Probing the potential of citizen science in the governance of nuclear incidents, accidents, and post-disaster situations

Kenens Joke


Van Hoyweghen Ine, (KUL),

SCK•CEN Mentor

Van Oudheusden Michiel
+32 14 33 80 13

SCK•CEN Co-mentor

Turcanu Catrinel
+32 14 33 21 02

Expert group

Nuclear Science and Technology Studies

PhD started


Short project description

Citizen science is a form of science developed and enacted by citizens, typically with volunteers collecting and/or analyzing various kinds of data (Irwin 1995). As it serves public purposes (e.g. supporting recovery efforts, educational goals), citizen science has the potential to broaden scientific research, while facilitating public participation in decision-making.
In the aftermath of the nuclear accident in Fukushima, citizen science has demonstrably contributed to filling knowledge and information gaps, as citizens in the affected areas monitor radioactivity in the environment and communicate about environmental risks (e.g. Citizens’ Radioactivity Monitoring Project , ,  Monitoring of this kind enables citizens to assess their own risk regarding radioactivity and provides real-time field data, which could be very useful for crisis management, especially in the early phases of a crisis. Furthermore, it can initiate contextual learning about disasters and assist in post-trauma disaster recovery (Morris-Suzuki 2014).
Taking these insights as an entry point, this PhD project assesses the governance potential of citizen science in incidents/accidents, emergency situations, and its role in post-disaster recovery at large. The ambition of the project is to add a practical dimension to the theoretical study of citizen science, by designing, testing and evaluating a first of its kind field study with lay citizens. To fully exploit this opportunity, the PhD study will be integrated in the ongoing activities of the SCK-CEN in the field of emergency planning and response, as well as the related international networks and projects (e.g. the European technical platform NERIS  for emergency management and rehabilitation and the CONCERT project).
The project proceeds in four consecutive steps:
i) examination of past and present citizen science initiatives connected to nuclear incidents and accidents in countries where such initiatives have emerged. These countries include Japan, the UK, and USA.
ii) design and execution of a small-scale field exercise with lay citizens in Belgium using smartphone applications to measure radioactivity in the environment.
iii) building on i) and ii), conceptualization of the social spaces in which citizen science emerges, ascertaining which knowledge, information and decision-making gaps citizen science fills; and determining which collective lessons can be drawn to ensure a better preparedness and recovery after accidents.
iv) assessment with stakeholders (FANC-AFCN, municipal authorities, radiological experts, civil society organizations, local communities) of local demands for, and challenges of, public involvement in nuclear incidents, accidents, and post-disaster situations. 
The project moves beyond traditional risk and impact assessments approaches that downplay the social and contextual dimensions of nuclear technologies and their uses. Instead, it explores, conceptualizes, and configures new “social spaces” that actively involve new actors like local residents in disaster governance (Rip & Joly 2012). As recent experiences in Japan indicate, social scientists can and must devise ways of linking these informal, citizen-initiated spaces to more formal, institutionalised ones (Yoshizawa 2015). Although the project centers on nuclear and radiological emergencies, it will also draw lessons for connected sociotechnical fields, such as chemical environmental pollution and natural disasters.
Irwin, A. (1995). Citizen science: A study of people, expertise and sustainable development. Psychology Press.
Morris-Suzuki, T. (2014). Touching the Grass: Science, Uncertainty and Everyday Life from Chernobyl to Fukushima. Science, Technology & Society 19:3 (2014): 331-362.
Rip, A. & Joly, P.B. (2012). Emerging Spaces and Governance: A position paper for EU-SPRI; retrieved from
Yoshizawa, G. (2015). A new mode of nuclear technology governance in the post-Fukushima age. Research Paper presented at SCK•CEN. October 12, 2015.


l The main goal of the proposed PhD thesis is to assess the potential of citizen science in governing nuclear incidents/accidents and the role citizen science can play in emergency preparedness and post-disaster recovery.
The thesis’s subgoals are:
1) to review and compare citizen science initiatives in countries with a rich citizen science tradition in the nuclear field;
2) to design and test with crisis management and dosimetry experts a small-scale field exercise involving citizens in the monitoring of environmental radioactivity;
3) to develop new concepts that grasp and explain the mutual shaping of citizen science and the social spaces it inhabits;
4) to open a debate among nuclear emergency stakeholders about the needs and challenges of engaging publics in emergency preparedness and post-accident recovery.