‘Perception of risk’ by Paul Slovic, Part 2: What factors influence risk perception?

Back to Slovic

There are several factors that have been identified as having the biggest impacts on the perception of risk: control, familiarity, catastrophic potential, and level of knowledge available to non-experts. Nuclear power, unfortunately, ticks most of these boxes for a majority of the lay public, and this makes it extremely difficult to communicate the actual risks.

It seems to me that these influencing factors can also work in the other direction. Take ‘familiarity’ for example. When the atomic age was first under way, there was probably a reasonable good ‘popular science’ understanding of the way that nuclear power worked, and this familiarity probably helped encourage the growth of the nuclear industry — with support rallied by events like the ‘Atoms for Peace’ speech — and acceptance in the wider public sphere (aside from a vocal minority). But this familiarity has come back in another form, familiarity with the disaster narrative. When people think of nuclear power now, the unerringly refer to events like Chernobyl, the disaster has become the familiar, which in turn seems to push the perception of the risk of nuclear events higher and higher.

Another factor that comes into perception of risk, is what Slovic calls the ‘signal potential’ of an incident. This refers to the capability of a single incident of imply further and more far-reaching impacts of the accident. The example he used was that of the difference of a trainwreck and a nuclear disaster like what happened at Three Mile Island. Hundreds of people may be killed in the trainwreck but, because it is a supposedly ‘closed’ event, there will be little alarm in the wider public. Compare this however, with Three Mile Island. No one was killed as a result of that accident, and the wider consequences were relatively minor, from a human health standpoint (not to belittle the suffering of those that were affected). And yet, the public reaction to the event was wildly over the top, and from here came the majority of the costs of Three Mile Island, the huge public backlash caused massive increases in regulations and the requirements for building nuclear reactors (which massively increases costs, and makes nuclear less competitive), but also in the massive financial and social losses sf the companies involved, but also the communities around Three Mile Island, which suffered under the weight of the negative image of the area.

So is it actually possible to communicate risk effectively? I’ll talk about that in the next post…

Say something controversial.



A lot of what I’ve been talking about on this blog, especially related to the emotional aspects of the nuclear debate, can really be boiled down to one particular issue: ‘radiophobia’.

In a strictly medical sense, radiophobia can be defined as the irrational fear of ionizing radiation (the type of radiation associated with nuclear power/bombs). This definition is most often applied to those who are irrationally afraid of X-rays, in a medical context.

What radiophobia is more often used to denote, especially in the nuclear debate, is the pervasive negative emotion associated with all kinds of nuclear technology.

Studies have shown that there is a long term emotional impact of large events, like Chernobyl, and there is growing coverage of the same radiophobia developing in Japan.

This negative opinion tends to colour people’s ability to calmly and rationally evaluate facts associated with the debate. Many cite radiophobia as the reason that people have a disproportionate response to the perceived risk of technologies that use radioactive materials. With proper safety in place, nuclear technology is not more dangerous than any other, and is often safer than many (such as coal, see the early posts on the science of the nuclear debate).

Despite the rational safety level of nuclear power, the disproportionate negative response tends to develop anti-nuclear campaigner’s arguments to the point where they become a ‘special pleading‘ fallacy. Special pleading is a fallacy where an exception to the normal rules is requested, for no valid reason. In the nuclear debate, this manifests itself in people who reject the use of nuclear technology for safety reasons, despite the evidence that nuclear is safer compared to other technologies.

In identifying this fallacy though, I am not trying to attack the completely legitimate feelings of those who have suffered though or know those who have suffered through radiation based incidents. Although the argument itself is a fallacy, the very real emotion behind it should be respected, and those who aim to debate in this arena should think about the impact of their words and how best to communicate their ideas before stepping up to the plate.

Say something controversial.


Location, location, location: Why doesn’t location get talked about in the nuclear debate?

VICE’s technology arm recently posted a story called: “​How Volcanic Eruptions Threaten Nuclear Power Plants“, which details the debate going on in Japan about the proximity of some of their nuclear power plants to active volcanoes. Despite the fact that they are not close enough to be affected by actual lava or pyroclastic flows, (as reiterated by vulcanologists), these plants are close enough to be negatively affected by ash from the eruptions. This article gave me something to think about, how location affects the nuclear debate.

