1 PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING AND ACCEPTANCE
The growth of the nuclear power option is impeded in many countries by public concerns over the safety and environmental consequences of producing electricity by means of nuclear reactors. Historically, the main components of this public concern have been the potential for serious nuclear reactor accidents, the day-to-day operational safety of nuclear reactors, the association in the public's mind between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and the question of what to do with radioactive waste. Scientists and engineers working on the technical aspects of nuclear reactor operation and radioactive waste disposal have developed an international consensus that the reactors can be operated safely and the waste can be permanently managed in a manner that protects the environment and public health. However, this view is not necessarily shared by the general public.
This paper examines the nature and causes of public concerns about the development and implementation of the plans and technologies for nuclear power, the need for public understanding and acceptance of such plans and technologies, and the means for potentially achieving it.
National programs for interaction between the nuclear industry and the public vary, and there is no universal formula because social and political systems and levels of existing public understanding and acceptance vary from country to country. However, in some ways, the fundamental principles for achieving public understanding and acceptance of nuclear power may be the same for all technologies and in all countries, since they deal with basic human nature. It is these principles and the experience of applying them to nuclear power that are discussed in this paper.
Most national programs for nuclear power started with an examination of the economic, technical and scientific questions that must be answered in order to develop confidence that nuclear reactors can be constructed and operated safely and efficiently. There has been active international cooperation in this area, and the scientists and engineers who have addressed these questions have generally concluded that acceptable methods for operating nuclear power stations exist and are widely followed.
However, the same effort has not been devoted to the socio-political problems surrounding nuclear energy, not least because they were unanticipated and are still for the most part not well understood. Public concern has been expressed in most countries about the construction and operation of nuclear power plants, and this public concern has in many cases led to postponement or failure to start or expand nuclear power programs, and in some cases even caused a retrenchment of existing programs. Therefore, it can be concluded that establishing scientific confidence that nuclear power plants can be safely operated does not by itself eliminate the public concern about them. Many countries, utilities and industry associations have implemented public interaction programs, the intent of which is to develop the degree of public understanding necessary to allow their nuclear power programs to be implemented and to expand as required. Such public interaction programs encompass activities that range from simply giving the public information to involving members of the public or special interest groups in the decision-making process.
Sociological research in a number of countries has shown that the main issues regarding nuclear power in the public mind are:
- the fear that a major accident at a reactor will cause people to receive a radiation dose, and that a large land mass will be contaminated with radioactive material and will thereafter be unusable. The Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents are frequently cited. Such fears are frequently associated with the idea that under worst case conditions, a nuclear reactor will have consequences similar to the explosion of a nuclear bomb.
- the fear that the highly toxic and long-lived waste from nuclear power plants cannot be safely contained, and that it has the potential for seriously harming the environment and people. This fear arises from a fundamental apprehension of radioactivity and a lack of knowledge about what radioactive waste is and how it is currently managed. The fear is compounded by the fact that the waste is known to be dangerous for time periods beyond most people's comprehension, and that no structure or political system devised by humans has survived for such lengthy periods of time.
In the public mind, the perceived risk from the operation of nuclear power plants and from radioactive waste is very high. This public perception of the risk differs markedly from the scientist's view and from actual experience with its management. Studies that have evaluated how people perceive risks can be useful in developing and understanding this phenomenon. These studies (Ref. 1, 2) have shown that the general public evaluates risks not by the standard scientific computation of probability times consequence, but by a series of subjective criteria that place high risk values on the following:
- complex technology that is not well understood by ordinary people and requires specialists for its operation.
- projects or technologies that are under centralized rather than local control, and where the people potentially affected cannot make operating decisions.
- a potential for a high consequence as a result of a single failure. This is so regardless of how infrequently the failure might occur.
- undertakings for which no clear need is seen, and from which no perceptible benefit is derived. This includes projects that result in one group of people (i.e. corporations) receiving a benefit, and another group of people (i.e. the residents of the locality where the project is located) being subjected to the risks.
The research shows that risks from familiar things, which people feel they understand, control and make decisions about themselves, and from which they believe they derive a direct benefit, are perceived by the general public to be relatively low. This is so even when there is common knowledge that the technology or activity results in a large number of deaths, as for example in automobile accidents. The public apparently concludes that automobiles, even though they harm many more people than nuclear power reactors, are much less risky because they do not meet the above criteria. The construction and operation of nuclear power plants and radioactive waste management facilities, on the other hand, meet most of these criteria, and it has been suggested that this is one of the root causes of the public fear that surrounds nuclear power.
The public concern about nuclear power is, in most countries, especially high in communities that have no previous experience with nuclear energy but might become sites for a future generating station or waste disposal facility. This can be viewed in terms of the community making a decision based on its perception of the risks and its perception of the benefits. The risk may be perceived to be very high because the facility is imposed on the community (involuntary), because the matter was not well understood, because it is perceived that a failure of the reactor or disposal system could result in disastrous consequences, because the technology is complex and requires specialists whose human values are unknown, and because decisions were made centrally rather than by local people. The main benefit from proper operation of the reactor or waste management facility is perceived to be reflected in corporate profits and perhaps lower electricity prices for all electricity users, with no special benefit to the community near which the proposed facility is located. It does not generally matter that the facts are different. The community can make decisions only on its perception of what is true. If the perceived benefits do not outweigh the perceived risks, the decision will be negative. This combination of circumstances is known to be likely to result in the rejection of nuclear energy projects by the people who live in such communities. The people may agree that the facility is necessary, but usually insist that it should be put somewhere else. The phenomenon of local opposition has been named the Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) Syndrome. Once a facility is constructed and operating well, there is usually greater support from people living in the community than from more distant neighbors, who have less knowledge, and, perhaps more importantly, do not personally know the people who are operating it.
In addition to this individual and community evaluation of risks and benefits, proponents of nuclear energy face a second challenge, in the form of people who do not subscribe to the view that technological development is necessarily good. Such people have a different view of the world, and for them nuclear power, offering essentially limitless supplies of energy to feed industrial growth, is anathema and symbolizes all of the things that they are against. Such people are often well-organized and articulate, and have spearheaded the opposition to the peaceful utilization of nuclear power by means of a number of alarming statements, most of which can be demonstrated in a technical sense to be in error. However, because of the failure of the nuclear industry to deal with the socio-political problems engendered by the technology, such organizations have a great deal of credibility with the general public, and are viewed as useful watchdogs to prevent unwanted and potentially harmful excesses by the nuclear industry. The advent of independent regulatory agencies, whose task it is to protect the public interest, has not significantly diminished the credibility of these organizations, which have now taken on the additional task of watching the regulators, who are often perceived to have a conflict of interest.
It is becoming increasingly difficult in all countries, but especially in democratic countries, to implement technologies to which there is widespread public opposition or to which there is concentrated local opposition. Many governments, therefore, have postponed implementation of nuclear energy projects until there is greater public understanding and acceptance. Such decisions have become political "hot potatoes" and a new phenomenon, "NIMTO", or "Not in
My Term of Office" has crept into the political lexicon. Since other energy options are often readily available and economically competitive, and since nuclear waste is safely managed and is not currently causing any environmental harm, there is no immediate economic or environmental risk in postponing such projects. There is, however, a different risk for the nuclear industry. The government's reluctance to move forward reinforces the public's perception that the reactors cannot be safely operated or that the radioactive waste cannot be safely disposed of, making public acceptance even more difficult to attain.
