The nuclear and social science nexus: Challenges and opportunities for speaking across the disciplinary divide

The central aim of this workshop was to explore how insights from the social sciences and humanities can be used to inform the decision-making of practitioners in nuclear energy organisations. The workshop was held at NEA Headquarters in Paris on December 12-13, 2019Selected papers from the workshop were published in a special issue of the nuclear engineering journal, Nuclear Technology. The workshop and special issue are part of a broader NEA project exploring what practitioners in the nuclear energy sector can learn from the social sciences and humanities.

Nuclear energy’s challenges are frequently described as having a significant ‘social’ dimension. These challenges include failures to site nuclear power plants and used nuclear fuel repositories, or, more broadly, secure support and approval for sustaining or expanding the use of nuclear energy. A negative perception of nuclear energy is frequently cited by nuclear engineers as the source of these challenges. Still, other problems are believed to be the result of institutional failures and managerial difficulties. These include delays in construction projects and escalation of plant costs, the slow pace of development and commercialisation of new nuclear energy technologies and failures of regulatory institutions.

Despite, or perhaps because of these challenges, organisations in the nuclear energy sector have proved to be rich research sites for scholars in the humanities and social sciences. In a significant and growing base of scholarship, researchers – political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists and Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars – have used a diverse and rich set of theoretical and methodological approaches to examine the work of practitioners in nuclear organisations. Some concepts developed by social scientists have proved to be pivotal for the work of practitioners.  For example, the idea of an organisation that is capable of rapid and continuous learning (operationalised by INPO and WANO for the nuclear industry) comes from a long line of sociological and management research on high-reliability organisations. Further, the idea that culture can play an important role in ensuring safety also finds its basis in a long tradition of sociological and anthropological research on culture. However, these concepts are often not used as the social scientists intended. They undergo modification in their translation from research to practice and their uptake and use by practitioners have largely been serendipitous. Finally, while social science scholars have produced a growing and increasingly relevant literature, it has not received significant attention from academic and practitioner nuclear engineers. Through this workshop, and the broader NEA project, of which this workshop is a part, the Agency seeks to examine the challenges associated with and the opportunities for speaking across the nuclear energy/social science and practitioner/academic divides.


More specifically, through the workshop and the corresponding special issue, the Agency seeks to:

  • Map the current state of humanities and social science research with a focus on nuclear energy and the implications of the findings from this research for practice
  • Explore the development of a methodology (or a set of methodologies) for translating research (especially qualitative research) into lessons and recommendations for practitioners
  • Identify ‘best practices’ for and challenges encountered in adopting these recommendations in practitioner settings
  • Identify possible opportunities for institutional innovation in the nuclear energy sector by surveying current research on innovation and regulation

Papers were accepted on three broad themes:  

1. Current research on nuclear energy and society: research findings and recommendations for practice 

A number of researchers have recently been leading or have completed research projects with a particular focus on the work of practitioners in the nuclear energy sector. Authors of this set of papers were invited to describe their motivations for embarking on these research projects, describe their research questions, their findings as well as recommendations (if any) for practitioners arising from these findings. Authors were further asked to reflect on and describe their methodologies or approaches for transforming their research findings into lessons and recommendations for practitioners. Papers on this theme were broadly expected to focus on reactor design and development, regulation and nuclear energy policy.


2. The practitioner-social science nexus: challenges and opportunities for transforming the work of nuclear organisations 

In select organisations, social science researchers have been working alongside practitioners. In these settings, insights derived from the work of these researchers have had an impact on the work of practitioners. Authors of these papers were asked to describe how the decisions to embed social science researchers within their respective organisations were made, the work done by these researchers within their respective organisations, how the insights from these researchers have been transformed into recommendations for practitioners, challenges encountered in implementing these insights as well as further opportunities for transforming practice that have not yet been exploited. Authors of these papers may have chosen to draw on theoretical and methodological resources that examine the intellectual and practical considerations of translating research into lessons and recommendations for practice.


3. Opportunities for institutional innovation: current research on innovation and regulation

Practitioners in the nuclear energy sector around the world are searching for opportunities for innovation in both the technical and the social elements of nuclear reactor systems and their supporting infrastructures. Some examples of the hoped for non-technological innovations include new mechanisms for funding the development of nuclear energy technologies, novel mechanisms for financing construction projects and redesign of institutions for encouraging nuclear innovation and regulating nuclear energy technologies. These papers will review and explore current research on regulation and innovation. Wherever possible, authors are encouraged to identify those aspects of their research findings that are generalisable and that might suggest opportunities for institutional innovation in the nuclear energy sector.

12 - 13 December 2019
NEA headquarters at 46 Quai Alphonse Le Gallo, Boulogne Billancourt 92100

Danielle Zayani