Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science Studies 2012

After Fukushima:
Climate science, nuclear power, and global warming

Lecturers: Professor Paul N. Edwards and Professor Gabrielle Hecht,
Department of History, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA

Main disciplines: STS, History, Environmental Policy
Dates: 23 July - 27 July 2012
Course Credits: 10 pts (ECTS)
Limitation: 30 participants

This course is a summer school course organized by the Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture/TIK-Centre at the University of Oslo, and the inter-faculty program on Environmental Change and Sustainable Energy/MILEN, also at the University of Oslo.

Introduction & Course Objectives
Just a few years ago, credible scenarios projected that climate change might lead up to 30 nations to launch new nuclear power programs between 2015 and 2030. These programs would build as many as 600 new nuclear power stations worldwide, reducing global carbon emissions by 11 percent or more and helping to shift the world energy economy away from fossil fuels. But in March 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated northeastern Japan, causing core meltdowns in three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.  Hydrogen explosions at the reactors spewed radioactive materials into the air, rendering the region near the plant uninhabitable for generations to come.  As Japan reeled, industry spokespeople insisted that the accidents were a fluke. Newer, “inherently safe” reactor designs, they argued, could not suffer such accidents. Nuclear power remained an important, highly effective means of combating climate change.

Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the accident, Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium have officially renounced nuclear power.  Other European countries seem likely to follow suit, as does Japan. Yet investments in nuclear systems create conundrums not easily addressed with a single political decision. Germany announced long-term plans to make up its electricity shortfall from renewable sources. But in the near term, ironically, it will be forced to rely more heavily on fossil fuels — or to import nuclear-generated electricity from France. The technopolitical history of nuclear power thus weighs heavily on the future of energy in a warming world.

This course offers essential historical perspective on contemporary debates. It presents accessible reviews of climate change science and risks, and of nuclear power and its risks. In addition, the course offers a sophisticated conceptual toolbox drawn from science & technology studies (STS), anthropology, economic sociology, cultural studies, and postcolonial studies. Students will emerge better equipped to understand not only debates about nuclear power and climate change, but also a variety of historical and contemporary issues surrounding energy futures and the politics of science and technology. 

Essential readings
We advise you to obtain and read the following books in advance of the lectures:

  • Edwards, Paul N. (2010) A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (MIT Press, 2010)
  • Hecht, Gabrielle. (2011) Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (MIT Press 2011)
  • Hecht, Gabrielle. (1998) The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II (MIT Press, new edition 2009)


Course Outline

Day 1: Historical and Theoretical Introductions

Climate Science

Lecture 1: Climate change, climate politics, and weather control
Early history of knowledge about climate, from the ancient Greeks to the 1940s. Episodes of climate politics in the 19th and early 20th centuries in Germany, the United States, and other countries, including debates over whether clearing land for crops improved or damaged the climate, and whether climate cycles could be detected. Discovery of climate cycles in Earth’s past, including both ice ages and extreme heat. Early attempts to explain these, including astronomical cycles. Carbon dioxide theories of climate change from the late 19th century, when Svante Arrhenius first calculated the temperature effects of carbon dioxide, to the theory’s decline in the interwar years, to G.S. Callendar’s revival of the carbon dioxide theory in 1938. Rain makers and rain “fakers” (J. Fleming): scientists and charlatans who thought they could purposely alter the weather to satisfy human needs. Nuclear weapons for steering hurricanes.

Lecture 2: The weather forecast system as a global infrastructure
This lecture covers how instruments, computers, and people work together to create coherent images of global weather. At the same time, it introduces the “systems, networks, and webs” perspective on the history of infrastructure. The Bergen School — the earliest science-based weather forecast method — and the First World War. L.F. Richardson’s “forecast-factory”: a 1922 design for a computer consisting of 64,000 human beings armed with hand calculators and computing forms, capable of forecasting global weather in real time. The large technical systems historical model, focusing on the importance of standards and of “gateways” linking separate systems and networks. The infrastructure studies perspective on weather forecasting. 


  • Hans von Storch and Nico Stehr, “Climate Change in Perspective: Our Concerns About Global Warming Have an Age-Old Resonance,” Nature 405 (2000): 615.
  • Paul N. Edwards, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming, Chapters 1, 4, 5, and 8 (pp. 1-25, 61-110, 187-227)
  • Optional: Edwards, Introduction and Chapter 9

Energy and Nuclear Power

Lecture 3: Energy, politics, and the paradoxes of nuclear things
In the early 20th century, radium and radioactivity were thought to be health-promoting. The valence of nuclear things changed dramatically with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. The “Atoms for peace” (1950s) program was intended to reverse nuclear fears, with promises of power “too cheap to meter.” But nuclear power could only be commercialized with government backing, including subsidies for hugely expensive insurance against catastrophic accidents. “Clean” nuclear energy produces wastes so dangerous and long-lived that we cannot find anywhere on Earth to dispose of them.