At first glance, it may seem impossible to do anything about the circumstances in which the nuclear industry finds itself, but closer examination of the factors that lead to the heightened perception of adverse risk reveals that in fact many mitigating measures can be taken (Ref. 17, 18). Institutional processes that involve greater voluntariness on the part of the affected public, perhaps even going so far as to share decision-making power with an affected community, is one of the key actions. Increased individual control can be accomplished by providing for community participation and monitoring, by establishing community advisory boards with authority to shut down non-conforming facilities, by equipping the public with the means to detect radiation (Geiger counters) and protect itself from some of its effects (potassium iodide tablets), or other similar means.
A common public argument is that when projects and proposals involve making irreversible decisions with irrevocable consequences (waste disposal), it is better to delay action "until we know more," even in the face of strong arguments that the status quo is undesirable. In such cases, a step-wise decision making process can be useful, giving people the assurance that a program or project can be halted if there are undesirable effects. Caution must be exercised, however, as delays in licensing caused by the desire of opponents of nuclear energy to re-hear old issues has in the past proved costly to the nuclear industry.
Addressing equity issues requires processes to deal with impacts and their distribution relative to the distribution of benefits. Impact management programs that involve the coordinated application of mitigation, enhancement, compensation, monitoring and contingency measures can contribute to the acceptance of locally unwanted facilities. Guaranteeing property values is one such impact mitigation technique. As well, recognizing that there is a value to society from having facilities constructed can lead to sharing part of that value with a host community that will bear a disproportionate share of the risk.
Steps can also be taken to increase public trust in the institutions that manage and regulate nuclear power. Such steps will usually involve much more open decision-making, and a responsiveness to public concerns that goes far beyond technical and economic optimization. The clear independence of the regulatory agency is a key parameter.
Therefore, the communications challenges in developing and implementing a nuclear power program can be summarized as follows:
- Designing and implementing a process whereby the general population participates in determining the need for a nuclear energy program.
- Determining the public acceptability of various options for the development of the nuclear option, the construction and operation of nuclear power plants and the safe long- term management of radioactive waste.
- Providing information to those who make policy and regulatory decisions about the adequacy of the technology and about its implementation so that informed and balanced decisions can be made.
- Responding with technical and social solutions that meet the public's requirements and providing sufficient information to the general public so that people can reach informed decisions about nuclear power.
- Obtaining the agreement of one or more potential host communities to allow the construction of facilities near them.
In most countries, unfortunately, the first steps of this process have been omitted for various reasons. Communications programs are used to provide information about decisions that have already been made on technical and economic grounds. Various techniques are employed to ensure that the information reaches the people who have a need for it. It cannot be assumed, however, that the provision of information alone automatically leads to public acceptance. Experience in Canada and in the U.S.A. (Ref. 3) shows that public opposition to waste management initiatives increased at the same time as public knowledge rose. These research results suggest that more information does not necessarily lead to public acceptance.
The imposition of a decision, or the taking away of individual or local control, are huge multipliers of perceived risk, each increasing the perception of adverse risk about one thousand-fold. When there exists such a perception of extreme risk, it poses an almost insurmountable barrier to communication. If the public does not agree with the decisions made about whether to build nuclear reactors or how or where to dispose of the waste, or with the process that was used to arrive at such decisions, concerns about nuclear power may not be diminished by the provision of additional information. The information may be rejected by the public as being invalid, or part of the information may be extracted from its context and used to support the case of those opposed. However, if the decision-making process has been credible and the information can be provided in such a way that it responds to the concerns of the public and is perceived to be valid, some of these barriers to communication may be removed. Under such circumstances, additional information may achieve another of the conditions for lessened risk perception (familiarity) and lead to a measure of greater public acceptance. A series of messages that provide some answers to the most common questions and fears is presented in Appendix A.
In the emerging democracies with developing economies, a further risk for nuclear development has arisen: the association of the anti-nuclear movement and the pro-democracy movement. These two movements share nothing in the technical sense, but often a great deal in the socio-political sense. To both of these movements, nuclear power represents centralized decision-making, often without democratic process. Ironically, the provision of large quantities of cheap energy is a powerful tool in improving a country's standard of living, a condition that usually is associated with greater democracy. A potential solution worthy of consideration is to make the country's nuclear industry among the most democratic of its institutions, rather than giving in to the natural tendency of the industry to take shelter behind government policies and central decisions that are then imposed on an increasingly unwilling population.
When challenged by critics who have a different world view than people in the nuclear industry, the industry has traditionally responded with assurances that nuclear technology can be made so safe that its risks will be insignificant compared to other endeavors undertaken by society. On the nuclear waste issue, for example, the industry promised that the waste could be managed in such a way that no one would ever be harmed by it, not even in the distant future and not even if society forgot to care for the disposal facility.
This promise of minimal risk has been implemented by establishing regulations for radioactive emissions that are so low they are routinely exceeded by other human activities that have no relationship to the use of nuclear power (coal-burning generating stations, buildings made of granite rock, flying in jet aircraft), and by adopting operating practices that keep actual operating emissions to about one per cent of these already conservative limits. In the case of waste management, the industry has spent many billions of dollars to refine the ability to predict the risk to future generations of humanity tens of thousands of years from now, a time frame not even remotely approached by environmental protection measures in other industries.
The attempt to respond to public concern and opposition in this manner has served primarily to make nuclear power more expensive; it has generally failed to achieve the desired widespread public acceptance. Within the industry, this failure to achieve acceptance is usually thought to have occurred because of the industry's failure to "get the message out," under the assumption that if only the message had been better communicated to the public, and the public had developed a more comprehensive understanding of nuclear technology, people would think like the scientists and engineers in the industry and come to the same conclusions. The research on the public perception of risk strongly suggests that such analysis and reasoning is faulty, and that no amount of technical proof of safety, or communication of that proof, will suffice to alter public opinion unless other conditions are met first. Unless the immense barriers to communication posed by the risk perception factors are first overcome or removed, the information will not be received or processed by its intended audience in a manner that lowers the perception of the risk.
An example of this phenomenon is seen in the report of the Canadian environmental assessment panel on that country's nuclear waste disposal concept (Ref 16). The panel concluded that although the proposed disposal method is safe from a technical perspective, it should not be implemented because the public does not support it. Evidence presented at the panel's public hearings suggested that the public would be far more comfortable with a disposal concept that involves active monitoring, repairability and retrievability (a much lower technical standard), rather than one that involves permanent closure of the facility and a monitoring system that can detect failure only after the waste starts to enter the near-surface environment. Ironically, industry leaders have always said that nuclear waste management is much more of a socio-political problem than a technical problem. They nevertheless continue to dispense most of their budgets on research to improve the technical solution, only to find that it cannot be implemented because of public opposition. It might have been much more productive to institute a process at the beginning to determine the public's true preferences, and then work to make those solutions as safe as possible.
