Can ordinary people participate meaningfully in decisions about complex technologies such as nuclear power? Our research suggests they can, within limits. A paradox of contemporary society is that we rely on technologies to meet our basic needs and advance our quality of life, but most of us have limited technical knowledge. Those who are affected by technological decisions should have a say in those decisions, but what kind of communication does such democratic participation require?
The paradoxes of technology loom large in the arena of energy choices. Concerns about climate change, energy costs, and energy security raise questions about how to balance sources such as coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind, and solar, along with improved energy efficiency and conservation. These are national and global questions, but they often play out in more local settings. One such setting is the North Carolina Utilities Commission, charged with deciding what forms of energy are appropriate for use across the state, who should supply that energy, and how much consumers should pay for it.
In January 2011, two of the nation’s largest electric utility companies, Duke Energy and Progress Energy, both based in North Carolina, announced plans to merge. The merger would require approval by the North Carolina Utilities Commission, along with other state and federal bodies, and during 2011-2012, the Commission held a series of public hearings to solicit comments from citizens. We attended a number of those hearings, studied more than 550 pages of official transcripts and decision documents, and followed the course of a growing public controversy surrounding the proposed merger.
One motive for the merger was to provide the financial foundation for the construction of new nuclear power plants, which can cost $12 billion or more and take a decade or longer to build. Many nuclear construction projects have failed for financial reasons, and companies seeking to build new plants are finding it difficult to attract investors, so a larger company is positioned better for such an endeavor.
A related hearing dealt with the question of whether Duke Energy could begin charging North Carolina residents, by way of their monthly electricity bills, for up to $287 million in construction costs for a proposed new nuclear plant. The plant would not provide power to customers until at least 2021, and has not yet received a license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Some customers fear they might pay for years for a project that would never be completed, or would be completed when they are no longer residents of the region.
The 2011 disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant has raised other concerns about nuclear power. Some critics doubt nuclear plants can ever be adequately safe, while others predict the cost of improving their safety will make them unaffordable. Meanwhile, advocates of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, and of energy efficiency and conservation, say those options are growing fast enough to make nuclear power unnecessary.
Citizens at the Commission hearings raised these and other questions, but faced two barriers as they sought to have their messages heard. First, the official role of the Utilities Commission is to make judgments regarding economic questions, such as what costs utility companies can incur and what costs can be charged to consumers. Questions of safety and environmental protection are considered outside the scope of the Commission’s deliberations, to be addressed in other venues such as the U. S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
A second challenge for citizen speakers was an emphasis on the authority of experts. The Commission hearings are highly formal events, where speakers sit in a chair isolated at the front of the room to be sworn in as witnesses. All statements by these witnesses are recorded and transcribed for the public record (which helped to make our task as researchers easier). But in practice, not all witnesses have equal status. At the start of each meeting, the Commission’s Chairman made it clear that the time for “public” witnesses would be limited, in order to accommodate the busy schedules of the “expert” witnesses who would testify later. His comment at the day-long meeting on March 15, 2011, made the Commission’s priorities clear:
“We’re going to take one hour at the beginning of the hearing to hear from public witnesses, and then we’ve got to move on to these other expert witnesses because we’ve got to get them on and out so they can meet their prior commitments. So what that means is we’re going to have to be brief and to the point.”
Some citizens found it ironic that the schedules of experts, who were typically testifying as part of their professional responsibilities, were deemed more important than those of public witnesses who might need to lose a day’s pay or arrange child care to be at the meetings. At least one public witness voiced his objection to the time limits as part of his official testimony.
We found citizen speakers acted creatively to challenge the boundaries limiting their participation. Events of global significance provided one opportunity to do so: The first of the hearings we examined took place four days after the onset of the events at Fukushima. The ongoing catastrophe in Japan made it difficult to exclude questions of safety and environmental risk, and some citizens remarked that due to new concerns raised by Fukushima, nuclear plants might become more costly or less likely to receive federal approval. Others suggested the disaster in Japan demonstrated that nuclear experts may not have all the answers in a complex and unpredictable world.
Another aspect of technological controversies is that their moral dimensions are often left unexpressed—the language of technocracy is not well suited for such discussions. But citizens spoke passionately, as well, about the proposal to pass nuclear construction costs on to consumers including low-income residents and senior citizens. Some proposed that if the Commission should approve the merger, it should require the merged company to provide funds for weatherizing homes in low-income communities to reduce their electricity costs.
The citizen-consumers who spoke at these meetings had help from a number of nonprofit and public interest groups who supplied facts, reference materials, and talking points. In the end, the results of their efforts were mixed. The Commission did allow Duke Energy to charge some nuclear plant construction costs to customers, but limited those costs to less than half of the company’s request. The Commission approved the merger, which remains controversial, but the severe challenges of building and managing nuclear power plants have been made publically visible in the course of the controversy. As it faces other recent challenges with its nuclear plants, Duke Energy’s commitment to its proposed new project may be waning.
Our research demonstrates that although ordinary people face difficult challenges, they can act creatively to have their voices heard in forums such as the one we studied. The outcomes of this case of democratic participation may be mixed, but it is clear they are different than they would have been without those public voices.
William J. Kinsella is an Associate Professor of Communication at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, USA, where he directs the interdisciplinary program on Science, Technology and Society. Ashley R. Kelly is a doctoral candidate in the interdisciplinary program in Communication, Rhetoric and Digital Media at NC State. Meagan Kittle Autry is Director of Thesis and Dissertation Support Services at NC State. This essay appeared in the October 2013 issue of Communication Currents and was translated from the scholarly article: Kinsella, W. J., Kelly, A. R., & Kittle Autry, M. (2013). Risk, regulation, and rhetorical boundaries: Claims and challenges surrounding a purported nuclear renaissance.Communication Monographs, 80, 278-301. Communication Monographs and Communication Currents are publications of the National Communication Association.