Volcanoes are not the only problems that Japan’s nuclear power industry faces. Japan has a lot of volcanoes because it is on the edge of what is called the ‘Ring of Fire’. The ‘Ring of Fire’ runs around the boundary of the Pacific Ocean, and is where numerous undersea tectonic plates meet with the continental tectonic plates. The result of this is that there is a lot of volcanic activity as well as lots of earthquakes.

What else comes with earthquakes though? Tsunamis. As everyone is probably aware, Japan has to deal with tsunamis at comparatively frequent rate. We only need to recall the Fukushima Daaichi disaster to see how true the fear of natural disasters affecting nuclear power plants is. To be fair, Fukushima was unlucky enough to be hit by an earthquake and then a tsunami. But it does beg the question, is it wise to build a nuclear reactor, no matter how well designed and how many precautions have been taken, in a place where these sort of natural disasters are commonplace?

Compare Japan with Australia on that map above. Australia sits right in the middle of a continental tectonic plate, and the centre of Australia is pretty much as far from the sea and large earthquakes you can get.

If Australia were to build nuclear reactors somewhere in the vast unused land area that in the middle of the outback, it is almost guaranteed (touch wood) that there would be no natural disasters that could affect it, the main issues that would remain would be dealing with the heat, getting water to the site and getting the energy back to the coast.

But this point rarely, if ever, comes up in debates. Anti-nuclear advocates are allowed to go on about the possible dangers of natural disasters (an in places like Japan, they are probably right), but the pro-nuclear side never seems to rebut this with the idea that we build somewhere where that these things are unlikely to happen.

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The ‘Trinity’ video and above ground testing

I want to take this post to show and discuss a video I found while doing research for this blog.

This video is probably the best example I have seen of a video that really shows the largely undiscussed issue of above ground testing. It also goes a long way to explain the issues that many people have with nuclear power, and it also shows the responsibility that people have to ensure that their government abides by rules that the rest of the world will be comfortable with.

In the US alone, ‘Operation Plumbbob’, which only ran from May to October 1957, resulted in 29 above ground nuclear detonations in the Nevada desert, and is predicted to have increased the rate of thyroid cancer in the US by 1-20 thousand cases per year since (1).

All of the detonations you see in the middle of the Pacific Ocean are from the so called ‘Pacific Proving Ground’, an area of around 360,000 km² in which the US set off 105 atmospheric detonations, including many that dropped fallout on inhabited islands (5).

The largest human made explosion ever set off, the Tsar Bomba (Царь-бомба), was a nuclear bomb detonated by the USSR in far norther Russia. It was an above ground detonation and the blast wave is thought to have circled the world more than three times, and broke windows as far away as Norway (6). (It was the large detonation at about 3 minutes 30 into the video.)

Between 1954–1992, 520 atmospheric test detonations have been conducted by states around the world. It was only with the introduction of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, that the US and the USSR (the two biggest contributors) stopped detonating above ground (4). (Of course many countries kept testing after this, and the US and USSR kept testing underground.)

The US EPA has a great page detailing the levels of contamination around the world, as well as the effects of the contamination on human populations, here.

When talking about issues that involve nuclear physics, it is important to remember this type of information. Even if you are trying to win your arguement based solely on a factual basis, it is imperative that you take in to consideration the vast amounts of pain and suffering many different groups of people aroudn the world have been through, before you attempt to dismiss the worries of safety. If people don’t feel safe, then it is probably because you have not explain it well enough. Of course there will always be people who are opposed, but you still cannot disregard their (legitimate) feelings on the subject.

Many countries have paid out monetary compensation to those people who have suffered because of this kind of testing, but money (while helpful) probably does little to assuage their trauma.

Say something controversial.