Once the fundamental barriers to communication have been removed, and the conditions have been established where the intended audience can actually receive and process the information in the way the industry intends, the processes of information dissemination can be productive. The methodology and techniques for providing information to the desired audiences vary from country to country, according to social and economic factors, the degree of development of mass communications media, the literacy of the population, the credibility of certain groups or organizations either providing information or opposing the proposal, etc. However, certain principles are applied more or less universally when planning a communications program.
The standard approach to successful communications includes more than the production and distribution of information material. Communication of information is usually part of a larger program that involves the measuring and analysis of public opinion, the development of strategic approaches and options that respond to the public's concerns and preferences, actual communications, and the performance monitoring of the entire process.
The standard formula that encompasses these facets is often referred to as the RACE formula, an acronym for Research, Analyze, Communicate, Evaluate (Ref. 4). It is applied to many communications problems, and is not unique to nuclear energy.
The measurement of public opinion is the "Research" part of the RACE formula. Public opinion research defines the extent of the communications challenge and provides insight into the kinds of information the public requires and the preferred means for its delivery (Ref. 5). It helps to define public concerns so that they can be taken into account in the development of the preferred approach to the nation's nuclear power program or waste management program. It also provides a baseline of data against which progress in achieving public understanding and acceptance can be measured in the future. Several kinds of opinion research commonly used are public attitude surveys, opinion surveys of specific groups within a population, and focus group studies. Focus group studies are used to determine not what opinions people have, but why they feel as they do. These studies consist of an in-depth discussion with very small samples of people (about 10-12 at a time), and the results generally cannot be used as a substitute for public opinion surveys because the small group is not representative of the general population and its size has no statistical power.
The "Analyze" portion of the RACE formula follows the gathering of research data on public attitudes. Analysis of the data from public attitudes research allows the importance of the social, ethical and political questions surrounding nuclear power to be evaluated for a specific population. From this data, it can be determined what the public preference is with respect to questions where tradeoffs are required between various aspects of nuclear energy, for example cost vs safety, or the certain exposure of workers in the near future vs hypothetical exposure of people in the distant future.
The questions in public attitude surveys are generally designed so that, on analysis, they produce answers to the following questions:
- What does the public think should be done to provide energy? (Should the objectives of the national energy program change to accommodate the public's wishes?)
- What environmental or other review process is credible in order to make publicly acceptable decisions on energy policy?
- How can the general public (not just the proponents and opponents) be involved in the decision-making process?
- Under what combination of sociological and technical conditions will the implementation of a nuclear energy program be possible?
- What is the public's current state of knowledge and opinion about nuclear power?
- What are the information requirements of the various audiences?
- What communications techniques and media will best reach the audiences that need to be informed?
- What is the likely public attitude response to information about nuclear power?
- Whom does the public trust?
With these facts, it should be possible to develop a national nuclear energy policy taking into account the public's expectations and needs. Accommodating public opinion may require changes to the technically or economically optimum program, but such changes may need to be accommodated if the system is to be not only safe but capable of being implemented. Past attempts to arrive at the optimum program by technical and economic analysis, and then to "sell" the result to the public by means of communications programs, have not produced the desired results. There is no evidence to suggest that more intensive communications programs would have fared better, and much evidence to suggest that more intensive efforts primarily produce more controversy.
A wealth of scientific information exists on the safety of nuclear power reactors and on the potential safety of radioactive waste disposal systems. It is not possible to convey all of this technical information to the public, mostly because only some members of the public have the scientific training necessary to understand it. Therefore, information materials are developed that interpret and condense this technical information for people without scientific training. Such information materials are liberally illustrated to improve their understandability, often with analogies to things familiar in everyday life. Presentation techniques strive to catch the audience's attention, and to make the assimilation of the information easier. Different types of information materials are produced, each for a specific purpose or audience. A matrix showing how each audience's information requirements are met is produced and used as a guide to determine the different types and levels of information materials that are required.
The final component of the RACE Formula is Evaluation. Public interaction programs can be managed by setting objectives and performance targets, establishing the information programs required to achieve those targets, and then measuring performance. The actual impact of the programs on public opinion and acceptance, not the amount of information activity, is measured.
Where the performance target is to achieve a certain level of public understanding, the actual change in the level of public understanding is measured, rather than the number of information pamphlets distributed or the number of speeches given. If the desired results are not achieved, the information programs are re-evaluated and revised.
Such performance measurement is achieved by establishing baseline data at the start of an information program through public opinion surveys or media content analysis, and then repeating the surveys and analysis at intervals and observing the changes.
The development of effective public acceptance programs is based on an understanding of the audiences that need to be reached, the different interests of those audiences, and their different information needs. This section identifies the audiences of importance to most national nuclear energy programs, and describes the reason for their interest in nuclear energy and their specific information needs.
The interest of the general public is in adequate supplies of reasonably priced energy, and in the protection of public health and the environment. Research on public attitudes toward nuclear power in the United States, Britain and Canada (Ref. 6,7) indicates that waste management and reactor accidents are the two highest-ranking concerns. Communication with the general public therefore provides information about how the environment and public health are protected by present and future nuclear energy strategies. It should be kept in mind that there may be initial negative results from an information program, because as people are reminded of such subjects as potential reactor accidents and the existence of nuclear waste, they naturally begin to worry more about those things. Considerable effort should be devoted to the development and testing of messages, and sufficient funds committed to overcome the initial potential negative reaction and begin to make some positive gains.
National governments are often the sponsors of programs designed to develop technical answers to the question of how a nuclear power program can be implemented. They are therefore acutely interested in both the technical research and the communications programs that are proposed by the responsible agency, and often require briefings and updates on both the progress of the technology and progress in obtaining public understanding and acceptance. Ministers of departments which are responsible for the research or the approval of the technology are especially interested in being kept informed.
The interest of state or provincial governments has historically varied depending on whether the state or province uses nuclear power reactors or is a potential host for a waste disposal site. Acceptance by state governments of nuclear facilities has been more likely in states that have a large need for energy, but this has not been universally true (e.g. California). The need of state elected officials for information has been recognized in most public information programs on nuclear power. These information needs are similar to those of national governments, but include an interest in economic impacts and any offsetting benefits that might be offered for hosting a nuclear facility.
Most countries have a designated agency that regulates nuclear facilities and sets the criteria and regulations for radioactive waste disposal, and ultimately is the authority that determines whether operating licences will be issued. In order to make knowledgeable decisions about the proposed generating station or disposal site, these agencies require information about it, including extensive and detailed technical information. Because regulatory agencies are responsible for protecting the public interest, a clear arm's length relationship is usually established between the regulatory agency and the proponent of nuclear power. It is important that this relationship be maintained, as a failure to do so will cause severe credibility problems for the agency and an increase in public opposition to nuclear power. Most communications with such regulatory agencies are of a technical nature, and do not require special information programs.
Different approaches have been employed in communications with officials of other government agencies. The regulations of a number of government departments, at the national, state and local level, can have a considerable impact on the design of a facility and its operation. Therefore, communications programs provide information to all government departments that might have a regulatory interest in the construction and operation of nuclear facilities. Government departments dealing with the environment, health, transportation, energy, mines, labor, municipal affairs and industrial development are among those that have expressed interest.
