There are big differences between public perception of the risks of ionising radiation and the information provided.

The Fukushima accident demonstrated even greater need for better communication. So in 2013 the European Commission launched the Eagle (Enhancing education, training and communication processes for informed behaviours and decision-making related to ionising radiation risks) project, which aims to improve communication strategies to support informed societal decision-making.

One part of the Eagle project is investigating the ‘mental models’ that lay people have of ionising radiation. It is examining the differences between nuclear professionals and the public, and comparing different countries.

Mental models are cognitive schemas through which people explain individual processes or phenomena. They are not usually physically or technically correct, but they can allow individuals to estimate the consequences of processes.

Eagle interviewed members of the public from France, Romania and Slovenia (with nuclear power plants) and Poland (planning to build one). Around 15 people were interviewed in each country, recruited based on the demography of the country. The sample size was small because previous research has shown that after this number no major new mental models are obtained. For comparison, expert models of ionising radiation were taken from a previous investigation in which around 30 nuclear experts were interviewed.

Interview process

The interviews started with a warm up to open discussion on ionising radiation and look for initial connections with the term. In the second part the concept of ionising radiation was investigated, including the composition of matter, the representation of ionising radiation, sources of radiation and the relationship between artificial and natural radiation. The effects of ionising radiation on humans and the environment were examined, including applications like medical imaging and food irradiation.

The impact of ionising radiation on cells was discussed, along with other properties. Several questions were devoted to risk and protection in case of exposure in a nuclear accident, living near a nuclear facility or medical application. Section 3 had questions about nuclear accidents, Fukushima and decision-making processes. Section 4 consisted of demographic data.


The population models for the four countries did not differ significantly. However, due to the small number of interviewees, it was not possible to make any definitive conclusions, only offer qualitative analyses.

Knowledge of ionising radiation was low in all four countries. The structure of matter, particularly the structure of the atomic nucleus, was unclear, so the reasons for the decay of a nucleus were not known. However all of the interviewees were aware that radiation may cause damage – in the worst case, death. Most people understood that natural radiation exists. But most believed that there is a difference between natural and artificial radiation. It was thought that natural radiation is harmless while artificial radiation is dangerous.

There were misunderstandings concerning the sources of ionising radiation. Often it was thought sources were domestic devices such as microwave ovens, cellular phones or TV receivers. Solar radiation was seen as a type of radiation, but it could not be distinguished as ionising or non-ionising.

Most interviewees accepted nuclear medicine. However this was based mostly on their trust of doctors, and not their own understanding.
Nuclear power was accepted by the majority of interviewees. The respondents’ greatest concerns were related to accidents in nuclear installations. Many thought that the operation, management and safety precautions might not be sufficient for safe operation of nuclear facilities.The potential consequences of a nuclear accident were well known to all – mostly from the media.

Radioactive waste was a confusing topic. Very few people were aware that most radioactive waste comes from industry and medicine, and that a relatively low volume comes from nuclear plants. The respondents typically confused low, medium and high-level radioactive waste. Most would oppose a low- or intermediate-level waste repository near their homes.

The majority of information regarding nuclear accidents comes from TV, and more recently the Internet. Many of the interviewees said they do not trust government sources. The media were often not considered to be independent.

The general feeling was that decisions connected with the construction, operation and decommissioning of nuclear facilities should be the domain of experts, and that the role of public should be consultative.

Attitudes towards ionising radiation, radioactivity and nuclear technology depended somewhat on age and gender. Level and area of education was more significant.

These findings based on mental models represents just one dimensions of public communication. The most important factors are not the ones linked with how much people know about ionising radiation, but perception of risks, trust, involvement of the people in the process and opportunities for participation in decision-making.

Country specific results


A slightly better understanding of ionising radiation could be observed in the results of the French survey, which may be due to the fact that France relies heavily on nuclear energy. When reflecting on ‘radiation’, the interviewees found it difficult to define the term or specify its mechanism. But in general they possessed considerable knowledge and opinion on topics related to ionising radiation, such as x-radiography, nuclear energy and nuclear accidents. ‘Radioactivity’ in particular appeared to be treated as a separate concept that carried immediate associations with a nuclear accident (or military applications).

The interviewees showed a good level of knowledge and risk awareness about medical applications. However, there was little knowledge of the nature of different types of radiation and their characteristics. Interviewees could speak of differences between natural and artificial sources and specify a limited range of man-made applications.

A high level of risk was attributed to all nuclear energy applications and it was immediately connected to Chernobyl and Fukushima. Some people displayed a confident attitude toward nuclear energy but others, and particularly younger respondents, continued to express anxious or hostile attitudes about nuclear risk and its governance. Interviewees typically felt that they lack information about radiation and applications of radioactivity.


In Poland knowledge of ionising radiation was low – insufficient for people to understand its interaction with human organisms during medical procedures. Although people accepted nuclear medicine their acceptance was based on trust for doctors.

Most respondents accepted the benefits associated with nuclear energy, seeing it as an modern technology. Their greatest concerns were related to accidents, Chernobyl and in particular Fukushima, but interviewees were not clear where the greatest threat comes from in case of failure in the plant. Most respondents believed that radiation is transferred over long distances by the wind, but they confused the concepts of radiation and decontamination.

There was little knowledge about radioactive waste, the source of ionising radiation or their characteristics. Interviewees had difficulty distinguishing between natural and artificial radiation.

Most respondents felt that experts and governments should make decisions regarding nuclear construction and the uses of ionising radiation. The media were not considered independent and trustworthy.

In Romania people had very limited knowledge of ionising radiation. Generally they have heard about radiation not about ionising radiation, yet their representation of the latter was not far from the experts’ representations. However, the difference between irradiation due to x-rays and use of radioisotopes was not very clear and respondents perceived a big difference between natural and artificial radiation.

Nuclear power was generally seen as an important method of electricity generation, although with a great impact in case of nuclear accidents.

More respondents were concerned about radioactive waste management than nuclear plants; there was a perception of long-term impact and difficulty controlling radioactive wastes. People could not distinguish between different types of waste and their properties.

In Slovenia the level of knowledge of ionising radiation is not very high. When describing it people explained it as harmful and provided some characteristics. But they did not have information on how it is formed, different types, or its consequences. People typically perceived natural radiation as almost harmless, and artificial radiation as dangerous, based on nuclear accidents but also because people do not understand how ionising radiation is formed.

People with higher levels of education seemed more tolerant towards nuclear energy and nuclear research. Few interviewees could distinguish between low, medium and high-level radioactive waste. However the distinction between medical sources and nuclear facilities was very strong.
Media reporting was not particularly trusted. Interviewees had different views about the role of the public in decision-making: some believed the public should follow expert advice, while others required more interaction.

About the authors

Nadja Zeleznik, REC Ljubljana, Slovenia; Marin Constantin & Daniela Diaconu, INR – Pitesti, Romania; Nina Schneider & Claire Mays, Institut SYMLOG, France; and Grazyna Zakrzewska, Institute of Nuclear Chemistry and Technology (INCT).


The authors acknowledge all contributions from Eagle project partners (available at and support of the European Commission for the project funded within the Seventh Euratom Research and Training Programme (FP7) on Nuclear Energy.