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Why We Say Nuclear Is Safe – And Why We Shouldn’t

Very few products market their safety.

For example, airlines do not advertise how many days it’s been since their last crash. In recent presentations, UK nuclear advocate Malcolm Grimston has taken the nuclear industry to task for its safety messaging approach.  He says safety is not the product. In a recent speech, he compared the nuclear industry that uses only facts to the Brexit Remain campaign, unable to counter the emotional arguments of the Leave side. In the case of the Brexit “Remain” vote, the facts were not enough.

Grimston is not alone. There is much research and literature on the perils of exclusively communicating facts. On some level, fear of nuclear can be a psychological phenomenon. Risk communication expert Peter Sandman says the risks likely to kill people are not necessarily the risks that concern them. There seems to be no correlation between the likelihood and severity of hazard and public fear. Many risks make people outraged but do little harm and other risks result in millions of deaths each year with little public outcry.

Then there is the backfire effect, which alarmingly shows that facts often don’t matter.  A Dartmouth experiment showed subjects two news stories – one with a misleading claim from President George W. Bush and the other with the claim plus a correction. Conservatives who read a news story which suggested Iraq had WMDs followed by a correction from a CIA study that indicated the opposite were more likely to believe Iraq had WMDs than Conservatives who read the story without the correction.  The research found that the effect of a correction is dependent upon one’s ideological predisposition. People engage in motivated reasoning. That’s because humans are goal-driven information processors, which means they interpret any information, positive or negative, to support their bias. Hence the backfire effect.

Despite what Grimston implies, the nuclear industry isn’t putting out facts about safety because it wants to. This is not happening in an experimental vacuum. A good deal of the safety messaging is to counter media coverage. Most people are aware of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. As this is written, a simple Google News search shows “Three Mile Island and nuclear” has a result from five hours ago, “Chernobyl and nuclear” has a result from two hours ago, and “Fukushima and nuclear” has a story from three hours ago. Nuclear energy runs 24/7, but so does news coverage of accidents that happened as far back as 38 years ago.

There is also the problem of frequency. People may perceive a greater probability of risk in something of which they are reminded on regular basis, whether it be by friends or the media.

In the mid-1960s, polling showed that a decrease in the amount of news coverage about nuclear power resulted in a decrease in opposition. But in 1968, news coverage of siting controversies increased the percentage of people opposed to nuclear. This trend was also seen in 1979 after the incident at Three Mile Island. Opposition increased in the two months after the accident in the spring, then steadily declined over the summer only to increase again in October and November when the media covered the Congressional report on the accident.

The media practice of featuring dueling experts in stories or on TV panels can have a negative impact on the nuclear industry’s safety message. This type of format leads to the public often concluding, “Well, if experts can’t agree then nuclear energy probably isn’t safe.”

Syracuse University sociologist Allan Mazur has found expert debates on technical subjects only increase public opposition to a technology. This means the media’s need to have a balance in coverage leads to a misconception that nuclear is not safe. Much like U.S. cable news networks have been criticized by environmentalists for giving too big a platform to climate change skeptics, an over exposure to the public of opposing views without factoring the scientific consensus can skew coverage of climate change or nuclear safety. “Thus truth in journalism is quite different from truth in science,” as Sandman has written.

Given this, what can those of us in the nuclear industry do?  Grimston’s advice to extol the benefits of nuclear can be effective. Polling conducted for the CNA has shown that providing respondents with positive information about nuclear in addition to safety, such as its role in climate change mitigation and how it can help those living in energy poverty or remote communities, can change opinions. Pre-information, 22 per cent of respondents supported nuclear, 31 per cent opposed and 47 per cent were undecided. Post information the number increased to 37 per cent in favour. While most of those opposed remained opposed, seven per cent of them supported nuclear post information and 36 per cent moved into the undecided group.