Communities have often expressed an acute interest in waste management research programs in their area, in proposals for the location of a reactor or disposal facility near them or in proposals that radioactive materials be transported through their locality. Even where they do not have legal jurisdiction over specific developments to which they object, they have exerted great influence. Communities have expressed concerns that they will be adversely affected, and special efforts are made to provide the elected officials and residents of communities with information on projects that might have an impact on them. Briefings for local emergency response officials, such as police and firefighters, have proved effective in reducing community anxiety.
The news media is an important source of information for the general public, and requires facts in order to provide accurate reports on nuclear power programs and proposals (Ref. 8). Media relations programs form part of the public information activities of a number of countries. They consist of media background briefings, news releases on important developments, and the establishment of a capability to answer questions that are frequently asked by the news media. Background information provided to the news media includes photographs, film, videotape, fact sheets, copies of technical reports, government laws or policy statements, and information booklets or pamphlets.
Some organizations provide special training to designated spokesmen with technical knowledge and the ability to translate complex scientific information into language that can be easily understood by ordinary people. Such spokesmen are available to answer questions posed by the media, and sometimes spend a considerable amount of time doing so. While such individuals must be well-qualified in a technical sense, they will not be successful unless they also project the human side of their nature and have excellent "people skills."
Environmental groups concerned about nuclear power and radioactive waste management require factual information. Public opinion research indicates that the public feels environmental groups have a useful role to play in society by questioning those in authority and ensuring that the environment is adequately protected. Some environmental groups are opposed to nuclear energy as a matter of policy. On radioactive waste management, such groups have conflicting interests. They oppose nuclear energy because there is no proven way to dispose of the waste, but they also oppose finding a solution to the waste "problem" because such a solution would make it more likely that the use of nuclear generating stations would continue or expand. Other environmental groups have no particular policy on nuclear energy and are thus more likely to assist in attempting to find solutions.
Special interest groups exist in most countries, and nuclear power is a subject that touches the spheres of interest of many of them. Labor unions, for example, have been known to be interested in nuclear power because their members are or will be involved in constructing and operating the facilities, and they want to be assured of their industrial and radiological safety. Agricultural organizations have expressed concern that emissions from a nuclear generating station or disposal facility could cause contamination of the foodstuffs their members produce. Consumers' organizations have expressed interest in a continued supply of plentiful and inexpensive energy. Organizations representing doctors and nurses have spoken about the public health aspects of various energy sources. Organizations representing municipal governments have asked that communities be given certain rights during site selection processes. Information programs often provide information specific to the interests of each of these organizations in addition to general and scientific information.
Nuclear industry employees, and employees of organizations involved in the research and development of radioactive waste disposal technologies, are often asked questions about their work and the organization and the industry that employs them. Methods such as employee newsletters or news videos are used to provide this audience with the most up-to-date information, so that employees can respond knowledgeably to such questions.
Decision-making processes on contentious issues in society often involve individuals who are not really part of the official decision-making structure, but whose opinion is valued either by government or by the public. Such persons may include elder statesmen, respected scientists, or editors of newspapers. Some communications programs identify such people and provide them with information, not only about the technology, but also about the social and ethical aspects of nuclear power, so that they are in a position to have an informed opinion.
One of the ways of gradually changing public perception on such issues as nuclear power is to provide a better information base on which society can make a decision. Schools are a place where information about all kinds of societal issues is normally imparted. Information programs should not concentrate on science courses alone, although science teachers generally are a receptive audience and appreciate assistance in teaching complex subjects such as nuclear energy and radioactivity. But not all children study science, and the issue of nuclear power in society involves making choices based on a number of factors, not all of which are scientific. Programs have been developed that allow students to simulate this decision-making process, and to evaluate for themselves the arguments for and against nuclear energy. Such programs allow the participation of the social sciences as well as the physical sciences in the learning process. It should be recognized that the results of such educational efforts are necessarily long-term, and that such programs will not bear fruit until the students reach positions of influence in society some years later.
Most communications programs are conceived in a framework where decisions on nuclear energy programs are made by governments or regulatory agencies on the advice of technical experts, and these decisions and the supporting rational arguments are then communicated to the public in hopes of achieving public understanding and acceptance.
It has been argued that the kind of communication (as described in the previous section) intended to persuade people to accept policies and technologies and the risks that they imply can be fundamentally manipulative, and is therefore less likely to achieve public acceptance than processes that allow public participation in decision-making. Negative public reaction has been encountered in some countries when the process used was the "Decide, Announce, Defend" method of public interaction (Ref. 10). This traditional process is characterized by (1) decisions made by governments or experts without public consultation, (2) announcement of those decisions to the public through the use of communications programs, and finally (3) defense of the decisions through the use of communications programs if negative public reaction is experienced.
Another group of techniques, loosely combined under the heading of public participation, has been employed where there has been a desire to involve the public in the decision-making process by providing active channels for two-way communication and sometimes actually sharing decision-making power. The premise upon which public participation techniques are based is that decisions arrived at jointly by all stakeholders should be easier to implement than decisions made in private, which are then announced and defended through a public information program. In some countries, the sharing of decision-making power is formalized by use of referenda or plebiscites. In others, the process is more informal.
In several countries, siting of facilities is conducted in a way that facilitates the participation of the public in the decision making process. The Swedish organization for the management and disposal of nuclear waste is an example of an organizational structure intended to do this. A governmental authority (the National Board for Spent Nuclear Fuel) has evaluative tasks relative to the research program, conducted by the reactor owners (who have commissioned the Swedish Fuel and Waste Management Co. to prepare the program). This provides an opportunity for non-partisan information to the public. That Board also has a mandate to promote independent evaluations and critical assessments of the technical solutions that are proposed.
During the siting of a nuclear facility, demands for extensive consultation with and involvement of local people have been known to arise. Such demands are likely to be more intense where perceived risk is high, where political cultures encourage participatory processes, and where distrust of the institution doing the siting prevails.
The traditional approach has been to treat nuclear power projects as one example of a broader class of industrial undertakings. The public is typically not involved until a final list of sites has been selected, and then primarily in a procedural way. But it is apparent that high levels of local concern at sites are forcing procedural innovations, extraordinary measures, and, in some cases, broader institutional changes.
An alternative approach is to treat nuclear power as a unique challenge and to seek earlier and broader consultation, with innovation in the traditional consultation mechanisms. This approach is used in Sweden, as has just been described. Sweden has long made use of study circles within political parties and labor unions as a way of shaping national consensus in advance of program implementation. There is no guarantee that such processes will result in overall acceptance of nuclear energy, however.
In other countries, for example Finland, there is a legal requirement for local government approval before a licence can be issued for construction of nuclear facility. Such laws, or the formal use of referenda or plebiscites, can define the need for and extent of public participation. In countries where such mechanisms are not used, public participation theory would suggest that all stakeholders should be consulted. However, it is clearly not possible to involve all of the stakeholders in a national nuclear power program in the decision-making process. Even if all present-day stakeholders could be involved, it is not possible to consult with generations not yet born who might be affected by the waste . Therefore, some reasonable substitute, with a manageable number of people involved in the public participation process, is sometimes used. In Canada, a public consultation program on nuclear fuel waste management was based on the assumption that discussions with a cross-section of special interest groups, representing all of society's interest sectors, can be functionally equivalent to full public participation. Interest sectors such as labor, medicine, religion, agriculture, the environment, forestry, tourism, municipal governments, transportation, business and industry, energy, women, consumers, educators, aboriginal people and others were asked to participate. The credibility of such a process is enhanced when representatives of groups opposed to nuclear energy are included, even though such representatives may be opposed to the fundamental premise of the consultation.
