Advanced Nuclear Technologies Interdisciplinary Research Challenge 4: Design and fund a 3-year public/private initiative to better understand and bridge the perception/reality gap between the public and nuclear experts on the risks of the nuclear enterprise and to restore the public trust.
Fifty years ago, approximately half of the general U.S. population believed that a nuclear reactor could explode like a nuclear weapon, though this is physically impossible. In light of Chernobyl and Fukushima, it would not be surprising to find that at least half of today’s population would believe the same and not trust assurances of experts to the contrary. In fact, these and other disasters, the lack of an implemented waste solution, and other problems have made early and continued assurances by the nuclear community as to the outstanding safety, security and environmental record of nuclear power ring hollow to many.
Much the same can be said of nuclear risk-related communication programs. This lack of “better understanding” comes in spite of many efforts in the succeeding decades by the industry and nuclear scientists to communicate the risks in a clearer more compelling fashion. This continues to hamper and introduce uncertainty into the nuclear power industry. There is much to be learned by the public, but there is also much to be learned by the nuclear community about risk communication and the development of public trust.
Today there is no operating repository for the permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste anywhere in the world. The U.S. program, to develop and license the Yucca Mountain, Nevada site in the US was brought to a halt in part due to unrelenting political and public opposition. But significant progress is being made elsewhere in the world and we can expect to see operation of the first such repositories in Finland and Sweden in the coming decade or so, and France and Canada are making substantial progress after stopping and recalibrating their programs. We have also seen the continued success at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico where transuranic (not high-level) wastes from defense related activities have been disposed in a program that has now gone on for over a decade and leaves the host community asking for a broader waste mission.
The resistance to nuclear technology among the general public springs for a variety of reasons. People are often highly emotional and afraid of the risks of radiation while they will have an X-ray or take a transcontinental flight without a second thought. Explanations of relative risks by experts are often conflicting, difficult to understand, and caveated by scientists in ways that undermine confidence. The classic NIMBY reaction is also much in evidence as people are both afraid of having nuclear facilities nearby and worried about the stigma effect that can have real or perceived impacts on their lives.
The differences in public trust and public acceptance for nuclear medicine and nuclear power are stark and enormous. The U.S. public has been accepting more and more radiation exposures in medical treatments over the past two decades with little resistance while the public reaction to the siting of nuclear power facilities and nuclear waste management facilities, in particular, has been fierce. What lessons can be learned by each community from the experiences of the other? What can we learn from the success of others?
The challenge is for the nuclear community to understand that the resistance is not the public or the media’s fault and to fashion a different way of engagement and communication to bridge the gap in ways that may inform the nuclear community as much as the public.
What do we know about the U.S. public’s appreciation and understanding of nuclear technology and the associated risks? What can we learn from public acceptance of increasing medical exposures?
What do we know about risk communication writ large and how can these lessons be applied to the nuclear enterprise?
What can we learn from public acceptance of nuclear in other nations and in successful U.S. programs?
How have programs in the US and abroad dealt with enhancing public trust and confidence and what lessons can be learned from their successes and failures?
Can we design an initiative that invites in a broader constituency of expertise related to the topic with the objective to not only improve risk perception among the general public but improve risk communication among the nuclear community? Can we tie this to a better understanding of not just what is communicated but how the engagement process works to improve public understanding and public acceptance?
Report to the Secretary of Energy. The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future: 2012.
One step at a time: the staged development of geologic repositories for high-level radioactive waste. National Academies Press: Washington DC, 2003.
Alerting America: effective risk communication : summary of a forum. National Academies Press: Washington DC, 2002.
Choosing a way forward: the future of Canada’s used nuclear fuel. The Canadian Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO): 2005.
Dunlap RE, Kraft ME, and Rosa EA, eds. Public reactions to nuclear waste: citizen’s views of repository siting. Duke University Press: Durham NC, 1993.
Freudenburg WR and Rosa EA, eds. Public reaction to nuclear power: are there critical masses? Westview Press for the American Association for the Advancement of Science: Washington DC, 1984.
Jenkins-Smith HC. Public beliefs, concerns and preferences regarding the management of used nuclear fuel and high level radioactive waste. Report for The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future: February 2011.
Acknowledgements: NAKFI would like to acknowledge the late Eugene A. Rosa of Washington State University for his significant contributions to this area. Gene was University Professor of sociology and the Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor of Natural Resource and Environmental Policy. Gene was a pioneer in research exploring the sociologic aspects of nuclear engagement and communication.