UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies


Seminar: Stuart Butler - Expensive but safe: Constructing a publicly acceptable programme of civil nuclear power

Start: Jan 10, 2018 04:00 PM

Location: UCL Chadwick building, room 2.18


10th January 2018, starting at 16:30, with tea and coffee available from 16:00.


UCL Chadwick building, room 2.18, starting at 16:30, with tea and coffee available from 16:00.


Across the world nuclear power programmes have faced public and political challenges. Reactor accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima have shaken public confidence and prompted drastic reductions in political commitments to nuclear power. Across Europe, public concerns about management, safety, economics and waste disposal have often been expressed through large-scale protest and civil disobedience. In the UK, however, public opinion has remained far more stable. From the opening of the first commercial nuclear power plant at Calder Hall in 1956 to the decision to begin the construction of Hinkley C in seventy years later, the British public have remained broadly in favour of the continued development of nuclear power.
In this paper I suggest that the British nuclear power programme has been heavily shaped by efforts to maintain public confidence, and that these were carefully constructed from the very beginning of the industry. A strong focus on safety influenced technological choices about the design of reactors, and allowed politicians and industry to construct a central narrative that although British nuclear reactors were expensive, they were also unique, and uniquely safe. The formation of this narrative has meant that accidents abroad, and the concerns of international campaign groups have been easily dismissed as irrelevant, and have failed to attract sustained public interest. Whether this narrative can be maintained as the UK develops a variety of reactor types remains to be seen.

About the speaker

Stuart Butler is a Research Fellow at the Science Museum on the History of Nuclear Energy and Society (HONEST) project. His research focuses on the history of the British nuclear energy programme.

The project is multi and inter – disciplinary involving collaboration with social scientists and historians from 24 institutions across 16 European countries, utilising social science and historical analysis to explore the public’s attitude to nuclear power throughout Europe.

His research interests are mainly in contemporary political history, histories of science and technology, and particularly the use of science as a foreign policy tool in international collaborations.

STS research seminars

The purpose of this series is to provide colleagues with an opportunity to present their latest research results and discuss them within a collegial atmosphere. 

STS research seminars are open to scholars from any academic field. These normally are research intensive, specialised events, of interest specifically to scholars in the discipline. More upcoming talks in the STS research seminar series are listed in the STS calendar (link).