It should be noted that such participation and negotiation innovations are regarded as dangerous and ill-conceived by some of the technical experts involved in nuclear power programs in a number of countries. Concern has been expressed that public participation causes more delay, that it undermines the adequate decision-making processes that already exist, that it sets dangerous precedents for the making of other decisions, and that the decision-making process on nuclear power will become bogged down in debates about the merits of nuclear power. There are also arguments to the contrary: it does not make much sense to invest large-scale technical effort in developing programs which in end cannot be implemented because of public opposition, existing decision-making processes have not functioned well in the area of nuclear power, and public participation programs can be structured to ensure that the participants represent the majority view of the population.
The need to site a new nuclear generating station or a waste disposal facility has often created the typical NIMBY reaction. As noted earlier, communications programs designed to give a community information have not always been successful in helping to achieve community acceptance. Most national programs for nuclear waste management, for example, had extensive communications programs, but there are very few success stories in achieving public acceptance. Sociological research conducted in conjunction with a public information program at a proposed high-level radioactive waste disposal site in Texas, in fact, disclosed that community opposition grew at the same time as residents of the community became more familiar with the proposal.
It has been suggested that traditional site selection processes based on the perceived need to choose a site that optimizes economic, technical and environmental criteria solve the wrong political problems and often frustrate the right ones (Ref. 11).
O'Hare, Bacow and Sanderson (ibid.) summarize the typical approach to siting as follows: "There is a technically best location for a particular facility, and at least a prima facie case can be made that it ought to be built somewhere. We assume that title to the land can be obtained, whether by taking or by purchase, and that the site meets specific regulatory criteria for environmental impact and public safety regulation. What now should be done to wind up with either a functioning facility on the site in a reasonable time or a decision that the project is ill-conceived?"
They note that it is at the stage where the candidate site is announced that the most expensive, embittering and divisive failures of the traditional siting process occur. Communications programs designed to provide the public with information have often been undertaken after the siting decision has already been made to assist in developing acceptance at the community level. In many cases, such programs have failed, with a resulting political decision to abandon the site or the site selection process.
It is evident from observation of existing processes that it is very difficult to try to prove to a suspicious public (or even to other scientists) that any one site is technically the "best." An alternative, therefore, is to define the environmental and health protection criteria that a site must meet, and to search for a site that both meets these criteria and has public acceptance.
One method of siting already used successfully in a number of countries is the expansion of facilities or the location of additional facilities at existing nuclear sites. This approach has met with some success but is not always practical because the site may not have adequate room for additional facilities or may fail to meet other technical or safety criteria.
A second siting option being investigated is to seek out an area with a depressed local economy and high rates of local unemployment. Such communities are more likely to appreciate the economic development and employment opportunities associated with a nuclear facility, and therefore to evaluate the risks of the facility somewhat more objectively. Provided that the site passes stringent environmental safety tests to ensure its technical suitability, such a process can provide a site that is both socially and technically acceptable.
One hypothesis that may explain the failure of standard technically-driven siting processes is that the community's perception of the risk of a facility was not changed because the information that was provided did not deal with the root causes of the adverse risk perception (Ref. 12). The public fears involuntary risks more than voluntary ones, perhaps as much as 1,000 times more, according to sociological research on the differences in risk perception between the general public and scientific experts in risk analysis (Ref. 1).
Within the past decade, some work has been done on the development of siting processes that take into account such adverse influences on risk perception by making community approval a necessary prerequisite to site approval. Such processes, loosely grouped under the heading of "the volunteer community approach" have been used with some success in the siting of low-level radioactive waste facilities and for the siting of hazardous chemical waste disposal facilities. Most applications of such processes so far are of an ad hoc nature, but the process was formalized in Canada and in several of the U.S. States for the selection of sites for low-level radioactive waste disposal facilities. The Canadian Low-Level Radioactive Waste Siting Task Force suggested that empowering communities to make their own decisions could result in siting processes that are "characterized by cooperation rather than confrontation (Ref. 13)." The actual results so far are mixed, and additional work is required to arrive at a process that has a consistently greater chance of success than traditional processes.
The application of conflict resolution techniques, and the offering of local benefits to offset the risks perceived by a community have also been suggested as a means of enhancing community acceptance (Ref. 14).
There are several rationales as to why compensation or other economic benefits (hereafter referred to as "economic incentives") might be provided to the population at a nuclear facility site:
- to redress harm which may occur, thereby restoring the original condition,
- to redress the broader inequities involved in the geographical separation of benefits and costs, and
- to provide financial incentives to encourage public payments, taxes, payment in lieu of taxes, or non-monetary concessions (jobs, schools, highways, economic development programs).
The use of economic incentives has the goal of increasing local acceptance and it is frequently combined with negotiation between the siting party and the host community. Practice between various countries differs markedly with regard to economic incentives in the siting process. The most elaborate use, linked with negotiation, occurred in France. Under French law, developers of any large industrial facility are required to manage impacts occurring in the host area, during both construction and operation phases. Until 1985, nuclear power plants also carried an economic incentive in the form of a host community reduction in electricity rates. The French ministries disallowed this practice because it was seen as discrimination against other host region communities. Other European countries have used economic incentives and negotiation much less extensively. Japan, in siting nuclear power plants, offers community benefits and compensation payments to the fishermen who own some rights to the water that will be used to cool the generating station, even though it is evident from past experience that the warmer water enhances rather than diminishes fish production.
It is apparent that the role of compensation and negotiation is closely related to political culture. In France, the central government has broad discretionary power, and the wide use of economic incentives is a means of obtaining public acceptance of a highly centralized administrative system. The desire to gain local acceptance has also motivated the pragmatic use of compensation procedures in the United States. But in Sweden, where cooperative and consensual approaches to problem solving predominate, and in the United Kingdom, where the civil service has a long tradition of defining the public interest, such approaches appear to be out of place.
The question of how widely information about nuclear power should be communicated is often debated in the development of information programs. In some countries, where the nuclear power issue has become a major public concern, extensive information programs or public participation programs have been undertaken. In other countries, where the issue is a concern that merely underlies other concerns about the environment, communications have been somewhat more focused, providing information not so much to the general public as to audiences that specifically require information.
Research into the effect of information suggests that extensive coverage of an issue in the news media at first produces a negative response on the part of the public, regardless of the content of the information (Ref. 15). Nevertheless, most agencies engaged in nuclear power have public information programs as part of their overall activities, either because they are mandated by their governments to do so or because they can conceive of no other way to achieve the necessary degree of public acceptance required to allow the continued operation or expansion of the nuclear power program, or to construct waste management facilities.
