SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

Governance of discontinuity in technological systems

In reaction to the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, Germany announced that it would close all nuclear plants by 2022, nuclear power plans were abandoned in Malaysia, the Philippines, Kuwait and Bahrain, and China radically changed its nuclear power programme.

Why is it is that Fukushima, the largest nuclear incident since the Chernobyl disaster had such an effect? What is the role of governance in addressing the crucial task of disengaging from well-established, environmentally destructive technological systems - such as incandescent light bulbs, DDT pesticide, the automotive fossil fuel combustion engine and nuclear power?

The DISGCO project seeks to develop a better understanding of the role of governance in the process of abandoning technological systems. To date, the governance of such systems has been associated with advancement and innovation, whilst discontinuation is often seen as regime change or failure.

The element of this project conducted by Professor Andy Stirling, SPRU, looks at the particular case of nuclear energy. The research focuses on the commitments, by several countries worldwide, to phase out nuclear power from its current major role in the energy sector, with others ceasing previously planned expansion. This involves detailed scrutiny of the means by which governance can deliberately resist and counter the interests of powerful actors to consolidate their own favoured pathways. 

The video above provdies a short overview of the project and key findings.

The aim of the research is to help build alternative pathways that better serve the interests of less powerful and more marginal groups. The project will highlight the policy pace, political will and institutional momentum required in order to transform wider governance environments so as to achieve such large-scale shifts in technological infrastructure. The aim is to reveal key connections between discontinuation, innovation, and active policies that are organising and shaping change in technological systems. 


This project employs documentary and discourse analysis to understand patterns of technological cessation. An examination of investment decisions over the past ten years, in areas such as nuclear research streams and patenting for nuclear related activities, will trace the recent historical direction of nuclear policy. 

As part of the project a new method of ‘triangular hinging’ is being developed, in order to understand key ‘points’ from the perspectives of actors, in terms of the policy trajectories of nuclear in the case study countries. Interviews with key actors involved in the governance of nuclear power are being carried out in the UK initially, and later in France, Germany and the Netherlands.  

Impact and outreach

The project has been presented at the ‘Nuclear Futures’ conference in Liverpool, November 2013, and at the Association of American Geographers (AAG) annual conference in Tampa Florida in April 2014. A case study document was presented to colleagues in the DISCGO meeting in Dortmund in February 2014. 

Media articles

Shining a light on Britain’s nuclear state by Phil Johnstone in The Guardian, August 2015

Why Germany is dumping nuclear power – and Britain isn’t by Phil Jonstone and Andy Stirling in The Conversation, September 2015

All at sea: making sense of the UK’s muddled nuclear policy by Phil Jonstone and Andy Stirling in The Conversation, October 2015

Working paper

SWPS 2015-18: Comparing Nuclear Power Trajectories in Germany And the UK: From ‘Regimes’ to ‘Democracies’ in Sociotechnical Transitions and Discontinuities

Partners and links

This is a collaborative project involving Andy Stirling, SPRU (co-director of the STEPS Centre) Pierre-Benoit Joly at INRA in Paris, Peter Stegmaier at TSG in Dortmund and led by Stefan Kuhlmann in Twente.

Phil Johnstone, SPRU, is Research Fellow on the project. In this role, Phil is primarily responsible for data collection, as well as dissemination and the authoring papers along with Andy Stirling and Frank Geels (Manchester).

The ‘Nuclear Futures’ conference 2013

Association of American Geographers (AAG) annual conference 2014