(1) http://www.kcet.org/updaily/socal_focus/commentary/east-ca/50-years-on-aboveground-nuke-testing-still-shaping-desert.html

(2) http://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2011/05/when-we-tested-nuclear-bombs/100061/

(3) http://www.deq.utah.gov/Topics/Radiation/fallout/index.htm

(4) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Partial_Nuclear_Test_Ban_Treaty

(5) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_weapons_testing

(6) http://gizmodo.com/5977824/the-biggest-bomb-in-the-history-of-the-world

The pro-nuclear movement: an introduction

So far, when discussing the major players in this field, I have looked at the anti-nuclear movement, in an earlier post which charted their history, development and current status. This blog will be a bit different to that, as the pro-nuclear movement is much harder to define. Not only is there not a singular ‘pro-nuclear’ movement as there is with anti-s, there are also a lot more vested interests in nuclear technology, which confound the definition slightly.

One of the most blatant (but probably not demonstrative) differences between those that support and those that oppose nuclear is the fact that the former has a dedicated Wikipedia page:


while the latter has merely a list of environmentalists that support it:

I suppose, besides those with commercial interests, it’s hard to pin down the pro-nuclear movement because for a long time the anti-nuclear movement was the minority. There was no-need for the ‘establishment’ to directly interact with the protesters, because the majority of the public supported them. With rhetoric like Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ speech, most in the West were probably ambivalent or directly in support of nuclear power.

But then let’s go back to that Wikipedia page, “List of pro-nuclear environmentalists”. Now those with pro-nuclear leanings are in the opposite situation, they are the other, with the anti’s being the norm. Slate has a good article (here) that has a good discussion about the changing nature of the nuclear debate, and the problems faced by those environmentalists who take a pragmatic approach to fighting climate change [I may do a whole post on it in the future actually].

Brave New Climate has a really good blog about this very issue (here), and in it, the author talks about the fact that there is a ‘movement’ associated with the anti-nuclear position. This sense of a distinct identity and collective will is missing from the pro-nuclear side, and it seems that because of this, there will always be a louder anti-nuclear voice drowning them out. As the author notes, the pro-nuclear side is reduced to individuals talking on their soapbox and calls to reason and to ‘just run the numbers’.

The biggest difference seems to be the language used by the two groups. People who are pro-nuclear seem to be much more likely to use fact and reason-based arguments, whereas the anti-nuclear people seem to be more likely to engage in emotional arguments. I’ve put a video below of a debate hosted by TED around nuclear power. If you watch it you will see that both of the speakers start off talking calmly and attempting to use facts to persuade people. However, the anti-nuclear speaker starts to weave a bit of emotion into his presentation when talking about the threat of nuclear disaster, and when given the chance to speak again on the rebuttal of his opponent, he seems visibly emotional and he resorts to sarcastic comments and unfounded statements that don’t actually address his opponents arguments. This is not to say that pro-nuclear speakers never get emotional, it just seems that it is a much more common tactic in the anti-nuclear movement.

However, there are some similarities between these two opposing viewpoints. Like Greenpeace for the anti-nuclear movement, there are organisations like the World Nuclear Association and the Nuclear Energy Institute in the US. These bodies however, are much more corporatised than the anti-nuclear movement (probably a vestige of their activist past) and are much more involved with governmental lobbying activities rather than trying to influence public opinion. The other big similarity is that both sides have the planet’s best interests in mind, both camps are championed by environmentalists, mostly concerned with climate change.

The problem seems to be now that there is no action on either front. If either side were to “win”, at least something would change. Perhaps the best option for these two camps is for them to team up against those who would argue that nothing needs to be done.

Say something controversial.


Nuclear vs. GMO, similar controversies?

Last night I went to an event to promote the release of a book about scientific controversies and the interaction between the scientific community and the broader public sphere.

During his speech (and I checked, it’s the same in his book), this author compared the controversies and public debates on nuclear power with the more recent controversy surround the introduction of GMOs into the food supply.

I must admit, I have a bit of a personal interest in the GMO debate, as my undergraduate degree was in plant biotechnology. So, while I am always willing to talk to and debate about GMOs, I must admit it was a little bit interesting to hear this author make such a comparison.