Analysis of the difference between the way the public perceives risks and the way that risk experts calculate it indicates that about 35 different factors (none of them dependent on the probability of the occurrence of an event) govern the public's assessment of risk. Some of these factors, such as whether the activity that gives rise to the risk is imposed or voluntarily entered into, and whether the individual experiencing the risk has personal control over the activity, may multiply the adverse perception of the risk by as much as 1000-fold. Public acceptance programs should strive to deal with such factors by performing in a way that provides the public with the assurances that it requires. Such performance on the part of the industry may be far more important to public acceptance than technical efforts to reduce the actual risk of nuclear projects to levels far below those accepted by society for other activities.
While lessons can be drawn from the successes and failures of individual communications programs, there appears to be no single guaranteed method of winning public acceptance. The methods used in most countries are similar. The way in which these methods are applied, the particular sociological and political framework of the country concerned, and the degree to which the development of the nuclear power program involves public input appear to be factors that influence whether or not such programs achieve public acceptance.
1 Slovic, P., Fischhoff, B. and Lichtenstein, S., "Rating the Risks: The Structure of Expert and Lay Perceptions" Pp 141-166 in Risk in the Technological Society, Westview Press, 1982.
2 Royal Society (U.K.) "The Assessment and Perception of Risk" London, U.K., 1981 ISBN 0-85403-163-4
3 Williams, R. Gary, "Perceived Knowledge and Perceived Risk", Proceedings of the Symposium on Waste Management at Tucson Arizona, U.S.A., 1988.
4 Harrison, Bruce E., et al, "Environmental Communication and Public Relations Handbook", Government Institutes Inc., U.S.A., 1988
5 Electricité de France, "La formation de l'opinion publique" 1979, UN 621.039:659.4 R432
6 Nuclear Electricity Information Group (UK), "Opinion Tracking Survey, Quarter 2, 1989, Main Report". J6424/RW, August 1989.
7 Goldfarb Consultants, "Public Concerns Associated with Ontario Hydro-Wave 1", prepared for Ontario Hydro, Canada, July 1988.
8 Van Buiren, Shirley, "Die Kernenergie-Kontroverse im Spiegel der Tageszeitungen", R. Oldenburg Verlagungen, 1980, FRG
9 Wieser, A. (Editor), "Challenges to Radioactive Waste", Proceeding of the International Radioactive Waste Issues Conference, Sept. l2-l4, l986, Winnipeg, Canada. ISBN 0-9693107-0-6
10 Otway, H., "Experts, Risk Communication and Democracy" Luncheon Address to the Annual Meeting of the Society for Risk Analysis, reprinted in Risk Analysis, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1987.
11 O'Hare, M., Bacow, L. and Sanderson, D., "Facility Siting and Public Opposition". ISBN 0-442-26287-6
12 Dierkes, M., Edwards, S., Coppock, R. "Technological Risk; Its Perception and Handling in the European Community". Oelschlager, U.S.A., 1980, ISBN 3-445-12079-X (FRG)
13 McTaggart-Cowan, J.D., et al, "Opting for Cooperation - Report of the Siting Process Task Force on Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal" Queen's Printer of Canada, 1988. ISBN 0-662-15759-1
14 Kunreuther, H.C., "Hazard Compensation and Incentive Systems: An Economic Perspective" in Hazards: Technology and Fairness. National Academy Press, Washington, U.S.A., 1986. ISBN 0-309-03644-5
15 Nazur, A., "Media Coverage and Public Opinion on Scientific Controversies", Journal of Communication (U.S.A.), Spring, 1981.
16 Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, "Report of the Nuclear Fuel Waste Management and Disposal Concept Environmental Assessment Panel," February, 1998.
17 Frech, E. R. "The Risk Perception Gap: A Communications or a Performance Problem?" Special Session on Human Values and Technological Risk, Annual Meeting of the American Nuclear Society, Washington DC, November 1994.
18 Greber, M.A.; Frech, E.R.; Hillier, J.R. "The Disposal of Canada's Nuclear Fuel Waste: Public Involvement and Social Aspects," AECL-10712, July 1994.
Although national nuclear power programs generate questions specific to the national context in which they arise, many of the public's questions surrounding the technical, economic, social and environmental aspects of nuclear energy are remarkably similar regardless of the country of origin. Part of the reason for this is that people are concerned about the same things regardless of where they live, but another reason is that organizations opposed to the use of nuclear energy have been very successful in disseminating information, often not factually correct, that supports their side of this debate.
In an attempt to provide accurate and consistent responses to many of these issues and questions, a number of them are reproduced on the following pages, together with factual information that should aid the practitioner.
THE COMPETITIVENESS OF NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS
In view of the competitiveness of the market, nuclear power plants need to manage their business so as to reduce generation costs (Fuel, Operation and Maintenance) and place the electricity on the power grid at the best possible competitive price.
Some social groups might interpret that "Reducing Costs" equates to "Reducing Operating Safety".
- The priority objective for the nuclear power plant owners (i.e. those directly responsible for their operation) is at all times to produce electricity with maximum guarantees of operating safety for both the professionals working at the plants and for the external environment.
- Compliance with safety-related codes, standards and requirements is continuously watched over and controlled by the regulatory authorities.
- Any modifications made to the original design of the plants in order to optimize plant operation (such as equipment replacement for more technologically advanced options, implementation of new methods and inspection and surveillance tools, etc.) are continuously controlled by the safety authorities in order to fully guarantee plant safety.
- One of the objectives of nuclear power plants is to achieve high availability. This correlates to a large extent with a high safety standard, since in both cases optimum status conditions are required for the plant equipment, systems and components.
- Heavy investments are made in nuclear power plant safety during construction and the licensing process. During the plant operating period, safety enhancements are also incorporated, although these amount to only a very small share of the initial investment.
- Safety, like cost, is measurable. The best guarantee is provided by operating stability and the absence of significant operating events or incidents. At world level there is continuous tracking of the Performance Indicators established by several organizations, which demonstrates steady improvement in the operating efficiency of nuclear power plants.
THE EFFECTS OF RADIATION ON THE SURROUNDINGS OF NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS
The effects of ionizing radiation on human health are quite well known when people are exposed to high radiation doses and/or high dose rates. The same cannot be said when the rate of exposure to the radiation or the total dose received is very low. In addition, the effects of low exposure rates or doses do not appear immediately but are delayed in time, and are also random or probabilistic in nature.
Although residents opposed to the use of nuclear power or concerned about their health or the health of their children often request that epidemiological studies be carried out in the areas surrounding nuclear power plants, the performance of such studies is very difficult and the validity of the results is questionable, unless very large samples of the population are studied and suitable control groups are selected.
- Since the 1940's, hundreds of epidemiological studies have been carried out in the areas surrounding nuclear installations and power plants. The results are sometimes contradictory, as is the case for nearly all reports, and depend on the methodology used, the objectives mapped out and the performance of the study in question.
- It is very difficult to analyze the effects of low doses of radiation, for the following reasons:
1. Given their low frequency, the effects may be encompassed or masked by causes other than radiation, which, in view of their greater frequency, may produce similar effects, in isolation or simultaneously.
2. From the point of view of methodology, it is necessary to study very large samples of the population over several generations, and also to take into consideration equally large control samples of people who have not been exposed to radiation but who share the same environmental factors.
