Paper: The unresolved controversy over nuclear power

Diaz-Maurin, F. and Kovacic, Z. (2015). The unresolved controversy over nuclear power: A new approach from complexity theory. Global Environmental Change, 31(C): 207–216.


  • We explore the controversy over nuclear power from a complexity theory perspective.
  • We look at how narratives have emerged and evolved throughout its history.
  • The analysis reveals a systemic inconsistency between perception and experience.
  • Nuclear power is irresponsive to negative feedbacks and new narratives.
  • Nuclear power can be seen as a belief-based practice explaining its controversy.


We explore the controversy over nuclear power by looking at the plurality of narratives that have emerged throughout its history. We find a lack of consistency between the visions of nuclear power put forward by governments and industry and the experience associated with economic viability, nuclear accidents, waste handling, and so on. We use the conceptual tool of holon from complexity theory to provide a link between the models used for the governance of nuclear power and the realization of those models. The analysis of the holon over time reveals a systemic inconsistency between the way in which the story about nuclear energy is told and the experience gained after implementing nuclear energy according to the story. This inconsistency is due to the incompatible levels of observation used by different social actors endorsing different perspectives. The implementation of nuclear power has been based on the engineering view, focusing on the functioning of the nuclear power plant considered in abstraction from the wider implications of the adoption of this technology on the environment, on the economy, and on society. We cross-check this narrative with the societal metabolism view in order to provide a long term perspective of the interdependencies between nuclear power and the complex socio-economic system in which it is embedded. We conclude that the controversy over nuclear power may be treated as a problem of contrasting beliefs and normative values in clear disjunction from experience. The analysis presented in this paper suggests that more attention should be given to the quality of the narratives used in policy making.


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