Existing research from the sociology, political science, and nuclear scholarship identifies various motivations for governments to pursue nuclear programmes, despite other options. Sociologists framed theories of social shaping of technology (SST), social construction of technology (SCOT), and actor network theory (ANT) in the 1980s and 1990s. These approaches dismiss the idea of ‘technological determinism’, which assumes technological choices are purely economically or technically determined. Constructivist theories suggest that organizational, political, economic, and cultural factors ‘pattern the design and implementation of technology’ (Williams and Edge 1996). The reasons for acceptance or rejection of a technology emerge from the societies themselves (Bijker 1995; MacKenzie 1998). ‘Relevant social groups’ shape technological trajectories according to their interests and interpretations (Bijker 1995: 269).

Constructivists argue that choices are inherent to a technology trajectory. The logic of choice between technological trajectories makes technology a negotiable matter. Choices may be irreversible and lead towards long-term ‘lock-in’ situations (Bijker 1995; Williams and Edge 1996). The concept of choice relates directly to the politics that emerge from prioritizing one technology over another. Technologies are never neutral. Choices trigger controversy among their supporters and opponents (Williams and Edge 1996; Latour 2005). Complex social, political, and cultural dynamics are inherent to technological knowledge production and technology choices (Bijker 1995; Williams and Edge 1996; Latour 2005).

Scholars have identified factors that explain the choice of energy technologies, which may not be economically or technically advantageous. The analysis of the social construction of large technological systems demonstrates how technology choices correspond to the political and economic structure of a nation. The analysis of the United Kingdom’s (UK) and German electricity sectors suggests that the political system shapes the governance structure of the power sector. Centralized governments produce large centralized electricity systems. Decentralized systems favour smaller distribution and generation infrastructure (Hughes 2011).

Autocratic elements within a political regime were critical in the adoption of large and centralized nuclear energy technologies (Winner 1986, 2000; Temples 1980). Countries that adopted nuclear technology show strong connections between nuclear power and nationhood (Jasanoff and Kim 2009). Nationhood is an idea built through public discourses and debates about national identity and a nation’s path of future development. National public discourses often emerge from energy technology and its politics, as energy counts as a basic building block of industrialization, technological progress, socio-economic development, and consequential economic power. Governments often procure energy technologies because of prestige, rather than economic necessity (Hughes 2011).

A comparative analysis of six nuclear nations identifies six drivers that sustain commercial nuclear power programmes (Sovacool and Valentine 2012: 250):

  • (1) national security and secrecy
  • (2) technocratic ideology
  • (3) economic interventionism
  • (4) centrally coordinated energy stakeholder network
  • (5) subordination of opposition to political authority and
  • (6) social peripheralization.

The characteristics of countries that are following a nuclear path include closed political systems that minimize opposition, transparency, and accountability; economies with a history of central planning and government intervention; as well as strong national commitment to technological progress (Sovacool and Valentine 2012).

Public discourse reflects the debates about national identity, a nation’s path of future development, and its significance in the global arena. The way a nation exploits its energy resources is an essential component of this process (Bouzarovski and Bassin 2011). Nuclear technology programmes are state interventions that create winners and losers, as any other public policy. Distributional conflicts motivate actors to shape coalitions in support or opposition of these policies that represent their beliefs, ideas, and interests (Sabatier 1988; Hajer 1995).

Discourse coalitions differ from traditional political coalitions or alliances, because there is a linguistic basis for political coordination between various parties. ‘Story-lines, not interests, form the basis of the coalition, whereby story-lines potentially change the previous understanding of what the actors’ interests are’ (Hajer 1995: 66). This chapter presents an analysis of the discourse coalitions that emerge in support and opposition to the nuclear programme in South Africa.

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