Overcoming the paradigm of fear – Part 2

28 September 2015

Myths surrounding radiation, backed by a perverse regulatory regime, are the foundations of the fear of nuclear. These must be overcome if nuclear power is not to stagnate and eventually be seen as mainly a 20th century technology.

The conclusion in my last article was that there is indeed a substantial role available for nuclear power in the remainder of this century, based on its key unique selling proposition of providing a huge amount of power from a small raw material input, with minimal environmental disturbance.

[Cartoon by Alexey Kovynev: "Did you know that the chance of meeting a black swan is 2x10-6/year?" “Really? Just the same as our reactor core damage frequency"]

This is highly suitable for an increasingly urbanised world population which requires a huge quantity of reliable power in one time and place.
Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that this potential will ever be realised. Despite the publicity about nuclear's role in averting climate change and the rapidly-developing nuclear programmes in China, India and some other countries, the most likely scenario is for a continued stagnation. More plants are likely to shut down in Western Europe and North America than start up over the next 10-15 years, so nuclear will struggle to retain its 10-11% share of global electricity generation. Other technologies, notably renewable sources, are growing far more rapidly. In China, wind, solar and hydropower programmes all dwarf the biggest nuclear build programme in the world.

Why does nuclear fail to achieve its growth potential? Poor public perception, timid politicians with short time horizons, increasingly poor economics, and concern over safety, waste management, nuclear proliferation and security are all important. But the single underlying factor is that people are afraid of nuclear. There is a paradigm of fear which has blighted the history of nuclear power since the 1950s. It is the source of most of the arguments that are used against the nuclear industry and influences others, such as economic viability. It is impossible for nuclear to succeed if people are afraid of it. In such a climate, a more rational assessment of its merits by the general population is not going to happen.

This fear is of radiation (see November 2014, 'Radiation - how can the industry begin to deal with its biggest challenge?'), which has almost a perfect set of characteristics psychologists rate as having "fright potential". Its impact is involuntary, randomly distributed, difficult to avoid, unfamiliar to most people, man-made, could cause hidden and irreversible damage to health (particularly a dreaded disease like cancer), and small children, pregnant women and generally future generations are potentially vulnerable. Finally, despite huge scientific investigation, apparently well-qualified experts seem unable to agree about it.

Although the industry does all it can to prevent radiation exposure, it is impossible to avoid a degree of human exposure. This frightens people, and that fright is justified by a perverse international radiological protection regime that assumes any exposure to radiation above the background level is potentially harmful. Although there are levels deemed acceptable, the "linear no threshold" (LNT) theory dominates the regime. Although the link with cancer and other diseases is assumed rather than demonstrated at low levels of exposure, there are calculations of theoretical numbers of deaths when large populations receive small incremental doses. This is the "collective dose hypothesis", the origin of the spurious estimates of thousands of deaths after the Chernobyl accident. So in the event of any incremental exposure to radiation in the general population the authorities order mass evacuations, without detailed examination of the human consequences. At Fukushima, hundreds of evacuees have died prematurely or suffered other serious health consequences (mainly psychological) due to evacuation. The main health impact of the Fukushima accident is therefore directly attributable to the international radiological protection regime - not to radiation. The well-studied experience after Chernobyl should have offered a warning, but this was ignored in a mass of confusion about units used and what is safe.

The nuclear industry has tried to counter fear by referring to lots of facts and figures, particularly from independent third party advocates (see October 2014, 'Public acceptance - is there any progress?) This amounts to claiming that people are illogical and irrational in their opposition to nuclear. This misses the point: fear and opposition to nuclear is entirely rational, based on what the public observes and has heard, supported by the regulatory regime.

Images are much more powerful than factual information in determining human beliefs, which once developed are not easily swayed by offering further facts (indeed, these may prove to be counter-productive). This "confirmation bias" - only listening to information that supports a pre-held opinion or belief - is a substantial barrier to a paradigm shift.