Lecture 4: Technopolitics
This session presents theoretical concepts in Science and Technology Studies that will be deployed throughout the course. We will have an overview of STS’s trajectory from Social Construction to Actor Network Theory, and discuss the genealogy and use of the concepts of technopolitics and technopolitical regimes in relation to that theory.


  • Timothy Mitchell, “Carbon Democracy,” Economy and Society 38:3 (August 2009), 399-432
  • Gabrielle Hecht, Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (MIT Press 2012), chapter 1
  • Gabrielle Hecht, The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II (MIT Press, new edition 2009), Introduction and chapter 2


Day 2: Observation and Perceptibility

What is a radiation effect?

Lecture 5: The effects of low-level radiation exposure: ongoing debates
Research on the effects of radiation from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs turned into the longest epidemiological study of all time (the research is still going on). The data generated in this research has become the basis for all other research into the effects of radiation on the human body. But can the health effects of chronic, low-level radiation exposure be directly modeled from data on one-time, high-level exposures?  Debates over this question have been raging for over half a century, and for many the question remains unresolved. Yet the question lies at the heart of the argument about nuclear power as a “clean” source of energy.  How can we apply the tools of social science to make sense of these debates?

Lecture 6: Nuclear Risk and Civil Society
The health and environmental effects of nuclear reactor operation -- including accidents – have frequently been subject to scientific and technopolitical contestation and the emergence of “citizen science.” The health effects of the Chernobyl accident became the subject of political debate and daily negotiation in Ukraine, in Belarus, and in a variety of international organizations. This session covers some of those debates, and explores anthropological perspectives on the aftermath of Chernobyl.


  • Soraya Boudia and Nathalie Jas, “Risk and ‘Risk Society’ in Historical Perspective,” History and Technology, 23, 4, 2007, p. 317-331.
  • Soraya Boudia, “Global Regulation: Controlling and Accepting Radioactivity Risks,” History and Technology, 23, 4, 2007, p. 389-406.
  • Adriana Petryna, “Biological Citizenship: The Science and Politics of Chernobyl-Exposed Populations,” in Landscapes of Exposure: Knowledge and Illness in Modern Environments, OSIRIS 19 (2004), pp. 250-265.
  • Brian Wynne, “Misunderstood Misunderstandings: Social Identities and the Public Uptake of Science,” in Alan Irwin and Brian Wynne, eds., Misunderstanding Science? The Public Reconstruction of Science and Technology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 19-46.
  • Film (to watch on YouTube):  Silent Bombs for the Motherland

How do we know what we know about climate change?

Lecture 7: Seeing the past: from weather forecasting to climate science
Climate is average weather over some long period of time (decades, centuries, millennia) and some area of space (regional, continental, global). How do we know about climates of the distant past? For that matter, how do we know about climate over the period of instrumental observations (since the mid-19th century), when instruments, network coverage, and standards have all changed with great frequency?   This lecture briefly explores paleoclimatology (the study of climates of the distant past) and planetary climatology (comparing the climates of Mars and Venus to that of Earth). It then covers, in more detail, the problems of the historical instrument record and contemporary debates over climate knowledge.

Lecture 8: Carbon dioxide and carbon-14
Accurate weather forecasts were important for atomic tests, which were carried out in the atmosphere, creating huge clouds of radioactive debris that could spread for thousands of kilometers downwind of the test sites. Public fear of fallout from atomic tests included fears that they were causing regional climatic change. Decades before nuclear power became a “solution” to climate change, radioactive carbon-14 produced by these tests first allowed climate scientists to trace how carbon travels from the atmosphere to the oceans and the biosphere. The global fallout monitoring network built in the early 1960s by several nations was among the first global monitoring systems.


  • Wikipedia, entries on “Carbon cycle, “Carbon-14,” and “Radiocarbon dating”
  • Edwards, A Vast Machine, Chapters 6-7 (skim pp. 152-170), 10-11
  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), Chapter 6. Read the Executive Summary carefully, as well as all the charts and tables. Read as deeply as you can in the text, but some of this is highly technical and we do not expect you to read it closely.


Day 3: Models, Forecasts, and Risk

Costs and risks of climate change

Lecture 9: Computer models of global climate
Computer models transformed both weather forecasting and climatology in the 1950s. Today, they are the principal tool for climate scientists to test theories of relationships among the many elements of the Earth system. This lecture covers how computer models work, what they do, how they are tested, and what scientists learn from them (but also what they don’t do and can’t tell us). 

