Meta-governance and the uk nuclear Industry: a limiting Case

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Discussion and Conclusion

The problems facing a revival of nuclear power in Britain are considerable and the state centric view that a capable state can ‘metagovern’ effectively as long as it has access to key assets would appear to be called into question by our case study. It was observed that the despite the British government’s claim to nodality, its ability to exercise authority, deploy treasure and organizational resources, the structure and scale of the nuclear industry allows it to be resistant to metagovernance. George and Bennett (2005:123) explain: ‘Generalizing the results of case studies is not a simple function of the number or diversity of cases studied….Single cases can cast doubt on theories across a wide range of conditions’. Using qualitative methods requires a different approach to inference compared to quantitative methods. But too often theories drawing on insights from qualitative methods are supported by numerous illustrations rather than a focused examination of cases chosen for their relevance. The study of a multiplicity of events is often accompanied by a loose assumption that the more is better. But the connection between theory building and case studies needs to be seen in a sharper perspective than that. It requires the theory to be specified in a refutable manner and the case study to have the quality of providing a crucial test. As Gerring (2007:121) points out “…it is almost always easier to disconfirm a theory than to confirm with a single case.” Van Evera (1997) provides one example of a confirmation of a theory with a single test. Einstein’s theory of relativity made predictions that could be tested only during a solar eclipse and in 1919 during a solar eclipse they were found to be valid. It is difficult to think of similar simple confirmatory tests in the social sciences using observational methods but our approach supports the arguments of George and Bennett (2005) and Gerring (2007) that the case study has been pushed too far from the lexicon of tools available to social scientists and can be rehabilitated if used appropriately. Political scientists in the future could make greater use of crucial cases to test emerging bodies of theory. We have used a “least-likely” case - the UK’s nuclear renaissance policy - to cast doubt on the state centric version of metagovernance theory. We have provided not a knock-out blow to the theory but plainly have demonstrated the need for it to be refined or qualified.

Case studies especially those conducted with rigour can provide powerful lessons for policy makers and practitioners (George and Bennett, 2005: Ch 12). What are the lessons from our case study? They can be quite boldly stated. The problems facing a revival of nuclear power in Britain would appear on the basis of the evidence we have collected to be so severe that to overcome them the government may have to break from a metagovernance role and use its scarce financial resources, organizational capacities and legislative powers to support the nuclear industry directly.

It may require giving a higher allocation of state resources to keeping the light on than originally planned. A state run nuclear industry would render issues of state aid to private companies irrelevant and this would permit the necessary upgrades to the electricity grid. A state run nuclear industry would also make the need to provide ‘certainty’ to industry an irrelevant concern. The prospects of ‘the lights going out’ which – according to the Economist in August 2009 is not such a far off scenario –might lead to a break from the implicit neo-liberal hegemony that dominated thinking about energy and many other policy areas for the last two decades in the UK.


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Table 1: Prospects for effective metagovernance: the case of UK nuclear renaissance

State Capability




  • Government is a prominent actor with regulatory power – it must be listened to.

  • Government can create a supportive narrative

  • Government is deeply divided and has a tendency to make policy based on factional politics.

  • The nuclear industry is multinational and other (richer) governments are competing with Britain.


  • Ability to change the law to make construction of nuclear power stations easier.

  • Nuclear energy is subject to multi-level governance.

  • Legislative complexity makes it difficult for the government to realise policy.

  • Government is subject to its own laws and policy decisions may be subject to legal challenge


  • Government can sell land near nuclear sites.

  • The ability to realise nuclear power is dependent on stability of the electricity grid.

  • Government lacks the control necessary to ensure the stability of the electricity grid.

Organizational Capacity

  • Government can create and use supportive institutional infrastructure and procedures to lower costs for the private sector

  • GDA is unique and this increases the costs faced by the nuclear industry

  • The NII lacks the manpower to carry out the GDA process in a timely fashion.

  • There is serious division between the different agencies and departments within government.

1 Incidents at nuclear power stations are known as “…events...” and are classified by the IAEA on the International Nuclear Event Scale on a scale of 1 – 7. An event ranked 1 is classified as an “…anomaly…” whilst an event ranked 7 is a “…major accident…” The Chernobyl disaster is the only event ever to rank at 7. The most serious events in the West are Three Mile Island (1979) and the Windscale fire (1957). These events ranked at 5.

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