Imagery and nuclear

The images the general public have received started with that of the mushroom cloud. We have just passed the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Japan, and the "cold war" which followed provided plenty of powerful negative images of nuclear and attendant radiation. My late mother was a civil defence warden in the United Kingdom in the early 1960s. Reading the training material she received and watching the accompanying public information videos on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack was scary. Nuclear power failed to distinguish itself from the military applications, not helped by the fact that the initial power reactors also produced plutonium for bombs. The Windscale (now Sellafield) accident in 1957 helped cement an adverse image. Use of language was also careless. On reflection terming nuclear "fission power" would have been much better, as would making technical terms (common to both military and civil sides) more acceptable for the general public.

Popular culture has helped create fear. Science fiction novels and movies of the cold war created attitudes and beliefs about nuclear power and radiation. The facts never got in the way of a good story. Watching some of the more outlandish movies today is funny, but it was not at the time.
In the early 1960s, Dr Strangelove was a powerful satire on the prospect of nuclear war and worldwide catastrophe through a deliberate release of powerful radiation. Yet it is the James Bond movies that have arguably done the most to help perpetuate fear. Most people realise that they are highly fictional and unrealistic but they are good fun to watch. In the first, Dr No (1962), a nuclear terrorist with designs on shooting down a space rocket, ends up boiling to death in the cooling pond of his reactor. The association of nuclear and radiation with death and destruction runs to the present day. Whenever dramatic effect is called for, nuclear gets wheeled in.

Nuclear and radiation became an easy story for journalists to stimulate reader interest. Death and destruction are good selling points. Stories about thefts of nuclear materials, possible "dirty bombs" and studies apparently demonstrating links between radiation and human health issues remain familiar. Humour has also taken its toll. A TV advertisement spoof for a breakfast cereal showed a glowing child well-equipped to battle a cold winter morning, cleverly redirected to an association with the Sellafield plant. The bumbling idiot Homer Simpson works at a nuclear power station.

The accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima reinforced beliefs that nuclear power is fundamentally dangerous and should be feared. At best, the industry is seen to be managing "doomsday machines" as safely as it can, so safer ways of generating electricity must be found - such as wind and solar power.

Past failure to counter the fear factor

The nuclear industry has not done itself any favours in trying to counter the fear. From arrogant scientists talking down to their audiences in the 1950s and 1960s to a leader of the World Association of Nuclear Operators claiming (pre Fukushima) that another accident would have such serious consequences that it would be the end of the industry, it has reaped what it has sown.

Continuously talking about safety improvements, core damage frequencies, how deep nuclear waste will be placed under the ground and how easily regulatory limits have been achieved has all given the general public the opposite message to that intended. It has in fact suggested that this technology is scary and the regulatory regime should be further tightened. If there is an accident, the consequences will be dire and maybe impossible to cope with. At the least, it will be hugely expensive, and make any calculation of financial concepts such as levelised costs of electricity rather spurious.

It is obvious in retrospect that the opponents of nuclear power have done much better. They realised very early that while facts were part of the game, symbols and images are more powerful. It therefore hasn't mattered much that many of the "facts" they have put forward can easily be shown to be incorrect. They have been successful at exploiting the imagery of the 1950s and 1960s and emphasising the human dimension of energy choices. The industry has begun to wake up to this, but remains a long way behind.

In the UK and USA, at least, public opinion is now generally supportive of new nuclear power stations. This may be due to fact-based educational programmes offered by the industry bodies, but careful examination of opinion polls suggest that the support is fragile. The fear is latent and could quickly once again become visible. That things can be so different in Germany, a country with similar economic, social, cultural and political characteristics to the UK, suggests that it would not take much to trigger a strong rebound.

How can new nuclear projects be viable if public fears may eventually kill them? Can such projects only happen in non-democratic states where public opinion can be squashed? Even in countries such as China, public opinion is beginning to have a huge role in nuclear (see March 2015, 'China's nuclear programme - how serious are the delays?'). China's proximity to Japan and general respect for Japanese technical competence has stimulated a major rethink about nuclear plans.

