STS research has devoted relatively little attention to the promotion and reception of science and technology by non-scientific actors and institutions. One consequence is that the relationship of science and technology to political power has tended to remain undertheorized. This article aims to fill that gap by introducing the concept of “sociotechnical imaginaries.” Through a comparative examination of the development and regulation of nuclear power in the US and South Korea, the article demonstrates the analytic potential of the imaginaries concept. Although nuclear power and nationhood have long been imagined together in both countries, the nature of those imaginations has remained strikingly different. In the US, the state’s central move was to present itself as a responsible regulator of a potentially runaway technology that demands effective “containment.” In South Korea, the dominant imaginary was of “atoms for development” which the state not only imported but incorporated into its scientific, technological and political practices. In turn, these disparate imaginaries have underwritten very different responses to a variety of nuclear shocks and challenges, such as Three Mile Island (TMI), Chernobyl, and the spread of the anti-nuclear movement.
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Interview with Richard Garwin, April 16, 2009, Cambridge, MA.
Mass media, popular culture, and visual materials also play critically important roles in the articulation of sociotechnical imaginaries. Though worth analyzing in their own right, these materials fall beyond the scope of this article.
These fears have to some extent been subsumed in a more recent set of concerns about nuclear terrorism. See, for example, Sharp and Poff (2008).
Our use of the “mushroom” metaphor presents an instructive contrast with work on media analysis and public communication such as that of Gamson and Modigliani. Their essay on nuclear power notes that the mushroom cloud was infrequently used in the media during a ten-year period that included the Three Mile Island accident (Gamson and Modigliani 1989: 22). This is a misleading observation in our view. A Google image search today pulls up on the order of 40,800 instances, while the term itself is attested more than a half-million times on the web. It circulates in popular culture through countless media, including even a computer screen saver. As the historian Weart (1988) has suggested, the association between the bomb image and nuclear power does not have to be explicit to be “real.” The association can be forged through the subconscious channels of what Weart called “nuclear fear.”
These numbers are taken from the website of the Union of Concerned Scientists. http://www.ucsusa.org/global_security/nuclear_weapons/worldwide-nuclear-arsenals.html (visited December 2008).
See http://c-g-i.info/images/nuclear-weapons-chart.jpg (visited December 2008). The original chart can be found in Willens (1984).
See President Eisenhower’s (1956) “Atoms for Peace” Speech. Its full text can be found at http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/Deterrence/Atomsforpeace.shtml (visited December 2008).
Documents declassified September 27, 1958. We are indebted to Alex Wellerstein for calling our attention to these documents.
The law has been amended at regular intervals, most recently by the Energy Policy Act of 2005; the self-insurance requirement for each site has also been increased numerous times, to a level of $300 million in the early 2000s.
Duke Power Co. v. Carolina Environmental Study Group, 438 U.S. 59 (1978).
438 U.S. 59, at 91.
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To put the Yucca Mountain controversy in perspective, it is worth comparing the cases of civilian and military waste disposal. DOE began planning for the geological disposal of defense-related transuranic radioactive waste without needing to placate civilian populations. In March 1999, DOE commenced disposal operations of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico (Mora 1999).
Even for the already operating and less controversial WIPP disposal site, DOE has to acknowledge that engineered containment remains vulnerable and is at pains to design and construct “permanent markers” to deter “inadvertent human intrusion” (DOE/WIPP 2004).
Donga-ilbo had been one of Korea’s most influential newspapers since its founding in 1920. The title of the column series was “Scientific Design for Reconstructing the Fatherland.” See Donga-ilbo (January 1, 1947).
Yoon Se-Won, one of the physicists who led South Korea’s early nuclear program, later recalled that, during his visit to the presidential office in 1957, Rhee asked him about the technical feasibility of building atomic bombs (Park 1999a: 9). For Rhee’s interest in atomic bombs, see also Kim (2005).
See Park (1966, 1967). This sociotechnical imaginary was later incorporated into the South Korean constitution. In 1972, when Park issued the authoritarian Yusin (restoration) constitution to extend his tenure, a new article was introduced in the chapter on Economy, stating that “the development of the national economy, and of science and technology for this goal, should be encouraged and promoted.”
As of 1975, the maximum liability limit was 3 billion South Korean Won, which amounted to U.S. $6.2 million. The South Korean government increased the liability limit to 6 billion Won in 1987 and to 50 billion Won in 2001, but these amounts still fell far short of the corresponding U.S. figures—the total of $10 billion.
While this episode was regarded as a minor mechanical and electrical malfunction rather than a serious accident, national newspapers ran several articles on the safety of South Korea’s nuclear power plants. See, for example, Donga-ilbo (April 3 and 4, 1979); Chosun-ilbo (April 1, 3 and 5, 1979); and Hankook-ilbo (April 1 and 3, 1979).
Such a framing of nuclear safety was repeatedly found in various government documents, including Annual Report of the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute and Science and Technology Annual.
This issue became a hot topic during the 1988 National Assembly audit (Chosun-ilbo, October 21, 1988; Hankook-ilbo, October 21, 1988). In order to allay the public anxiety, the Ministry of Science and Technology invited a group of experts from the IAEA to conduct an independent preliminary safety analysis of Yŏnggwang-3 and -4 (Jo 1989).
The provision of KSNP reactors to North Korea through the KEDO project was expected to ease the tension between North and South, as well as the economic hardships of ordinary North Koreans, and was generally greeted in the South, even by many social movement activists who adopted—or were sympathetic to—an anti-nuclear power stance.
The Korea Nuclear Energy Foundation (formerly the Organization for Korea Atomic Energy Awareness) was established in 1992 by the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy in order to assuage growing concerns about the safety of nuclear facilities after the Anmyŏn Island incident.
The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union—together with the improvement of procedural democracy—had a profound impact on South Korean progressive social movements. For an ideological shift within the environmental movement, see Ku (1996).
The government promised that it would provide the host region with a special state subsidy of U.S. $300 million, in addition to an annual fee of U.S. $8.5 million for storing the waste. The headquarters of the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co. (KEPCO’s subsidiary responsible for nuclear power) would also be relocated to the area.
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The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of the National Science Foundation (NSF Award No. SES-0724133) for the research on which this paper is based. The paper has benefited from comments on an earlier draft by two anonymous reviewers and by Peter Weingart, editor of Minerva.
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Jasanoff, S., Kim, SH. Containing the Atom: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Nuclear Power in the United States and South Korea. Minerva 47, 119–146 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11024-009-9124-4
- Sociotechnical imaginary
- Nuclear power
- Science and technology policy
- Comparative policy
- South Korea