The Politics of Crisis Policymaking: Chernobyl and Swedish Nuclear Energy Policy
Nohrstedt, Daniel, Policy Studies Journal
On April 26, 1986, a low-power engineering test of the Unit 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power station resulted in a sudden increase in heat production and loss of cooling water, causing a catastrophic steam explosion that completely destroyed the reactor core. Over a 10-day period, winds carried radionuclide releases from the damaged reactor causing severe contamination in vast territories of former Soviet Union republics and over parts of Europe. In response to history's most devastating nuclear accident, several European governments decided to restrict the use of nuclear energy by halting construction and shutting down nuclear reactors, as in Italy and Finland, and by suspending decisions on nuclear power expansion, as in the Netherlands and Switzerland. Compared to other countries outside the Soviet Union, Sweden was particularly hard hit by the accident. As the plume coincided with rainfall, the total deposition from the Chernobyl release was greater in Sweden than in most other European countries (OECD/Nuclear Energy Agency, 2002, p. 44). At first, alarms triggered at the Forsmark nuclear facility in central Sweden caused a major crisis for Swedish authorities, based on the belief that the contamination emanated from a Swedish reactor (Stern, 1999). When it became clear that Chernobyl was the source and that Sweden had been seriously affected by the fallout, a legitimacy crisis erupted causing a degeneration of public confidence in the authorities responsible for emergency planning and protection (Nohrstedt, 1991).
Following the observation in the public policy literature that major crises provide short-lived periods of opportunity for nonincremental policy change, one would have expected Swedish nuclear energy policies to change quite dramatically after Chernobyl. As the result of a national referendum initiated after the Three Mile Island accident seven years earlier, the Swedish Parliament had already decided to phase out nuclear power, and just prior to Chernobyl, the government decided that the first reactors should be shut down by the late 1990s. In retrospect, the Chernobyl crisis clearly had the potential to change the Swedish nuclear power phaseout plan. The pressure on the government to accelerate the phaseout process was overwhelming. In response to protests from various societal and political groups, the government declared that it was willing to alter the phaseout timeline if that course of action would be justified by subsequent inquiries. However, one year later, policy developments in Sweden took a different turn when government policymakers decided that the nuclear power phaseout should not be accelerated. In the context of public policy theory, these developments are puzzling: Why did this large-scale crisis not cause any major changes in Swedish nuclear energy policy?
Theoretical Perspectives on Crisis Events and Policy Change
Public policy scholars frequently cite focusing events and windows of opportunity as important explanations for major policy reforms. The basic argument that external events have the potential to "punctuate" institutional inertia and thereby cause major policy reversals is not new. Perhaps a more intriguing issue relates to the variability in crisis-induced policy outcomes and the question of why some crises result in major policy change while others do not (Birkland, 2006; Minstrom & Vergari, 1996; 't Hart & Boin, 2001). Efforts to explain this variance present a number of challenges, not least because it is often unclear which events should actually qualify as crises. A related analytical problem is that the link between crisis and reform can be seen as nonfalsifiable, where the absence of reform can be explained by the fact that the crisis was not severe enough (Kuipers, 2004). The public policy literature has a particularly hard time getting around the problem of nonfalsifiability because many crisis …
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Publication information: Article title: The Politics of Crisis Policymaking: Chernobyl and Swedish Nuclear Energy Policy. Contributors: Nohrstedt, Daniel - Author. Journal title: Policy Studies Journal. Volume: 36. Issue: 2 Publication date: May 2008. Page number: 257+. © 1999 Policy Studies Organization. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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