Fear is important in influencing public opinion against nuclear on issues such as uranium mining, safety of plants, waste management and nuclear proliferation. People may eventually be persuaded that the environmental impact of nuclear is trivial, certainly by comparison with fossil fuels. The biggest issue against nuclear may then turn out to be an economic one. Plants have become increasingly expensive to build and too risky to finance. There is however, a close link between public opinion and nuclear economics (see March 2012, 'Public acceptance - is it causing nuclear cost escalation?)

If people are afraid of nuclear, regulators will insist on every conceivable risk being covered by enhancements to plant design. The best then becomes the enemy of the good. Although the rising costs of the so-called Generation III plant designs may fall if more are built and international supply chains develop, their safety enhancements are purely theoretical. The concept of core damage frequency estimates should surely have been junked after Fukushima, as the human dimension of safety and black swan events are much more relevant.

We know this from the aviation sector. People were afraid of flying in the earlier days of commercial aviation, when accidents were frequent. But aircraft designs of "acceptable safety," with very high maintenance and operating standards, has sharply cut the risk of death or serious injury. There is still technical progress in designs, but further reductions in accident levels will more likely be achieved by better operating standards, to minimise the chances of maintenance, pilot or air traffic control error. Black swan events may still occur, but should not discourage most people from flying.

In reality, on safety the record of the nuclear sector is very good, and has improved at a similar rate as aviation. But nuclear is treated as a special case and rare accidents such as Fukushima have led to even stiffer regulatory requirements, even though no member of the public suffered adverse health effects from radiation. So the Chinese will now only authorise Generation III designs (themselves not well defined, and certainly not cast in stone). If they want to spend money on improving nuclear safety, this would surely be better spent on ensuring absolute adherence to the highest standards of nuclear safety culture amongst the workforce, or carefully considering potential future black swan events. Similarly, to lower cancer levels in society, resources should be put into stopping cigarette smoking and the lack of exercise of office workers, rather than imposing further requirements on the nuclear sector. But the fear is all-pervasive and so nuclear becomes a special case, where any logic in policy-making goes out of the window.

The way forward

How can the industry change that? It must be accepted that accidents will happen, but that their consequences are manageable. If we do eventually have thousands rather than hundreds of nuclear power stations around the world, it is inevitable that there will be accidents. These will involve huge financial costs but should not be catastrophic in terms of the impact on human health and wellbeing. Some incidents will probably involve some offsite release of radiation, so it is imperative to educate people about the nature of radiation and change the current regulatory regime. People need to understand that radiation is a purely natural phenomenon and that nuclear radiation is no different. They also need to understand about UV radiation in sunlight and the degrees of radiation exposures through nuclear medicine. Proper thresholds need to be established within the regulatory regime for exposures and their risks, with clear advice on when evacuations may be necessary. These need to be balanced with an assessment of the likely costs to human health of evacuation.

It is amazing that the nuclear industry has done virtually nothing since Fukushima to change this. Industry organisations should know by now that smart websites and news services do not achieve better public acceptance, so why put more and more resources into it? Quick fixes won't work. A longer-term international educational campaign is warranted on radiation, which has to start at school and may take 20-30 years to bear fruit. It will probably take that long to shake off the current obsession with renewables.

Believing that climate change will come to the industry's rescue is a delusion (see January 2015, 'Is climate change the worst argument for nuclear?'). Nuclear has been continuously marginalised in climate change actions and the same will happen in Paris this December. There will no doubt be many further reports put together by well-meaning bureaucrats such as the recent IEA and OECD-NEA Nuclear Roadmap (see April 2015, 'IEA and OECD-NEA - rapid roads to nowhere') but they work rather better as an anti-nuclear prayer book, containing what is essentially an accompanying tick-list of negative issues.

The same goes for the attempts to find nuclear salvation in either different reactor designs (for example SMRs) or novel financing techniques. Fear of radiation will still be there whatever the reactor design, and bear heavily on financial risk.

