverge so greatly in the following years? In answering this question, James Jasper challenges one of the most popular trends in political analysis: explanations relying exclusively on political and economic structures to

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Why did nuclear energy policies in France, Sweden, and the United States, very similar at the time of the oil crisis of 1973 and 1974, diverge so greatly in the following years? In answering this question, James Jasper challenges one of the most popular trends in political analysis: explanations relying exclusively on political and economic structures to account for public policies. Jasper proposes a new cultural and state-centered approach—one heeding not only structural factors but cultural meanings, individual biographies, and elite discretion. Surveying the period from the successful commercialization of light-water-reactor technology in the early 1960s to the present, he explains the events that occurred after 1973: France built even more reactors than it needed, the United States canceled most reactor orders, and Sweden completed planned nuclear plants but decided to phase out nuclear energy by 2010.

This work is based on one hundred interviews with managers, policymakers, and activists in the three countries. In addition to providing a unique theoretical perspective, it broadens our understanding of nuclear policy by looking at three countries in depth and over a long historical span.

Originally published in 1990.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Challenging the structuralist trend in political analysis, Jasper (sociology, NYU) applies a cultural and state-centered approach to his analysis of nuclear energy policies in France, Sweden, and the US--so similar at the time of the 1973-74 oil crisis, and so divergent afterward. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Nuclear Politics

Energy and the State in the United States, Sweden, and France

By James M. Jasper


Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07841-0



When the oil crisis struck in the fall of 1973, the United States, Sweden, and France each had plans to increase reliance on nuclear energy as a source of electricity. Each country had been developing nuclear energy since the 1940s, and each had an ambitious nuclear industry capable of producing reactors and optimistic about exporting them. Each had significant numbers of reactors already in operation, as well as many more planned or under construction, and each had domestic uranium supplies. By 1973 each country was committed to the American light water technology that was thought to be the least expensive and most efficient reactor design. The three countries also had similar regulatory structures governing the licensing and operation of nuclear plants and designed primarily to encourage the construction of new reactors.

By 1973 all three countries faced scattered but growing antinuclear forces, and the three political and regulatory systems dealt with this protest in similar ways. Each system allowed formal participation by the public but blocked that participation from affecting the design or siting of nuclear reactors. France and the United States reorganized their regulatory systems in the early 1970s to further smooth the licensing process. Everyone except the protesters themselves expected antinuclear protest to weaken soon as the public became more knowledgeable about and accustomed to nuclear energy. Almost no one doubted that the three countries' nuclear programs would continue to expand rapidly.

When the price of oil quadrupled in the final months of 1973, it seemed a final guarantee of nuclear energy's bright future. If the relative costs of nuclear energy and oil before the oil crisis favored a large commitment to nuclear reactors, then after the oil crisis the figures should have been even more in favor of nuclear power. The French and American governments were especially quick to proclaim the need for accelerated nuclear construction, with President Nixon's Project Independence in November 1973 and Prime Minister Messmer's Energy Plan in March 1974. Plans were laid to deploy similar light water technology widely enough to produce most of the electricity in all three countries by the year 2000.

Nuclear plans that had been almost identical in 1973, however, diverged markedly within several years. Only France continued with a massive deployment of nuclear energy, pursuing a program scheduled to produce almost 80 percent of that country's electricity when completed in the 1990s. The United States did not even complete all the reactors that had been ordered or that were under construction in 1973. No new reactor orders were placed and completed in the following ten years, while over one hundred existing ones were canceled. At its peak around 1989 nuclear generation produced only 18 percent of American electricity. Between these two extremes, Sweden added ten reactors to the two operating in 1973. They produce 50 percent of Swedish electricity, but the Swedish government has committed itself to shutting down all twelve reactors by the year 2010. The three nuclear commitments could hardly have diverged more: the triumph of one reactor program, the collapse of a second, and the control and curtailment of a third.

A State-Centered Explanation

Why did the United States, Sweden, and France begin to diverge in their commitment to nuclear energy? The question is important first because large-scale technologies have widespread social effects when they are functioning properly and especially when they are not. We should understand how societies come to use technologies as risky as nuclear energy. The case of nuclear energy also reveals how these three democracies resolve visible and bitter social conflicts over technology. In the 1960s all three had chosen a strong reliance on nuclear energy, but in different ways all rethought that commitment in the mid-1970s. Because democracy demands occasional reconsiderations of policy, we should study what causes them.