3. Mankind is continuously exposed to natural radiation (cosmic radiation and that coming from the radioactive elements contained in the Earth's surface), as well as to artificial radiation (from the medical or industrial use of nuclear energy). Thus, there is no possibility of establishing a control group living in a radiation-free environment.
- Nevertheless, the most serious studies carried out (performed over long periods of time, with large population samples and a large number of controls, etc.) indicate that the operating nuclear power plants have no negative effects on health.
The clearest example of the above is the Jablou Seymour report, performed over 35 years (1950-1984) in the United States. The populations surrounding 62 nuclear installations were analyzed. The results showed 900,000 deaths due to all types of cancers in nuclear zones during this period, as opposed to 1,800,000 deaths, also due to different types of cancer, among the control group used as a reference.
- Environmental groups often demand reliable epidemiological studies. For the above stated reasons, it is very difficult to perform such studies in a manner that can give reliable results.
- Since such studies are fundamentally unreliable, different studies often give conflicting results. Groups opposed to the use of nuclear energy usually critique and publicly denounce any studies that do not demonstrate negative effects of nuclear power plants on public health, while proclaiming those that do. The resulting controversy is confusing to the public, and engenders fear that is not supported by the science.
- While the regulation of emissions from nuclear power plants assumes some harm will occur from radiation no matter how small the dose or how low the dose rate, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests there is a threshold below which no harmful effects occur, and that there may even be some beneficial effects to the health of most people exposed to low doses of radiation.
The generation of wastes is intrinsically linked to all industrial processes in which raw materials are transformed. Society accepts this, at least the general concept, but such acceptance may be lost depending on the extent to which a certain waste type is perceived as being hazardous and on the duration of the risk implied. In the case of nuclear wastes, the perception of hazard is very high compared to that implied by other industrial wastes.
The quality of the environment is a top concern for society. Within this framework, radioactive waste is receiving particular attention. Groups philosophically opposed to the use of nuclear energy express concern about the toxicity and longevity of nuclear waste, but oppose attempts to provide a solution for the permanent disposal of such waste because a solution might make nuclear power more environmentally attractive and lead to its expanded use.
- Like other industrial activities, the generation of electricity by nuclear means produces wastes. These have to be conditioned, treated and disposed of without risk for present and future generations and for the environment.
- The concern felt by the nuclear industry regarding the wastes it generates and the social perception of "high risk" that surrounds such wastes, has, from the very beginning, made the industry in question apply the criteria of "Concentration and Confinement" to radioactive waste management, instead of the criterion of "Dilution and Dispersion", as is the case in many other industries.
- The definition of a "waste" is conceived from the perspective of its later use (waste is what is not subsequently used or has no further use). The degree of interest in the treatment and management of wastes is associated with their level of potential danger. Society is not concerned about those wastes that are considered "harmless"; in many cases there are levels established to identify what is considered "harmless", and these are accepted by society.
- In the case of radioactive wastes, no lower limit has ever been established. Taken to its ultimate extreme, the application of such a principle could mean that the natural radioactivity existing in living organisms would mean that, once they die, they would constitute a radioactive waste. The widely used and much appreciated waters from natural springs have certain levels of radioactivity, which might also eventually lead to them being considered radioactive wastes. Usually, however, society makes a distinction between naturally-occurring radioactivity and radioactivity generated or concentrated by human activity.
- Natural radioactive "wastes" have been around on our planet since its very origins, as a result of the physical processes that took place during its creation. Furthermore, there are not only those which were generated in the past, but also those which are generated today as a result of the effect of cosmic radiation coming from the universe (Carbon 14 or Tritium). It is often difficult for the general public to accept that radiation from man-made radioactive materials has exactly the same characteristics and effects as radiation from naturally occurring materials.
- The problem of radioactive waste disposal is, to a significant extent, technically solved. However, the socio-political problems of managing radioactive waste still present significant challenges. Often, these socio-political problems result in technical challenges to the disposal solutions being proposed, which further confuses the issue.
- The IAEA Convention on Safety in the Management of Spent Nuclear Fuel and Radioactive Wastes makes a clear distinction between the different types of wastes, since spent fuel has a potential for reuse because of the energy potential that it still possesses: "Spent fuel should not be considered a waste while the option of reprocessing remains open and its future use may be foreseen."
- Most wastes are only slightly radioactive and belong to what is known as low level wastes. Only a small fraction of the total, the so-called high level wastes, are very radioactive.
|Low Level||200||71 %|
|High Level||10||4 %|
- Low level radioactive wastes are less radioactive even than some rocks, such as for example those found in Cornwall, in Wales or Bavaria, in Germany, where high levels of natural radioactivity exist.
- If all the electricity used by the average citizen of an OECD country were generated by nuclear fuel, the wastes produced in its generation would amount in size to approximately that of a kiwi fruit.
- Compared to the wastes produced by other activities, radioactive wastes are insignificant in volume, and are the only wastes which have been and are totally controlled as regards their composition, origin, history and location.
- Unlike other types of wastes of indefinite duration (Cadmium, Mercury or Arsenic), radioactive wastes require periods of storage, for a limited and clearly defined time, after which their radioactivity disappears.
- Present-day storage methods for spent nuclear fuel are safe and adequate, and can be continued for as long as society desires, but rely on continuing institutional controls for their safety. Permanent disposal options involve burial of the waste deep in stable geologic formations. Once sealed, such disposal systems could protect future generations and the environment without relying on continuing institutional controls.
THE CHERNOBYL ACCIDENT
On 26th April 1986, a nuclear accident occurred in the ex-Soviet Union, in Group 4 of the Chernobyl NPP. This plant is located in Ukraine and had four groups of the Soviet RBMK type, a graphite-moderated, water-cooled reactor. By that time the Three Mile Island accident, which occurred in 1979 in USA, had already compelled all the world to reconsider its attitude towards NPP safety.
The accident, which had enormous repercussions on the area around the plant, including parts of Ukraine and Belorus, has been classified at Level 7, the highest on the IAEA's International Nuclear Event Scale (INES).
The effects produced during the accident killed 31 people, 28 due to high radiation doses and three for other reasons, the irradiation of a significant number of people and heavy contamination of land in Ukraine and Belarus.
The accident with unprecedented consequences hampered nuclear power development in the whole world. Safety improvement has become a really international target, which compelled all "nuclear" countries to balance their approaches to "safety culture". Essentially, this agreed safety level is under control of the world community.
During 1986-1991 the USSR has implemented measures for NPP reliability and safety improvement, with elimination of the operational and design features that caused the Chernobyl accident from further reactor construction. Further stage of RMBK reactor safety enhancement, not connected with the Chernobyl specifics, and represented by modernizing of old units in accordance with permanent restriction of NPP safety requirements, was carried out in 1992-1997, with participation and support of the world community.
- The lack of a "safety culture," a result of the political and social regime in the Soviet Union, is at the very root of the Chernobyl accident.
- The Soviet Union had no independent inspection and safety evaluation system in place for its nuclear installations.
- The design of the RBMK reactor would never have been authorized in the Western countries. In fact, no reactor of this type has ever been built outside the ex Soviet Union.
