Independent regulators should play a greater role in communicating the risks associated with energy generation and distribution because the government is not considered as an impartial source of information, according to a report from the UK parliament's Science and Technology Committee.
The Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011 le to mixed public and political reactions around the world, with some countries continuing with their civil nuclear programs and others withdrawing. The committee was interested in how public reactions to the same risk could vary so markedly and decided to conduct an inquiry into public risk perceptions in relation to energy infrastructure. The inquiry, it said, has enabled it to explore two key questions: firstly, what are the risk perceptions associated with energy infrastructure; and secondly, how they should be factored into policy processes.
"The UK government's position as an advocate for nuclear power makes it difficult for the public to trust it as an impartial source of information," the committee said. "In our view, this perceived lack of impartiality further emphasises the importance of government demonstrating that all energy policies are strongly based on rigorous scientific evidence."
"We recommend that information should be disseminated using existing sources, with a focus on developing the public profile of independent regulators as trusted and authoritative information sources."
Science and Technology Committee
Technically competent public bodies that are independent of government - such as the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) and the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) - are "in a unique position to engender public trust and influence risk perceptions." The committee suggests that, in addition to providing risk information for technical audiences, regulators should also make greater efforts to communicate risk to the public and develop their role as trusted sources of information for lay people.
The report notes that comparisons of risk from different energy sources do not always change risk perceptions because they don't take the influence of 'fright factors' into account. It says that not everyone is interested in understanding energy risks and the roles of various stakeholders. "The government ... should evaluate the public appetite for risk information and consider how this information would be best disseminated," the committee suggests. "We recommend that information should be disseminated using existing sources, with a focus on developing the public profile of independent regulators as trusted and authoritative information sources."
The committee also calls on regulators and other information sources to emphasise to the public that exceeding recommended minimal radiation exposure levels may not pose any risk to people or the environment - and that safety thresholds may allow for significantly greater radiation exposure to occur without significant risk to health or the environment.
The committee concludes that government, working with industry, regulators, social scientists and communities, should produce guidance on best practice in risk communication for those living near existing or proposed nuclear facilities.
It considers that public risk perceptions must be understood and taken into account when policies are developed, but that public views are one form of evidence that must be balanced against political, ethical and scientific considerations," the report concludes. "In our view, basing policies firmly on evidence from independent, impartial, scientific sources and engaging in robust risk dialogue at local and national levels are the best way to ensure public confidence."
Miller commented: "The public must be able to trust the information it receives on the risks of nuclear power and other energy technologies - such as fracking or carbon capture and storage. Developing the public profile of independent regulators as trusted and authoritative sources may be one way of increasing public trust and understanding of such risks."
Welcoming the findings of the report, Keith Parker, chief executive of the UK's Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), said: "Although evidence shows that nuclear generation is the safest form of energy generation, perception of risk is not always in step with objective risks. This makes it vitally important that the public and media can access reliable, credible and independent information, upon which public policy decisions are based."
Researched and written
by World Nuclear News