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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Powered by technology or powering technology?—Belief-based decision-making in nuclear power and synthetic fuel
by Yang, Chi-Jen, Ph.D., Princeton University, 2008, 348; 3305295
Abstract (Summary)

The overarching question in this study is how and why technical-fixes in energy policy failed. In the post-WWII era, civilian nuclear power and synthetic fuel had both been top priorities on the U.S. national policy agenda during certain periods of time. Nuclear power was promoted and pursued persistently with great urgency for over two decades. In contrast, synthetic fuel policy suffered from boom-and-bust cycles. The juxtaposition of policy histories of nuclear power and synthetic fuel highlights many peculiarities in policymaking. The U.S. government forcefully and consistently endorsed the development of civilian nuclear power for two decades. It adopted policies to establish the competitiveness of civilian nuclear power far beyond what would have occurred under free-market conditions. Even though synthetic fuel was characterized by a similar level of economic potential and technical feasibility, the policy approach toward synthetic fuel was almost the opposite of nuclear power. Political support usually stopped when the development of synthetic fuel technology encountered economic difficulties. The contrast between the unfaltering faith in nuclear power and the indeterminate attitude toward synthetic fuel raises many important questions.

I argue that these diverging paths of development can be explained by exploring the dominant government ideology of the time or “ideology of the state” as the sociology literature describes it. The price-determining approach was a result of government preoccupied with fighting the Cold War. The U.S. intentionally idealized and deified nuclear power to serve its Cold War psychological strategy. These psychological maneuverings attached important symbolic meaning to nuclear power. The society-wide enthusiasm and resulting bandwagon market are better understood by taking the role of symbolism in the political arena into account. On the other hand, a “welfare state” ideology that stood behind synthetic fuel was confused, indeterminate, and relatively impotent, which explains the hesitancy in the government’s synfuel endeavors.

In retrospect, it is not difficult to see that many of the pivotal decisions were “belief-based”. Due to the long-term nature of energy planning and the inherent unpredictability of the distant future, important energy investment decisions are inevitably based on decision-makers’ beliefs. Unfortunately, many generally agreed views about the future turned out to be wrong. Shared beliefs are socially constructed and reflect particular zeitgeists. Another important finding is a recurrent herding phenomenon in the forecasters’ community. This phenomenon largely explains the repeated forecasting fallacies. As history reveals itself, shared beliefs about the long-term future have been repeatedly proven wrong. Nevertheless, mistakes caused by misguided beliefs often survive. As culture evolves over the long-term, an old belief system, i.e. a worldview/zeitgeist, may be challenged by a new one. Two competing worldviews underlay the pro- and antinuclear controversies: one embraces modernism while the other is skeptical of it.

Long-lived, large-scale capital-intensive energy facilities, such as nuclear power plants, are inevitably encumbered with unique “outlived-zeitgeist” jeopardy. Understanding this peculiar but pervasive characteristic teaches important lessons for today’s decision-making about hydrogen and other energy technologies, and the stakes, if anything, are even higher than before.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Oppenheimer, Michael
School: Princeton University
School Location: United States -- New Jersey
Source: DAI-A 69/03, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Science history, Public administration, Energy
Keywords: Decision-making, Energy, Ideology, Nuclear power, Synthetic fuel, Technology policy
Publication Number: 3305295
ISBN: 978-0-549-51410-7
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