On the surface, the debates can look quite similar. The proponents of both industries use similar points to argue in favour of their technology: that their technology is about making a cleaner, more productive and more efficient world, with less damaging effects on the environment (controversial, I know). The opponents of both of these technologies also campaign in a similar vein, with common frames between them: ‘science gone mad’, public health risks, ‘the benefits don’t outweigh the risk’, and that science is ‘playing “God”‘. They are also both mainly public controversies, as the scientists behind the technologies have mostly resolved any doubts over the safety and efficacy of their respective technologies.

However, I think that these debates are not as similar as it might seem. While both use technologies that are seen as extremely complex and dangerous, but when you compare where they came from, they’re really different. GMO technology is just a small, logical progression from advanced breeding techniques developed over the last century, which in turn are based on breeding techniques developed since humans started farming. Contrast this with nuclear power, whose closest technological relative is probably high explosives; they are not even in the same ballpark as nuclear power, technology-wise or danger-wise.

Also, I think the most important distinction between nuclear and GMO is the fact that there has never been any documented harm to humans from GMO technologies. As previously discussed, the anti-nuclear movement has every right to play upon the danger of nuclear power, given the damage done by the few nuclear accidents there have been (not to mention all the damage done by intentional bombings and above-ground testing). To conflate Chernobyl and Hiroshima with the imagined potential harms of GMOs not only minimises the suffering of those involved in those incidents, but also negatively effects the campaign to promote GMOs, which are trying to solve many of the problems that we face in the world today.

Say something controversial.


Also, just because it’s my pet topic, if you have any doubts about GMOs, please watch this video of Mark Lynas, a former anti-GMO activist, speaking to the Oxford Farming Conference in 2013:

Gross’ ‘Scientific and technical controversy’

This will be a slightly different post from what I’ve done before. In class last week we discussed a paper by Alan G Gross called ‘Scientific and technical controversy: three frameworks for analysis'(1). I’m going to use this post to discuss this paper and the implications it has for the nuclear power debate.

In his paper, Gross compares three different frameworks for analysing scientific controversies as put forward by three different researchers: Gusfield, Turner and Habermas.

Gusfield’s framework analyses controversy in terms of ‘moral order’. In his view, society is structured around moral orders, which are used to help the ruling groups maintain order in society. When people subscribe to a particular moral framework, it enables them to make decisions about complex ideas with relative ease and little rational thought. A controversy arises when these is a mismatch between the moral orders of different groups. The characteristics of this type of controversy is that there is little rational rhetoric employed, rather there is a back and forth of moral indignation.

Turner’s framework is based on how social rituals are designed to keep conflict at bay. His theory is that controversy only arises when a deep conflict breaks through the societal rituals. These controversies are resolved when the overlying social ritual is modified.

Habermas’ framework is a little bit more broad ad separates controversies into different categories: political, ethical, moral, intellectual and scientific. Each of these different types involves slightly different style of engagement and resolution.

The point that Gross is trying to make with this paper is that all of these frameworks hold different levels of truth to them and that they can all be applied to different scenarios and situations.

In the context of the nuclear debate, the Gusfield framework is probably the one that fits best. The science of the safety and benefits of nuclear power have been cleared from the scientific community for a long time. The remaining controversy is deeply entrenched with the morals of the different sides.

On one hand you have the anti-nuclear community who use the moral outrage in the argument that nuclear power is too dangerous to be justifiable. To communicate their point of view, they use pure pathos, such as the video I put in the last post.

On the other hand, the pro-nuclear side uses the argument that it would be immoral not to make use of nuclear power, as a far cleaner form of power that reduces our reliance on fossil fuels.

Ironically, both sides also like to say that their opponents don’t care about the world, it’s people, the environment, etc, when in fact they are both for all of these things.

Gross’ analysis of the Gusfield framework also makes a salient point about resolution. He talk about these sort of debates, based on moral outrage, as unresolvable, once these moral standpoints become associated with their proponents identities.

This poses a problem (but also probably explains a lot about) the nuclear debate. The nuclear debate has been going on a long time (more on that in the next post), as shows very little movement in either direction, so maybe to move this debate there need to be a shift to a different frame work such as (as Gross suggested) a social drama, that will allow the controversy to be dealt with from a different angle.

Say something controversial.



(1) https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-147523542/scientific-and-technical-controversy-three-frameworks