From Secrecy to Public Containment: The Role of Hybrid Spaces in the Governance of Nuclear Crises in France

Valerie Arnhold
Fri, 02/09/2022

How do some large-scale adverse events receive major media coverage and become crises for public actors while others are treated as routine events? This article reinvestigates this question based on a case study of the media treatment in France of the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents. Drawing on an original set of media data and an ethnographic study, the article shows how both accidents were subject to forms of opacity that limit their effects on nuclear institutions: Chernobyl has been treated through secrecy that leads to contestation of nuclear institutions, whereas Fukushima has been characterized by “public containment,” relying on extensive publication but low-priority and uncontroversial narratives that do not reflect the stakes of a given policy field. This paper explains the role of Fukushima in France through institutional transformations that public actors engaged in following Chernobyl to reestablish the credibility of public information sources and to monitor public debates over nuclear accidents by developing “hybrid” spaces, located at the interface of organizational frontstages and backstages. This case shows how responding to transparency demands may sometimes create new forms of opacity by reducing the epistemic quality of public debates while containing political crises.

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