UK report calls for regulators to take a more prominent role in communication

10 July 2012

Independent regulators should take a more prominent role in communicating the risks associated with energy generation and distribution because the government is not seen as an impartial source of information, MPs on the UK Government’s Science and Technology Committee have concluded.

The conclusion comes following an inquiry into public risk perception and the energy infrastructure by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. The Committee published a report on risk communication: “Devil’s Bargain? Energy Risks and the Public” on 9 July.

Public distrust of governments as providers of risk information is evident across Europe, the report says, adding that 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.

“Technically competent public bodies that are independent of Government - such as the Health & Safety Executive and Office for Nuclear Regulation - are in a much better position to engender public trust and influence risk perceptions,” according to the report.

The Committee called on these regulators to make greater efforts to communicate risk to the public and develop their role as trusted sources of information for lay people, in addition to providing risk information for technical audiences.

Andrew Miller MP, and chairman of the committee said: “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."

The report also warns that there is a lack of strategic coordination across Government when it comes to risk communication. It recommends that a senior individual in Government should lead a Risk Communication Strategy team, drawing together existing expertise within departments and public bodies – and be visibly responsible for overseeing risk communication.

The Committee also recommends that the Government should play a key role in influencing the review of the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES), which is being led by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The report says that the decision to class the Fukushima accident at the same 'Level Seven' magnitude as Chernobyl - despite there being significantly lower levels of radioactive material released into the atmosphere and no deaths directly attributable to the accident - demonstrates the need to revise the scale used to communicate the magnitude of nuclear accidents.

“The accident has made it clear that the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale is not up-to-the-job. The International Atomic Energy Agency should come up with a better and more accurate way of communicating the risks involved in any future nuclear accident,” Miller said.

The committee said that the INES scale should be revised to: better represent orders of magnitude; make the scale comprehensible to non-technical audiences; and to ensure the technical basis of the scale incorporates sufficient information about risk as well as hazard.

The report 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.

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