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Recalibrating nuclear risk

Life is a risky business. We are exposed to an unending cascade of risks, with some deemed “worse” than others, writes John Lindberg of World Nuclear Association. Since the 1970s, a considerable amount of psychological research dedicated to understanding why we often ignore some of the statistically biggest risks (e.g. driving, smoking), whilst fearing some of the smallest (e.g. nuclear power), has concluded that factors such as emotions, mental imagery, and trust, are central to the way we assess risks. Few risks elicit as strong a response as radiation, especially when in connection with nuclear power, largely thanks to its invisibility, links with cancer, and media portrayals.

The reality is that nuclear has always been – and remains – an exceptionally safe source of energy, representing the lowest risk, the most sustainable, and the most affordable way to generate round-the-clock electricity. Nevertheless, nuclear power remains regarded as uniquely dangerous by a substantial part of the public. This has hampered the deployment of nuclear power worldwide. It has also, paradoxically, and tragically, resulted in considerable human suffering and environmental degradation as fossil fuels have been de facto favoured over nuclear, causing many millions of premature deaths due to air pollution and the compounding of the climate crisis. The detrimental effects of decades of looking at nuclear risks in isolation highlights just how crucial it is that we recalibrate our relationship with risk.

A first step is the establishment of a level playing field amongst all energy producing technologies, ensuring that they are placed in perspective and the appropriate context. Earlier today, World Nuclear Association published its latest white paper – Recalibrating risk: Putting nuclear risk in context and perspective – which makes a single ask: that policymakers and regulators adopt an all-hazards approach to decision making and regulations connected to energy. This includes the recalibration of existing regulations regarding nuclear power and radiation, guaranteeing that the cost of any regulatory measures – new and existing – is properly weighed against the societal, environmental, and economic benefits that nuclear energy provides.

The adoption of an all-hazards approach would be a paradigm shift, where we must depart from only looking at the costs (be they economic, environmental, or public health) associated with individual power plants, towards looking at the costs associated with the use of a specific energy source (or its alternatives) at a societal level. This would require a more holistic regulatory process, in which regulators move away from siloes where specific risks are reviewed in isolation, with little regard for the broader picture. This would require greater coordination between regulators, ensuring that the risks of a specific nuclear project are weighed against the risks posed by not advancing said project.

Equally, the adoption of an all-hazards approach means regulators should consider declaring when a risk is too low to be a public health concern. In the context of nuclear power, this means departing from the notion that the current regulatory regime promotes (i.e. that there is no safe level of radiation) and instead adopting a regulatory framework which notes, and incorporates, the impossibility of eradicating risks. Failing to do so will result in the continuation of excessive regulations that limit the full potential of nuclear power and will cement a continued reliance on objectively more harmful energy sources.

A major component in ensuring the successful recalibration of nuclear risk is public perception. Regulation and perception are closely intertwined, with ample evidence that public perception impacts regulations, and vice versa. This makes the recalibration more challenging as the regulatory regime around radiation suggests that radiation is somehow uniquely dangerous, which stems from a failure to contextualise its risks. However, if regulators want to update regulations in a way that makes them less extreme and more holistic, public perception will likely make that difficult, as it would invariably be construed as exposing the public to a risk that the regulators previously said is very dangerous. Indeed, this was very clearly seen when the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) attempted to implement its Below Regulatory Concern policy in the 1980s and early 1990s. The idea of classifying certain radioactive materials as “Below Regulatory Concern” caused public outrage, and the NRC was forced to retract this first step towards a more holistic regulatory regime.

There is much work to be done before we will normalise radiation and nuclear power, and there will be a need for considerable financial and intellectual investments in order to make this happen. The resolution of the perception question will be central to unlocking the awesome potential of the atom, and it will require that the nuclear industry learns from its failures, ejects old practices, and starts to challenge head on the many myths and lies that surround nuclear energy. The nuclear industry needs to accept that its standard response to public concern about radiation – “give people the facts and they will come to accept nuclear” – simply does not work, something thoroughly confirmed by decades-worth of research. This is down to the simple fact that emotions, imagery, trust, and several different heuristics and biases are central to shaping our understanding of risk, not facts. Given that the past 50 years of public conversation surrounding nuclear power have been dominated by the scary and sensationalist discourse of the anti-nuclear lobby, it would be more surprising if people were not afraid of radiation. From a psychological perspective, it would even be fair to say that this fear is “rational”, given that the vast majority of risks are learned and socialised.

The risk conversation is by no means new to the nuclear industry. Indeed, we have been grappling with it since the 1960s. However, it is painfully clear that the adopted approach to risk communication has not worked. The nuclear industry has failed to incorporate the many and invaluable lessons offered by breakthroughs in social psychology and behavioural science. Nuclear power has the potential to truly revolutionise life as we know it, but in order to deliver on this transformational promise, we need to urgently reform both the way the industry communicates about nuclear risk, and the way nuclear is regulated. Today’s publication of Recalibrating risk is a first step, and it furnishes policy makers with a starting point for an action plan on how to best deliver the true power of the atom around the world.

John C.H. Lindberg FRSA

Lead author of “Recalibrating risk: Putting nuclear risk in context and perspective” & Public Affairs Manager, World Nuclear Association

Source: World Nuclear News