Lecture 10: Climate risk
Climate change presents a wide range of risks to human societies over the next 50-100 years. This session explores those risks, but also examines the scenarios and models used to analyze and predict risk, energy supply and demand, and economic outcomes.


  • Edwards, A Vast Machine, Chapter 13
  • Myanna Lahsen, “Seductive Simulations? Uncertainty Distribution Around Climate Models,” Social Studies of Science 35, no. 6 (2005): 895-922.
  • National Geographic Online, “The Carbon Bathtub”
  • Sir Nicholas Stern, Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change (London: HM Treasury, 2006), “Executive Summary” and Part II, “The Impacts of Climate Change on Growth and Development.” Pay particular attention to Chapter 6, “Economic modelling of climate change impacts.
  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report (Geneva, Switzerland: IPCC, 2007), pp. 21-32. Optional: read the rest of the report.

Costs and risks in nuclear systems

Lecture 11: Nuclear power: a history of cost and pricing
The cost of nuclear power is notoriously difficult to calculate. What should be included in calculations about the cost of the nuclear kilowatt-hour, and what can count as an “externality”? How has the nuclear kilowatt-hour been compared to the coal or oil kilowatt-hours? What kinds of scenarios and projections are included in calculations, and how do these vary by time and place? What is the meaning of “price” in these debates?

Lecture 12: Nuclear risk: a global systems perspective
Fallout and other contamination from nuclear tests caused cancer in “downwinders” — people living in the path of the fallout cloud — and others living in contaminated environments. Many such people were indigenous and/or colonized peoples in US and Australian territories, in Algeria and Polynesia, and in Kazakhstan. (Fallout also produced data for climate science, as we’ll see in lecture 7) Uranium mining in colonized territories and former African colonies left a similar, racially-inflected legacy of contamination.  This lecture presents a global perspective on the distribution of nuclear dangers.


  • Hecht, The Radiance of France, Chapters 3 and 8 (selections)
  • Hecht, Being Nuclear, Chapter 7


Day 4: Nuclear and Climate Politics Around the Turn of the Century

Rebranding nuclear power

Lecture 13: From Satan to savior
As the memory of the 1986 Chernobyl accident faded and worries over carbon emissions mounted, the nuclear industry embraced global warming as an apocalyptic scenario with enough probability and immediacy to trump atomic anxieties. Rebranding itself as “carbon-free” energy, the industry recruited prominent environmentalists such as James Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis, and Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth catalog, in support of a “nuclear renaissance.” The French company Areva — the world’s largest nuclear corporation — is marketing nuclear power as both a solution to climate change and a tool of sustainable development. But to what extent was the “renaissance” an artifact of optimistic modeling? Or an attempt to enact a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Lecture 14: Nuclear power goes global
China, soon to become world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, announced a massive expansion of its nuclear program, as did India. Nuclear power has also begun to seduce African governments, including Ghana, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sudan. This development has renewed fears of atomic weapons proliferation, as well as concerns about the safety of nuclear installations in politically unstable nations. This lecture examines plans for nuclear build-up in some of the nations.


  • Hecht, Being Nuclear, chapter 10

Climate politics

Lecture 15: From Rio to Kyoto to Durban: the Framework Convention on Climate Change
The history and present state of the major international treaties, national politics and policies (especially in France, China, and the United States) and initiatives led by cities, communities, and non-governmental organizations. This lecture also examines the climate change debate from the perspective of “developing world.”

Lecture 16: Putting a price on carbon
Covers the history and politics of carbon pricing. The economics of internalizing externalities: taxes, prices, and other mechanisms for covering the costs of maintaining quality in public goods subject to “tragedy of the commons” effects. Creating carbon markets: the Chicago Climate Exchange, the European Union carbon trading system, and the ill-fated “cap-and-trade” bills that failed in the United States. Alternatives to markets: the “cap-and-dividend” scheme that would assess a carbon tax at the source (mines, wellheads), then return the tax directly to consumers.


  • Edwards, A Vast Machine, Chapter 14
  • Stern, Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change, Part IV
  • Donald Mackenzie, “The Political Economy of Carbon Trading,” London Review of Books 29:7 (2011), 29-31


Day 5: Fukushima and After: Energy and Climate Futures

Lecture 17: Climate knowledge and trust
When, how, and to whom does climate knowledge become trustworthy? What are the relations between knowledge, social groups, national political cultures, and global political action? This lecture explores the human side of science. People tend to discount facts that disconfirm their strongly held opinions, and tend to trust messengers rather than messages. Scientific expertise has been undermined by the rise of Internet information sources such as blogs and social media, but new possibilities for citizen involvement in science may also strengthen confidence in climate knowledge.

