The Social Shaping of Nuclear Energy Technology in South Africa

Britta Rennkamp and Radhika Bhuyan


Why is the South African government pursuing a nuclear energy programme, despite abundant and accessible fossil and renewable energy resources? The South African electricity sector has historically been mainly coal-fuelled. One nuclear power plant has contributed five per cent of electricity since the 1980s. Renewable energy contributes another five per cent.

We argue that the government has chosen to procure an additional 9.6 GW of nuclear capacity, because of a significant coalition of nuclear energy supporters. The role of coalitions in shaping policy outcomes has long been established. The constructivist literature on science and technology policy explains why decision-makers sometimes choose less practical and less cost- efficient technologies over others. The concept of social shaping of technology suggests that the interplay of social, political, economic, and cultural factors in a society shape the design and implementation of a technology. The literature identifies political factors leading to the prioritizing of nuclear technologies over other alternatives. We apply this theoretical perspective to the recent nuclear programme in South Africa. A discourse network analysis helps to establish the political arena of nuclear energy and to identify the coalitions supporting and opposing the nuclear energy programme, as well as the arguments that motivate their positioning (Leifeld 2012). The analysis uses data from 350 media articles, relevant policy documents, and background interviews.

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