Chatham House nuclear analyst Malcolm Grimston explains why he believes the nuclear industry has made itself an easy target for people's fears.
There is I think a traditional view of risk perception – certain things go on, or we think they might go on, which cause us to worry more than we otherwise would. If we can remove these things – by stopping the activity, improving its safety standards or helping people to ‘understand’ how safe it is and so remove ‘irrational’ fears – then people will be happier.
But there is little evidence for this. In the developed world, life today is a much less risky business, day-to-day, than is the historical or geographical norm. As Polly Toynbee once said, ‘The world has become a terrifyingly safe place. Clean, healthy, predictable, relatively crime-free, children don’t die much, most people live to a ripe old age, journeys are no longer a dangerous adventure, epidemics don’t sweep us away – life is dull, dull, dull.’ Yet societal concerns about low levels of risk run at a high level, most notably in periods when there seem to be few external threats. ‘How extraordinary! The richest, longest lived, best protected, most resourceful civilisation, with the highest degree of insight into its own technology, is on its way to becoming the most frightened.’ (Aaron Wildavsky.)
It seems that many of us live at our own level of anxiety and unhappiness whatever the external environment, finding aspects of the world on which to focus these concerns. As Schopenhauer noted nearly 200 years ago, ‘All willing springs from suffering. Fulfilment brings this to an end; yet for one wish that is fulfilled there remain at least ten that are denied. Even the final satisfaction itself is only apparent; the wish fulfilled at once makes way for a new one.’ Indeed, paradoxically we can appear unhappier, as societies and individuals, when life is going well than when some external threat binds us together. It is often observed that suicide rates and industrial disputes, for example, fall during wartime and some people of the era claim that the years of the Second World War were among their happiest. The anxiety we feel when things go well is a different type – more diffuse, less focussed on particular risk stimuli, and therefore not apparently amenable to collective remedial action. So we end up focussed on the particular (alleged) victims of relatively trivial risks like phone masts without the same hope that we can do anything very significant to improve matters.
This implies we might take another perspective on risk perception. Each of us lives or lives at a pretty constant level of misery (which differs between individuals but not materially within any one of us, moments of agony and ecstacy notwithstanding). We cast about our environment for ways of justifying this anxiety. If there is a war, economic collapse or social unrest that does nicely; if there is no such ‘real’ problem to hand we latch onto non-risks such as mobile phone masts, mad cow disease, MMR vaccination, low level radiation and so on.
For industries like nuclear energy, then, the question is what are we doing to make my business a credible candidate for this fear? A few possibilities come to mind.
First is simple visibility – an industry that pushes itself forward may be in danger of attracting anxiety alongside any benefits, especially if its communications are of the ‘we’re not as bad as you thought we were’ type (full page advertisements about nuclear waste for example which were common the 1980s).
Secondly, we tend to make up our minds in areas of which we know little far more on the basis of the credibility of the source than on what is said. When I have been to a talk on something new, within two or three weeks I have generally forgotten almost everything which was said but can remember for years the impression the speaker made on me at the time, which colours my views of the subject. So those industries which send out people who are wrong for an audience, who seem autocratic, superior, unconcerned about people’s genuine anxieties are likely to meet with mistrust however convinced they are of the rightness of their case.
Thirdly, the message must make sense. I have heard nuclear PR people saying that intermediate level waste, for example, is about as harmful as petrol or paintstripper – could do damage if abused but safe if handled properly – and then go on to explain that it is so safe that we intend to bury it 800 metres underground in facilities that will hold it for thousands of years. One of these statements may be true but surely both cannot be – the rational response to receiving such claims is first, this stuff must be the most dangerous mankind has ever produced because we don’t treat anything else like this, and secondly these people are insulting our intelligence and we won’t believe a word they say in future. It always amuses me how the industry claims that it is the general public which is irrational! Similarly, boasting that the industry goes beyond regulatory requirements is a good way of causing worry – not only does the material need such cosseting but even the industry does not trust the regulators to be tough enough.
The overall result of much of the nuclear industry’s risk communication strategy over several years has, in my mind, been to put forward nuclear energy as a prime candidate for the anxiety people are looking to justify. If nuclear energy is to fulfil what I believe is its rightful place in addressing our triple challenges in terms of energy security, energy prices and protecting the environment then it would be a good move, in my view, to start looking at risk from the standpoint of the perceiver or risk rather than from the features of the technology itself.
Malcolm Grimston is an Associate Fellow in the Energy, Environment and Development Programme at Chatham House, home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs think tank. Prior to this, he was Information Advisor at the British Nuclear Industry Forum from 1992-5, and Information Officer at the UK Atomic Energy Authority from 1987-93. He is also co-author of Double or Quits – the global future of civil nuclear energy (click here to purchase).