Large nuclear-sector projects represent a specific example of megaprojects, i.e. “large-scale, complex infrastructure projects usually commissioned by governments and delivered through partnerships between public and private organisations, with multiple partners, high uncertainties, and considerable political stakes." This research project explores the potential of the multiple forms of socioeconomic appraisal, and the associated controversies, to address the problems frequently faced by nuclear megaprojects. Public controversies can indeed strengthen the evidence base for democratic governance of megaprojects and improve their sustainability and “social licence to operate”. In public controversies, the virtuous sides of mistrust and distrust can become manifest as ‘civic vigilance’, operating in tandem with the multiple forms of trust. 

Research approach

The empirical analysis focuses on controversies over nuclear energy and high-level radioactive waste management megaprojects, with particular attention to comparisons between countries conventionally described as high-trust and low-trust societies. Controversies are analysed in a range of contexts and venues, including the mass media; the interaction between the industry, government, and host communities; and OECD-family organisations. Analysis of radioactive waste management megaprojects focuses primarily on the forerunner countries of Finland, France, and Sweden. The analysis of the promises, problems, controversies and appraisals relating to “third generation” nuclear energy technologies – notably the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) – will focus on the three European EPR projects at Olkiluoto (Finland), Flamanville (France), and Hinkley Point (the UK), and on the discursive framings within the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency. The main research methods consist of media and document analysis, and stakeholder interviews.

The analysis draws on approaches that reject the linear-rationalist notion of policy processes, which often underpins research on megaproject governance and appraisal, and takes the ‘iron triangle’ of cost, timetable, and predefined project specifications as the only criteria of project success. The approach adopted here embraces the multiplicity of interpretations and rationalities, arguing that the very concepts of project success and failure, ‘pathology’, and economics need to be placed within a broader socioeconomic perspective. 

Policy relevance

The project illustrates the ways in which controversies – as part of formal and informal appraisal, and entailing constant balancing between trust, mistrust, and distrust – can strengthen the evidence base underpinning megaprojects, and foster megaproject sustainability, in particular the democratic governance of such projects. Lessons from the nuclear sector will be drawn for megaproject appraisal and governance more broadly.