In 20-30 years, the wider vision is that the industry should look different. Ideally it should mimic the aircraft-manufacturing sector, with only 2-3 vendors each offering one or two designs. These should be seen as no more than basic but efficient machines for generating electricity. Familiar to regulators around the world, each can be built in the necessary volume and with an international supply chain to allow economies of scale. The designs may look something like today's LWRs or they may not. Instead of an instrument of foreign policy the industry should become a normal industrial sector.

Reforming radiation education

The first stepping stone has to be public education about radiation. At his recent meeting with Sir David Attenborough, US President Barack Obama asked the naturalist what he thought were the most important things to achieve the survival and prosperity of the future generations of humankind on our planet. Attenborough suggested just two things: rapid progress in energy storage (assumedly electricity) and a better understanding of the natural world. Both are highly relevant to nuclear, as if the first is achieved at a high level, nuclear may not be so essential to power large conurbations. The second is apposite, as radiation is part of our natural world and it is clear that people don't understand it too well. In conjunction with better understanding of flora, fauna and the like, this truly needs addressing.

There is clearly an opportunity to explain radiation to the younger generation and groups who are uncomfortable with "man-made radiation". Baby-boomers (born in the late 40s and 50s) are now set in their views, which are likely to be strongly coloured by the cold war and all the images that accompanied it. Later generations are the decision-makers today and in the near future. It may take a genius to devise a programme to win them over, but the industry is not even trying at present, with worthless communications plans acting as substitutes. Generation X (born in the 1960s and 70s) and Generation Y (80s and 90s) are likely to have had their views highly coloured by their baby-boomer relatives and teachers, so those born after the millennium should be the big target.

The approach must be factual, but it is important to use the right language, appropriate images and symbols. It should be combined with a wider campaign to ensure that young people have a full understanding of the natural world and an appreciation of the advantages, but also the limitations, of scientific advances.

The nuclear medicine community is an obvious potential ally (see December 2014, 'Radiation - can allies be found in nuclear medicine?') even if some members used to working in an industry closely associated with "human good" may be reluctant to be associated with nuclear's poorer image. But the seemingly scary aspects of radiation are beginning to affect their work too. As things stand today, the medics tend to be in the lead in working to get LNT thrown out. Radiological protection specialists in the nuclear industry have been weak and ineffective in their engagement with bodies such as UNSCEAR (United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation) and ICRP (International Commission on Radiological Protection) which, respectively, study the science and recommend the rules. To start urging consideration of the consequences of mass evacuations after the Fukushima debacle is mind-boggling. Holding up their hands and saying it wasn't their job is unbefitting of any profession.

It is frankly amazing that people can be evacuated on the basis of an assumed risk, without taking account of a certain risk of suffering detriment to their wellbeing. If UNSCEAR and ICRP cannot be more specific on the risks (if any) of low doses, it should surely be assumed that they are effectively zero. The uncertainties of what was and wasn't safe after Fukushima, combined with general lack of understanding of radiation, were appalling. If society is really concerned about cancers, there are plenty of places to put resources rather than crucifying nuclear power. One is reminded of the tobacco companies in Japan announcing soon after Fukushima that their product was radiation free. Hence their customers could proceed with killing themselves without worrying too much.

Until we shift from the paradigm of fear surrounding nuclear, its prospects will be extremely limited. It will remain as an unused option in many countries' energy plans and as an element in scenarios to combat climate change in many research publications. The risk is that the existing plants will gradually get shut down, picked off by cheap gas and a rising renewables share while the fear factor limits the plans of those counties hoping to build more reactors. So nuclear gradually withers away from a viable technology, to one that made a brief appearance in the 20th century. The anti-nuclear forces argue that it has already reached this point, but it needs one more push to avoid it. The time to act is now.

About the author

Steve Kidd is an independent nuclear consultant and economist with East Cliff Consulting. The first half of his career was spent as an industrial economist within British industry, followed by nearly 18 years in senior positions at the World Nuclear Association and its predecessor organisation, the Uranium Institute.

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