by Susan Cohen
How can we convey the benefits and risks of nuclear power in a balanced way to a public who are often ill-informed and mistrustful? Where can unbiased clarification of concepts such as radiation, fuel cycle or waste management be found? What approach can best work with nuclear sceptics?
In August 2015 — during her presentation at a Women in Nuclear (WiN) Global conference in Vienna — an Austrian expert working in radioactive waste management at Nuclear Engineering Seibersdorf reported about being subjected to verbal abuse from her compatriots when she ‘confessed’ she was a nuclear engineer. Recently, during a casual conversation with colleagues in a downtown café, a stranger at the next table — overhearing that we worked at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — accused us of supporting a deadly industry that should be banned. Such erratic, emotional assertions thwart rational, coherent discussion on nuclear energy applications.
A deep-rooted mistrust towards authorities and governments is a major obstacle to open-minded curiosity about nuclear technology. Nuclear science has been a rather ‘dark’ issue, stemming from nuclear-weapon programmes. Many people don’t discriminate between the military and peaceful uses of nuclear power. Electricity producers and scientists in their ivory towers tend to regard it as too complicated to be understood by the general public, which has led to fear and scepticism. Power plant accidents such as those at Three Mile Island (1797), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) have increased people’s anxiety and mistrust.
Anti-nuclear movements have taken on political and moral dimensions that have little to do with nuclear science and technology and its use as a baseload energy source. Public ignorance about nuclear — generally at the root of fear and suspicion — can be diminished by the acquisition of knowledge, which should facilitate comprehension. A wealth of information is available and easily accessible.
Nuclear knowledge resources
Sources of valid, science-based information include the relevant departments of universities, hospitals and research institutes, and also specialized international organizations. For explanations of the many applications of nuclear energy, the IAEA website is a valuable, reader-friendly reference. Descriptions can be found of its current activities worldwide in nuclear safety and security, safeguards, human and animal health, and technical assistance for nuclear-related programmes that promote social and economic wellbeing. https://www.iaea.org/
Irrational fear of ionizing radiation comes from not knowing what it is. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) is mandated to assess and report levels and effects of exposure to ionizing radiation and to validate radiation measurements worldwide. https://www.unscear.org/ In 2016, UNSCEAR issued a booklet entitled Radiation: effects and sources. The booklet— using language and figures easily understood by interested readers without a scientific background — explains what ionizing radiation is, presents a short history of radiation research, and lists types and sources of radiation and effects of exposure. It is now available in 12 languages and three more about to be published. https://www.unscear.org/unscear/en/publications/radiation-effects-and-sources.html
For up-to-the-minute news about the nuclear industry, the World Nuclear Association’s (WNA’s) World Nuclear News (WNN) weekly newsletter is an excellent resource. The newsletter can be received by email on request to email@example.com. Another easily accessible resource is the recently-founded Open Nuclear Network (ONN), whose goal is “to reduce the risk that nuclear weapons are used in response to error, uncertainty or misdirection, particularly in the context of escalating conflict, using innovation, inclusion and dialogue supported by open source data”. https://opennuclear.org/ ONN’s multilingual team of analysts collect and organize open-source data, which they share with decision makers in order to foster dialogue and de-escalate nuclear threat.
All the above organizations engage in outreach to inform the public. Yet, their efforts are undermined in social media, which are infested with fake news, conspiracy theories, and warped half-truths. Proven fact versus biased opinion, peer-reviewed science versus dodgy pseudo-science — how can all this be sifted even by an interested truth-seeking audience, let alone by a prejudiced, ill-educated one?
Communicating information about nuclear and its many applications — fascinating and complex as it is — isn’t easy because it must be done in a way that people can understand and appreciate. First, attract their attention, arouse their curiosity and give them easy access to nuclear knowledge. Then, help them to discriminate between real and false information — even more difficult since this requires skills that many do not possess.
A recent ONN essay entitled Combating nuclear misinformation and disinformation points out that both unintentional misinformation and deliberate disinformation can undermine and compromise the analysis of open-source information, including scientific literature relating to nuclear non-proliferation. Countering the spread of false ‘facts’ requires advanced technical understanding of the problem and the development and deployment of adequate tools and approaches.
Indeed, conveying the real facts about nuclear to an audience lacking analytical skills is an educational and ethical challenge. Yet, sound knowledge about how nuclear affects our lives is essential for society to function well.
How can knowledge about nuclear be acquired by an often uninterested or sceptical public? It just needs to be effectively communicated, understood and processed. More easily said than done! Simplistically put, sceptics are of two types — those who are willing to listen and learn and those who are not. Rather than becoming embroiled in arguments with the latter, let us encourage discussion with the more open-minded. In the public arena, green movements — partly thanks to young activists like Greta Thunberg — are realizing that nuclear is needed to replace fossil fuel as a clean source of baseload energy. Films are a powerful educational tool. Notably, the 2013 documentary Pandora’s Promise — https://www.ans.org/news/article-1342/pandoras-promise/ —reveals how a group of anti-nuke environmentalists came to realize that nuclear energy was clean and environmentally friendly.
Here are some obvious ones, which must be underpinned by ironclad scientific references. Nuclear vs. fossil fuels:: Environment — nuclear energy production is low-carbon, non-polluting. Plant fuel supply — uranium is abundant and renewable. Production costs — nuclear energy has lower total cost of operation, maintenance and fuel. Nuclear vs. other renewables: Sustainability — nuclear energy output is constant; hydro, solar and wind are intermittent. Baseload power (for critical infrastructure, including buildings, transport and industry) — many hundreds of wind turbines and millions of solar panels would be needed to reach the output of a single nuclear power reactor. Land use (footprint) — A 1,000 MW nuclear facility needs just over one square mile. An equivalent capacity wind farm would need up to 360 square miles and a solar facility up to 75 square miles.
Nuclear remains a ‘hot topic’. It is of utmost importance for the public to recognize reliable sources of information. Science education, including nuclear, cannot begin early enough. It should start in kindergarten, with appropriate teaching material. From childhood onwards, people should learn to think critically and to use information wisely, discriminating between reliable and unreliable sources — a crucial brief for teachers at all levels. Above all, we need to listen to nuclear sceptics and respond to their doubts and fears. We need to anticipate questions, doubts and areas of confusion and be well prepared to address them, also on social media where much disinformation is posted. We have the data, so we need to communicate nuclear information effectively. After all, knowledge can lead to wisdom.
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