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Press reporting on nuclear waste repository projects in Finland and France: would watchdog journalism undermine a high-trust society?

Published on 26.3.2021
Tampere University
viitekuvassa ydinvoimapolttoaineen loppusijoituskapseli. Kuva: Wikimedia Commons
The leading newspapers in two nuclear waste management forerunner countries, Finland and France, fulfil their “watchdog” roles in highly distinct ways. The Finnish Helsingin Sanomat (HS) tends to reproduce government and industry framing, whereas Le Monde cherishes its role as an independent critic of the powers to be.

The differences also reflect distinct cultural, political, and media traditions.

“The French critical watchdog model fulfils its function in a liberal democracy based on mistrust towards the governing elites, but would it backfire in Finland by undermining the very institutional trust that the Nordic democracies have been built upon throughout history?” asks Research Fellow Markku Lehtonen from Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

The study published in the Risks, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy journal examined nuclear waste reporting – in particular on the issues of risk and safety – in Helsingin Sanomat and Le Monde from 2005 to 2018.

In its reporting on the final disposal of nuclear waste, Helsingin Sanomat focuses on “performance‐relevant information” exhibiting strong confidence in the safety and viability of the repository project, and trust in the actors behind the project. Le Monde prioritised “morality-relevant information”, highlighting the challenges of trust and mistrust between the involved parties, and, to a lesser extent, reflecting scepticism in relation to the viability and safety of the project.

Where Helsingin Sanomat underlined the consistent advancement towards a reliably operating repository, Le Monde evoked the numerous uncertainties and obstacles still facing the repository project, including the multiple conflicts and controversies among the involved actors.

“Le Monde constantly evoked the ambiguous legacy of the French nuclear sector, as a symbol of modernisation, technological prowess, and economic prosperity, but also as an incarnation of failed promises. Helsingin Sanomat, in turn, underlined continuity, predictability, and certainty. It described the Finnish repository project as a success story essential for the national interest,” Lehtonen points out.

In evoking intergenerational equity, Helsingin Sanomat repeated the government and industry argument that a repository spares future generations from having to tackle the waste problem. By contrast, Le Monde reminded of a major dilemma: burying waste in a repository would deprive future generations of the freedom to decide what to do with the waste, including the possibility that technological development would make it possible to use waste as a resource.

“The findings help to understand why the nuclear waste disposal project has advanced in such an unproblematic manner in Finland,” notes Postdoctoral Research Fellow Matti Kojo from Tampere University.

The research group has previously compared, among other things, the conditions of citizens’ participation, the role of host communities, and press reporting on nuclear waste management in Finland and Sweden. The research has been funded primarily by the Finnish Research Programme on Nuclear Waste Management, but also by the European Commission through the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowships scheme.

Tampere University has coordinated the research that has also involved scholars from the Universities of Jyväskylä, Finland, and Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, Spain.

The now published research examined nuclear waste reporting – in particular on the issues of risk and safety – in Helsingin Sanomat and Le Monde from 2005 to 2018. The final set of material for analysis included only those articles in which the country’s own repository project was a central topic (135 articles in HS and 210 in Le Monde). During the analysis period, both countries' repository projects were advancing towards implementation: Finland expects to become the first in the world, with its ONKALO repository that will become operational by the mid-2020s, while France’s Cigéo facility is to start operating in the early 2030s.

Markku Lehtonen, Matti Kojo, Mika Kari, Tapio Litmanen:
Healthy mistrust or complacent confidence? Civic vigilance in the reporting by leading newspapers on nuclear waste disposal in Finland and France, Risks, Hazards, & Crisis in Public Policy. 2021; 1–28,

Finnish Research Programme on Nuclear Waste Management (KYT2022) 2019-2022
Research Fellow Markku Lehtonen, markku.lehtonen [at]
Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Project Manager, Matti Kojo, matti.kojo [at]
Tampere University, Faculty of Management and Business