Zsuzsanna Gyenes makes the case for the much-maligned energy source
EVERY time I mention the word “nuclear” in a casual conversation, the impulsive reply from people is immediately around Chernobyl or Fukushima and a very thorough discussion about how nuclear is “bad” and a “necessary evil”. I must say, I do not think it is. And given that it is a very clean energy source, I personally support the further use and improvement of nuclear systems.
However, there are certain aspects to learn about this energy production method, to be able to compare to other, more generally-favoured renewable sources. Is being afraid of nuclear something that is genetically coded in us? I wonder if the negative connotations attached with nuclear can ever be changed or people will never be convinced that nuclear can be and is safe if operated well. The reputation of nuclear power suffered as a result of those high visibility, very low frequency but high consequence incidents that occurred in the past. However, that adds to the story only partially. The sometimes-harsh criticism against this energy source may be distilled down to the question about risk perception and the fact that human beings are afraid of what they don’t know.
I wonder if the negative connotations attached with nuclear can ever be changed or people will never be convinced that nuclear can be and is safe if operated well
Risk perception plays a big role when it comes to talking about nuclear. Comparing perception of different types of risk, nuclear scores very highly, although other daily and voluntary risks cause much more damage (for example, smoking, driving a car, or stress). In mid-March of 1979, the movie The China Syndrome had its premier, and it dramatised the worst-case predictions of the earliest risk assessment studies in nuclear. Just two weeks later, events at Three Mile Island made the movie appear prophetic. Chernobyl clearly did not help the cause of accepting nuclear power generation either. Apparently, nuclear risks were seen as “involuntary, unknown to those exposed, or to science, uncontrollable, unfamiliar, catastrophic, severe (fatal) and dreaded”. Interestingly, medical X-rays have a better risk perception profile. As humans, subconsciously we reject the unknown and welcome all that seem to be familiar.
If, for example, knowledge is not the major cause of the bad reputation, maybe transparency of communication is. In the case of Chernobyl, communication about what happened and at what magnitude was kept from the public for a few days, causing massive damage to the reputation of nuclear power later on. Is this damage irreversible or is there potential to keep this clean energy source in the future? Is it still competitive? I truly believe it is.
Let’s start the journey by highlighting an interesting aspect – the way in which nuclear is communicated to society.
A few years ago, when I was the Head of Section for Nuclear Safety at my former workplace, one supervisor instructed me to explain the current situation with radiation measures in the country. I eagerly gave him a very thorough explanation using technical jargon which I knew he understood well. Then he told me that we had to release a general press release and as such, I should repeat what I just told him in a way that his “mother-in-law would understand”. He wanted us to communicate using simple terms, so that members of the public understood what do we measure and what does it mean to their life. Hence, it may be the solution, to make this heavy technology digestible to society by populating the topic using simple terms – not because I do not trust the public’s ability to understand it, but the best way of communication is to use clear, simple language. I admit, this approach may not be suitable for conveying complex messages, but it may help with the basics.
Is this damage irreversible or is there potential to keep this clean energy source in the future? Is it still competitive? I truly believe it is
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