I will show that the divergent nuclear commitments are best explained by concentrating on the dynamics of state policymaking. The nuclear case reveals a lot about how, by whom, and for what reasons public policies are made. It especially demonstrates how much the state can be autonomous from groups in civil society. I will also show that we cannot explain all policy decisions on the basis of formal political and economic structures, but must add analyses of elite discretion, structural change, social psychology, and cultural meanings. Finally, I intend to show that there are political and cultural boundaries to economic rationality and calculation, so that the latter are allowed to operate only in certain circumstances. The most precise methods for making policy recommendations eventually run into the realities of political resistance and conflict.

To begin with the third theme, one popular explanation of nuclear policy divergence is that economic rationality dictated different policies in the three countries, based largely on the different natural resources available. The United States has large quantities of coal and oil, while France has little of either. Sweden also has little fossil fuel, but more hydroelectric potential than France. To begin with, this economic rationality explanation in its simple form does not work for the period before the oil crisis, when all three countries pursued similar nuclear plans in spite of contrasting resource endowments. If the explanation is amended to argue that the oil crisis of 1973 imposed economic rationality on energy policies for the first time, it is more plausible. Energy modeling and sophisticated forecasting techniques were rarely employed before 1974 and 1975, and the very idea of an "energy policy" comparing the costs and benefits of different energy sources became widespread only after the oil crisis. Even so, different groups and organizations made conflicting claims about what policies would be most economically rational, and these conflicts were resolved through the use of political power. Even when there was one policy that seemed economically rational, it was often not accepted for political reasons. In other words, economic rationality influenced policy only when the political system allowed it to. It was usually only one policy position among several.

Choices in nuclear energy policy were made through political processes. Some positions and arguments referred to economic rationality, but not all of them. And those that won were not always the most economically cogent. Part of the reason is that convincing economic data have not always been available. Until the late 1970s the precise costs of nuclear energy were unknown, so sound cost comparisons were impossible. The calculations that were used in debates reflected the arbitrary assumptions of the speakers. Speculation was often presented as rational economic calculation. An account of nuclear choices has a place for preferences based on economic criteria, but we must examine how these were influenced or thwarted by politics and policies. What is more, the chosen policies strongly influenced the very cost and safety data that should have been the basis for economically rational decisions.

Political conflicts within the state are crucial to an explanation of French, Swedish, and American commitments to nuclear energy. Part of the explanation must deal with the high politics of elected officials, voting, interest groups, and media coverage; but a larger part must cover the infighting among different bureaucracies and politicians that occurred behind the scenes. Decisions made outside the state did matter—especially in the United States, where utilities, reactor manufacturers, and banks played important roles. But even here, these decisions were shaped decisively by public policies, so that our explanation leads back to the state. If the empirical question of this study is why nuclear commitments diverged, the theoretical one concerns how state policies are made.

How do states generate policy decisions? Most recent accounts of political action and outcomes take a structural approach to political systems and a utilitarian approach to actors within those systems. Actors are assumed to pursue wealth, power, and prestige (in a word, utility), while constrained by their available resources, degree of political savvy and mobilization, and relationship to the state. If an observer can ascertain a group's position in the economic and political structures, she can describe its interests and thereby predict its actions. Political analysis then consists of looking at the constraints imposed by other actors through the structures themselves, and of using the actors' structural positions to explain the relative success of contending groups. Key questions are who has the power to block a certain proposal, who has the power to fulfill her own project, and what projects are compatible with existing structural constraints. Recent analysts have usefully argued that state bureaucrats, having a clear place in the political structure, have their own interests and pursue them. In both public choice theory and political sociology, this state autonomy perspective is a good antidote to theories that saw the political sphere as derivative from the economic.