Lecture 18: Fukushima
By some measures, the triple reactor accident at Fukushima is the worst in the history of nuclear power. What happened at Fukushima, and how can we use the tools of social science to help us understand the reactor meltdowns? How have comparisons between Fukushima and Chernobyl become politicized? How does the history of nuclear power in Japan help us understand the accidents? How are citizens in Japan dealing with the aftermath? This lecture will present a variety of perspectives on Fukushima and its aftermath. 

Lecture 19: Energy futures after Fukushima
Though most analyses assume some role for nuclear power in any likely future, a 2011 report from Stanford University argues that it is both technologically and economically feasible that by 2030 all new energy sources could be wind, water, and solar, and that by 2050 all energy worldwide could be supplied from wind, water, and solar sources. Is such a future made more likely by the sudden renunciation of nuclear power by Japan, Germany, and other countries? This lecture covers competing models of the world energy economy, and of likely technological trajectories of renewable energy sources, give different answers to the question of how much nuclear power could contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet whether nuclear power would “work” in developing countries requires answers to larger questions about knowledge, regulatory expertise, and the durability and reliability of governments and safety institutions.

Lecture 20: Conclusion
This session will provide a brief review of major lessons from the course, and an opportunity to revisit issues that students feel need further development.

Readings (for all sessions on Day 5):

  • Edwards, A Vast Machine, Chapter 15 and Conclusion
  • Other short articles on the Fukushima accident. Since new publications on Fukushima are constantly emerging, precise readings will be selected later, but likely sources include the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and Japan Focus.
  • Mike Hulme, Why We Disagree About Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), Chapters 8-9
  • RCJ Somerville, and SJ Hassol, “Communicating the Science of Climate Change,” Physics Today 64, no. 10 (2011): 48-53.
  • M.A. Delucchi, and M.Z. Jacobson, “Providing All Global Energy With Wind, Water, and Solar Power, Part II: Reliability, System and Transmission Costs, and Policies,” Energy Policy 39, no. 3 (2011): 1170-90.
  • M.Z. Jacobson, and M.A. Delucchi, “Providing All Global Energy With Wind, Water, and Solar Power, Part I: Technologies, Energy Resources, Quantities and Areas of Infrastructure, and Materials,” Energy Policy (2010).


About the lecturers

Paul N. Edwards
is Professor of Information and History at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on the history, politics, and culture of information technologies and infrastructures. Edwards’ book A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (MIT Press, 2010). The book examines the weather and climate observing systems, infrastructures that generate information so vast in quantity and so diverse in quality and form that it can be understood only through computer analysis — by making data global. These processes depend on three kinds of computer models: data models, used to combine and adjust measurements from many different sources; simulation models of weather and climate; and reanalysis models, which recreate climate history from historical weather data. The book argues that data and models have converged to create stable, reliable, and trustworthy knowledge of global warming. A Vast Machine was named a “Best Book of 2010” by The Economist magazine, and received the 2011 Computer History Museum Prize of the Society for the History of Technology. Edwards also wrote The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (MIT Press, 1996), as well as other books and numerous articles. He has been a Carnegie Scholar and a Guggenheim Fellow. Edwards' current research concerns the social dynamics of monitoring, modeling, and memory in large scientific cyberinfrastructures, as well as further work on the history of meteorology as a computational science.

Gabrielle Hecht is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Her book The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II (MIT Press, new edition 2009) offers a historical account of the French nuclear power program, which currently supplies around 75% of France’s electricity. The book examines how conflicts over reactor design became forms of political debate and decision-making, a process Hecht calls technopolitics. In designing and operating nuclear power plants, experts and workers proposed a range of prescriptions for French society and politics. Hecht explores how the resulting technopolitical arrangements produced and enacted power relationships among experts, between experts and workers, and between reactor sites and communities. Radiance received the American Historical Association’s Henry Baxter Adams award and the Edelstein prize from the Society for the History of Technology. More recently, Hecht edited Entangled Geographies: Empire and Technopolitics in the Global Cold War (MIT Press, 2011). Her new monograph, Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (MIT Press and Wits University Press, 2012) examines the colonial, transnational, and postcolonial history of uranium production, focusing especially on matters of trade, labor, and occupational health. Drawing on archival and ethnographic research in Africa, Europe, and North America, the book seeks to remake understandings of the nuclear age by looking at Africa in the nuclear world, and the nuclear world in Africa.

Hecht and Edwards have published jointly on transregional Cold War technopolitics and on the technopolitics of apartheid in South Africa. They are planning a co-authored book on the entwined pasts, presents, and futures of nuclear power and climate change.

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Tags: PhD, Summer School, Science and Technology Studies, Climate Change, Climate Policy, History, Environmental Policy
Published Oct. 10, 2012 1:15 PM - Last modified Oct. 10, 2012 1:38 PM