Dissertation Abstracts

Risk in the making: A case study of nuclear power in India after Fukushima

Author: Wong, Catherine Mei Ling , catherine.wongml@gmail.com
Department: School of Sociology
University: Australian National University, Australia
Supervisor: Professor Stewart Lockie
Year of completion: 2014
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Risk governance , Environmental sociology , Actor-network theory , Nuclear power
Areas of Research: Environment and Society , Risk and Uncertainty , Science and Technology


Despite the long history of catastrophic accidents, experts continue to regard nuclear power as one of the safest and most environmentally sustainable source of energy. In spite of the Fukushima disaster, nuclear power continues to grow rapidly in developing Asia. India’s nuclear power programme is one of the most ambitious in the region, second only to China. The industry today also stands at a unique juncture where new international agreements and domestic legislations have created the paradoxical push towards exponential growth of the industry with international help on the one hand, and greater domestic resistance against nuclear power on the other.

These observations raise several questions about why decision-makers consider the risks of nuclear power acceptable; how they think about risk; what influences their perceptions of risk; and how expert and lay publics can be reconciled. This thesis attempts to answer these questions using an Actor-network Theory approach. Risk is treated as an emergent, material-semiotic entity that is held together by a network of non-human (atoms, steel, uranium, etc.) and human (scientists, politicians, local communities, etc.) factors.

This approach extends the scholarship on risk in a number of ways: firstly, it avoids determinism by bringing non-humans/materials into the analytical fold as equal agents of risk; secondly, focus is placed on the processes of association and interaction among human and non-human entities that constitute risk; thirdly, by emphasising the performative aspect of conflict, avenues for cooperation become more conspicuous; lastly, it argues that risk can be a positive force for change and innovation.

The analyses found that the Indian nuclear establishment’s risk perceptions were not the product of simple risk-benefit trade-offs or wilful ignorance. It was a combination of India’s colonial history, resource limitations, as well as unique resource endowments that made nuclear power a risky but rational technological choice. The safety culture was not just an outcome of rational technical design and industry best practices. It was constituted by the enrolment of scientists into the nuclear programme; their socialisation into the organisation and the technology; and ontological security supported the safety infrastructure. These processes have the propensity to transform built-in safety into built-in risks. The clash of risk perceptions between the public and the nuclear establishment has a strong performative element, obscuring the voices of moderation on both sides where goals and interests, in fact, converged. Finally, risk was also found to be a potential force for positive social change and good governance, predicated upon institutional reforms and more effective use of existing legislation.

Fundamentally, this thesis seeks to make both contributions to knowledge and practical suggestions for better risk governance. Even as the risks of nuclear power continue to be debated, the industry remains on its pre-Fukushima growth trajectory in India (and beyond). There is, therefore, a need for strategies that enable both the nuclear industry and affected populations to build an India that they both want, in spite of each other.