Risk perception and energy infrastructure
Written evidence submitted by Mr Fred Dawson (Risk 06)
Personal details and declaration of interests
1. Until my early retirement in 2009 I had been employed by the Ministry of Defence. My career as a health and safety specialist spans over 30 years. The earlier part of my career was spent providing advice to the Ministry Defence research establishments including Aldermarston and Porton Down. In more recent years as Assistant Director Health Physics of the Ministry of Defence Central Safety Organisation I have represented the Ministry of Defence’s interests in the development of national policy, legislation and responding to Ministerial business Parliamentary Questions etc relating radiation protection.
2. Since my early retirement in 2009 I have been an independent researcher and consultant researching the legacy of past and current military activities and the impact on both man and the environment.
Education / qualifications.
· Bsc Hons Degree in Occupational Hygiene Polytechnic of the Southbank 1978.
· Chartered Radiation Protection Professional.
· Member of the Society of Radiological Protection
Statement of Evidence
What are the key factors influencing public risk perception and tolerability of energy infrastructure facilities and projects?
3. A key factor about the public’s perception of risk form the nuclear energy sector is that military origins of the civil nuclear programme. The continuing MOD’ secrecy and lack of transparency in relation to nuclear safety issues and the continuing exemptions etc from civil regulation such as the Nuclear Installations Act does nothing to improve public confidence in Defence nuclear safety and more generally civil nuclear safety.
4. At a technical level the HSE/ONR do a good job in providing information about risk for use by the technically literate; but needs to more proactive in reaching out to the wider public. The difficulty with engaging with the wider public is that in my experience they only become interested when issues impact directly on them.
5. Public perceptions are to a large extent influenced by the media who tend to draw on the more sensationalist views of risk, often promoted by groups such as the low level radiation campaign and the European Committee on Radiation Risk. These views feed peoples fear and dread of contracting cancer in themselves or their children. I very rarely see media reports or these groups’ views being challenged.
How are public risk perceptions taken into account in the planning process for energy infrastructure?
6. That those communities taking on a risk for the benefit of society as whole should be properly compensated for that risk and blight caused (eg reduced property prices, impaired views, noise etc). Blight being a contentious issue for proposed wind farms and pylons etc.
How effectively does local and central Government communicate risk and could it be improved?
7. The absorption of the NRPB into the HPA has lowered the public profile of radiation/nuclear safety as radiation protection is only a small part of the HPAs remit.
8. The understanding of nuclear power and risk can be improved through changes to the educational system. This could be addressed by how students are taught about climate change and the choices that have to be made; and that every form of energy production carries risks and environmental impacts.
When incidents happen there has been a tendency to avoid saying anything negative and to wait until the media break the story. However in my personal experience it is always better to say we got this wrong and to explain how we are putting things right. This provides an opportunity to come clean and present the issues first to the public maintaining the presentational initiative.
To what extent can public perceptions be changed by improving risk communication? (please provide examples).
10. An acceptance by the public that life is not risk free and in the end we will all die. One three of us will contract cancer. That there is far from a complete understanding of what causes cancer, but that radiation can play a part in the development of some cancers. We cannot definitely answer peoples question "what caused my cancer" as there are often many causes, each contributing to a greater or lesser extent depending on circumstances.
11. An excellent example of balanced reporting on nuclear safety was the BBC programme "Bang goes the theory" http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b015t2rr
12. "In the aftermath of the Fukushima radiation scare, the team turns its attention to nuclear power. Jem climbs into a reaction chamber to explain how a nuclear power station works and what happened in Japan. Meanwhile, Dallas investigates the clean-up operation for radioactive waste, and Liz looks at what radiation does to the human body"
13. Encourage the Society of Radiological Protection http://www.srp-uk.org/ , the Nuclear Institute http://www.nuclearinst.com/t and the European Nuclear Society http://www.euronuclear.org/ , to actively engage with the public to play an even greater role in risk communication
Key points to improving public confidence in those communicating about risk are
· demonstrable independence,
· stakeholder and public engagement in decision making
· authoritative information and knowledge
· institutional trust
14. Good examples of stakeholder engagement which I have personally participated in include
· Cowam http://www.cowam.com/
· Safegrounds http://www.safegrounds.com/
· NDA stakeholder dialogue
15. All of these initiatives used independent facilitators bringing together stakeholders, many of whom hold divergent views. The facilitated dialogue provided an excellent means of framing issues and understanding stakeholders’ views on risk and to greater or lesser extent forming a consensus on various contentious issues. The process enables people to learn about other stakeholders points of view on issues such as risk. The process is also seen to directly influence decisions and because of this stakeholders are willing to put time and effort into the process.
How does and should the Government work with the private sector to understand public perceptions of risk and address them?
16. Provide better public access to nuclear facilities for tours and using those employed on the plant as guides rather that media staff. Practical demonstrations to show that we are all exposed to radiation from natural sources as well as manmade sources, this serves to put exposure and doses and risks from nuclear power stations into perspective.
17. Government needs to work with the private sector and regulators to ensure a coordinated approach to the communication of risk with both short and longer term goals.
18. Joint sponsorship of online events and websites separately targeting children, teenagers, students, adults. This should include partners such as the Science Museum Dana Centre
20. Government needs to work with the private sector to improve communications with the media making available industry and government experts in the short timescales time needed by the media rather than putting out bland statements of reassurance lacking in credibility.
How do risk perceptions and communication issues in the UK compare to those of other countries?
21. The public’s perception of risk in part differs from countries such as Sweden because the UK possesses nuclear weapons. The debacle of NIREX and the national repository served to damage public confidence with the impression that science was being used to support a decision that had already been made. The subsequent reluctance by the government to release the list of sites did little to help. This contrasted with the much more open approach in countries such as Sweden and Switzerland where central government allowed local communities a greater opportunity to participate in making decisions on the sighting of repositories.
Fred W P Dawson
12 December 2011