- The operating practices at the Soviet reactors were not comparable with those applied in Western countries. They would, in fact, never have been permitted in the West.
- The effects of the Chernobyl accident have been evaluated by international organizations, fundamentally, by the IAEA, the World Health Organization and the Nuclear Energy Agency, and the results of their research have been made public.
- These international organizations have concluded that the accident caused the death of 31 people and that long-term effects for the health of other people affected by the accident cannot be ruled out. The most important of these effects is an increase in thyroid cancers among a group of people (565), fundamentally in children.
- A great deal of information published on the effects of the accident use pseudoscientific TALKING POINTS with only limited data to support their conclusions. Many of them refer to diseases and malformations which exist in any area of the world and many others are not related to the scientifically known effects of radiation. Some of the figures that have been put into circulation referring to large numbers of deaths due to cancers have a very questionable scientific base.
- One of the most important damaging effects produced to the population has been the psychological impact of ignorance of the effects of radiation and the incorrect information that abounded.
- The health conditions in the affected areas before the accident were the fundamental reason for many of the diseases found later.
- The Eastern European reactors, including the RBMKs have been improved with a great deal of help from the West. Furthermore, the design of Western reactors means that a repeat of Chernobyl in the West is highly unlikely.
- A nuclear accident of important magnitude (level 6 on the INES scale) occurred in the United Stated in 1979, at the Three Mile Island plant (TMI). However, the effects of the TMI accident on the plant workers and the public were so small as to be undetectable, due the existence of a containment building which retained the fission products. A U.S. president's commission determined that the outcome was a 30% chance of one additional cancer in the 70 years following the accident.
- Nuclear safety in the Western countries is even better than it was in 1979, since more safety elements have been introduced as a result of study of the causes of the TMI accident.
- If there were even the slightest possibility of an accident such as the one which occurred at Chernobyl, Western countries would not use nuclear energy as a way of generating electricity.
In recent years, Society has become conscious of the environment and conservation. This process has come about in association with social-cultural economic and technological development, so that those countries which have led development have been the first to feel concern for the environment. Led initially by the so-called "greens", concern for the environment has now been assumed by all political groups and has been incorporated in all their programs and in the very legislation of these countries.
These "green" groups have launched their campaigns not only against the production of industrial wastes but also against the processes involved in the treatment and disposal of these wastes. As regards the power industry, global heating and the greenhouse effect have been constant and important themes. In the specific case of nuclear energy, the management and disposal of radioactive wastes are the main reasons for opposition cited by these groups.
- The concern felt by the nuclear industry for the wastes it generates, and the social perception of "high risk" that surround such wastes, has, from the very beginning, made the industry in question apply the criterion of "Concentration and Confinement" to radioactive waste management, instead of the criterion of "Dilution and Dispersion", as is the case in other industries.
- The effluents produced by nuclear power plants, both gaseous and liquid, are treated by special systems in order to reduce radioactivity to as low as reasonable levels, well below the restrictive limits established. Furthermore, they are released in a controlled, measured way. The solid and some liquid wastes are subjected to processes of compaction and mixing in stable cement matrices, and are then enclosed in steel drums for controlled disposal.
- In nuclear power plants, electricity is generated by means of a physical process, nuclear fission, in which there is no combustion of materials. For this reason there are no emissions of combustion gases such as CO2 or sulphur or nitrogen oxides, which are strongly suspected to contribute to the greenhouse effect. Consequently, nuclear energy provides a feasible solution, allowing increasing electricity demands to be satisfied economically and with respect for the environment.
- Nuclear energy generates approximately a third of the electricity produced in the European Union, preventing the emission of 700 million tons of CO2, per year. This is equivalent to withdrawing from circulation all the cars on European roads (almost 200 million vehicles).
- Equivalent CO2 emission factors for different energy sources (complete energy chain).
- The operating licenses of many of the world nuclear power plants will expire between the years 2010 and 2020. If these plants are closed and not replaced with other nuclear facilities, it might be impossible to meet the overall objectives regarding the emission of gases contributing to global warming as a result of the greenhouse effect. It should be borne in mind that, according to the protocol signed in December 1997 at the Kyoto Summit Conference, the developing nations are not obliged to reduce their emissions.
- The representatives of the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have adopted the long-term objective of stabilizing the emissions of greenhouse gases and of reducing the atmospheric release of gases to levels preventing dangerous climate changes, without affecting continuous economic and social development. The challenge as regards energy supplies lies in the need to provide at least double the current amount of energy while limiting the increase of gas emissions, particularly CO2 and this is where nuclear energy may play an important role.
THE FUTURE OF NUCLEAR ENERGY
- Nuclear energy, as a large-scale source of electricity generation, has attained a high degree of maturity. Its use is now a fact that goes beyond current difficulties, which are very probably circumstantial.
- This degree of maturity is demonstrated by the fact that there are currently 443 nuclear power plants in operation in the world, generating 17% of the total electricity produced. These plants are located primarily in the developed nations and represent 25% of the overall electricity production in the OECD.
- Generally speaking, in those countries in which there is sustained economic growth (for example, Japan) there has not been an excess electricity generating capacity and nuclear power plants continue to be built in order to meet the growing demand for electricity. Nuclear energy continues to see a strong level of development in these countries, as is demonstrated by the fact that advanced technology plants have been started up in Japan, with others under construction in both Japan and Taiwan.
- Nuclear energy is also well represented in the emerging countries, which see in this source an added opportunity for economic growth because of the heavy industrial development it brings with it. There are new projects under way, especially in Asia (China, Korea, Taiwan, India, etc.), and projects already initiated in Argentina and Brazil are now being finished. There are currently some 50 nuclear generating stations under construction or ordered throughout the world.
- Various official EU bodies (the European Commission's "Indicative Nuclear Programme," ECOSOC Declaration, etc.) consider it advisable to maintain the nuclear option as one of the various energy alternatives open, from the three-fold point of view of guaranteed supply (price stability and energy independence), general competitiveness (the maintenance of an energy option within a wide range of options) and environmental protection (reduction of CO2 emissions). ECOSOC also sees the nuclear option as a safeguard of high-tech knowledge and qualified jobs.
- The foreseeable growth of energy consumption at world level in the medium and long term and the environmental effects that this would entail if the demand were covered fundamentally by the massive combustion of fossil fuels, mean that it would be desirable to include the use of nuclear energy as a component of the overall electricity-generating system. The Protocol agreed on in Kyoto in December 1997 is a reflection of the concern felt across the world for these environmental effects, and more particularly for CO2 emissions.
- Nevertheless, in many countries, and especially in the developed world, nuclear energy is facing obstacles to progress, which center basically on two issues, the public perception that it is a high-risk technology (massive releases of radioactive substances to the environment in the event of serious accidents) and the belief that there is no feasible way to manage the wastes arising from nuclear power plant operation. However, the facts and the results of plant operation do not support this perception
- Nuclear energy shares with other energy technologies the possibility of providing energy with a strong technological component, reflected in heavy initial investments but with minimum use of energy resources (natural uranium represents less than 5% of the final cost of the kWh). This same situation exists in the case of hydroelectricity and solar and wind energy although, unlike nuclear energy, the latter two options are limited by their low power density.
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