It is important to "bring the state back in," but in the process many theorists reduce the state to political and economic structures. They may soften their language by speaking of an "institutional approach," but the result is still that human beings are replaced by formal organizations and legal arrangements. In contrast, Eric Nordlinger (1981, 3) defines the state as "public officials taken all together." This approach allows us to compare the officials' preferences with policy outcomes and to sort out the effects of political and economic structures, cultural meanings, and individual biographies. Another advantage is a focus on conflict within the state—which is the bulk of the action in nuclear politics. As Nordlinger (p. 15) says of the factors that shape officials' preferences: "Simply to mention some of them—the officials' career interests, organizational loyalties, and professional knowledge—makes it abundantly apparent that state preferences are rarely unified preferences. They are usually the product of all sorts of conflict, competition, and pulling and hauling." What factors determine the outcome of that pulling and hauling?

Political and Economic Structures

Previous works on nuclear energy policies have focused on political and economic structures. They have described the goals of the contending groups and organizations, traced their actions in the political system, and described the ways in which political and economic structures facilitated or blocked each group's influence. In the simplest form, they argued that nuclear programs were curtailed in countries where the political structure allowed the antinuclear movement access to the state, whether through courts, regulatory agencies, or elected officials. Sweden, the United States, the Netherlands, and West Germany are commonly said to follow this pattern. Nuclear programs were unscathed where nuclear and electric industries had access, and where government agencies and officials were insulated from public pressures. France, Japan, and the Soviet Union are used as examples.

This simple account is inadequate empirically since in virtually every advanced country—and certainly in France, Sweden, and the United States—the nuclear industry had far greater access to government agencies and politicians than the antinuclear movement did. As a result, antinuclear movements had little effect on nuclear energy policies in any country, and it is impossible to explain our three countries' policy divergence by means of the antinuclear movement. In those countries that did curtail their nuclear programs, especially the United States and Sweden, the curtailment came largely at the initiative of economic elites or state officials, and the antinuclear movement had only indirect effects. In each of our three countries there was disagreement within the state structures over what nuclear energy policies to pursue, and it was these bureaucratic battles that shaped nuclear energy policies.

Taken separately, many structural factors have influenced nuclear power deployment. Important ones include electoral thresholds for parties to enter parliament; the ability of corporations in mixed economies to withhold investment; the relationship between utilities and regulators; mechanisms for financing nuclear reactors; and competition between reactor manufacturers. But taken all together, structural factors like these do not adequately explain state policies or nuclear outcomes. Structures are important, while a structural approach (allowing nothing but structures) is insufficient to explain concrete policies.

Some limitations of a purely structural explanation of political outcomes become especially apparent with intrastate conflicts like those over nuclear energy. First, structural approaches tend to recognize formal, legal, codified power more readily than the informal power that comes, for example, from skills at persuading people or attracting favorable public opinion. Informal power is harder to see but very important. A shared language, ritual, or worldview gives a group better access to a government agency, no matter what the formal or legal situation. A group that "speaks a different language" from the agency's can have little influence despite all the formal access in the world. Groups have cultural resources, such as rhetorical or political know-how, that are not reducible to the usual structural resources of money and power.

Second, intrastate controversies are often decided by the discretion of top officials rather than by the relative power of the feuding bureaucracies. To the extent that these decisions depend on biographical and psychological factors, the structural approach typically provides an incomplete explanation. Some degree of discretion is found in almost all policy decisions, but that degree varies greatly. Only by comparing goals and projects with structures and outcomes can we judge how much discretion actors have in a given situation. For example policymakers in all three countries had more discretion in nuclear energy policy after the oil crisis in the mid-1970s than they had by the end of the 1970s.

Third, if elected officials are important, so are electoral contests and coalitions. Political parties compete with each other, and they use policy decisions as a way of doing this. Policy outcomes are influenced by how a party distinguishes itself from rivals (typically, but not always, by its ideology), which party is in power, and who are its allies. Changes of government almost always bring the possibility of new policies.

Fourth, structures change continually. In pursuing their goals groups transform structures as well as simply use them. The balance of power among various agencies and elected bodies changes over time in ways a purely structural perspective is slow to see. Informal power changes when bureaucracies develop new skills or better political habits, and both formal and informal power can be changed by decisions from the top. Knowing the goals, perspectives, and ambitions of policymakers helps us understand how and why structures change and develop as they do. The political projects of competing individuals and groups become embodied in the structures as those structures change. A perception of crisis sometimes heightens the possibility for change, whether the crisis is at the level of the entire state, a policy subsystem, or a single bureaucracy.


Excerpted from Nuclear Politics by James M. Jasper. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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