AUA-commissioned review of the scientific literature related to risk perception, especially concerning nuclear energy

Scientists are used to relying on facts in the pursuit of the disciplines in which they work. More often than not, they will also assume that established facts are – or should be – ultimately persuasive in discussions about controversial matters, like nuclear energy or the radioactive properties of certain materials, such as uranium , which are susceptible to scientific observation or analysis.

One such scientist is US physicist Richard A. Muller, who has just written a book, Energy for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines.

The University of California, Berkely scientist argues in the book that it is the responsibility of Presidents of the United States to be the ‘public instructor’ on the scientific facts about nuclear energy and to counter ‘unsubstantiated fears’ which many people have about nuclear energy.

It is an attractive idea for supporters of nuclear energy that a nation’s Commander in Chief might also be the nuclear Instructor in Chief, or better, ‘Persuader in Chief’, who could use his charisma and authority to rid the citizenry of ignorance about the positive benefits of nuclear energy and hence allay the fears they have of its risks.

These fears are often based on fear of radiation, which many people associate with cancer. Fear is one of the most powerful emotions. Many observers familiar with the fears people experience about nuclear energy call this particular fear ‘radiophobia’. A considerable amount of scientific research has been conducted on this phenomenon in a field classified as ‘risk perception’ and an associated area of practice by professionals called ‘risk communication’.

The Australian Uranium Association has been interested for several years in exploring and learning how professional communicators, including the staff of the AUA, might most effectively communicate with stakeholders about nuclear and uranium matters in which perceptions of the risks involved are mostly informed by emotion, especially fear, and not by fact.

While the anxiety some people experience is an emotional response, it is real for them and is the only response those people can be expected to have to such issues. Being emotional in nature, the response is also very strong, deeply held and difficult to shift. If you wish to communicate with people who have an anxious response to the subjects you wish to address, you must communicate with those people on their own terms and recognising their fears, or the communication is likely to fail.

Professor Muller’s confidence that the provision of facts alone will change people’s minds about nuclear energy is likely to prove misplaced, especially if his ‘Persuader in Chief’ does not also help people to manage and overcome their emotional antipathy to nuclear power.

As a first step in seeking to come to a fuller understanding of these matters, the AUA commissioned a formal review of the extensive scientific literature produced by social scientists and psychologists who have investigated risk perception, especially in relation to nuclear matters.

The work was conducted by Dr Melanie Taylor, who leads the Disaster Response and Resilience Research Group in the School of Medicine at the University of Western Sydney.

The resulting research report is entitled, Review and evaluation of research literature on public nuclear risk perception and implications for communication strategies.

The review covered a wide range of risk contexts and theoretical approaches, and identified a variety of findings that could have implications for nuclear-related communication.

You can read the report here.