‘Perception of risk’ by Paul Slovic, Part 3: So how do we communicate risk then?

The last part in my discussion of ‘Perception of Risk’, by Paul Slovic

At the core of why people don’t agree on risk is the difference between how the experts and the lay public understand risk. To the experts, risk is most often boiled down (too far) to metrics like ‘expected annual mortality’, which are figures that allow easy comparison, and seem (to the well-informed experts) to be able to perfectly communicate how risky an activity is. The is in direct contrast with the way the lay public understands and come to understand risk. To try and communicate risk based solely on facts ignores the context in which a lay person will be receiving those facts, the inputs and preconceived ideas that that person has already dealt with, and the emotional understanding already in place.

At the end of the paper, Slovic attempts to address the looming question that hangs over the whole paper, after taking all this information on board, is it actually possible to communicate risk effectively? One methods that is put forward (based on the transmission, lecture style of science communication) is to put the risk level in a way that the lay public can understand.

One really good example of this type of communication comes from Dr. Derek Muller on the Veritasium channel on YouTube:

This is a really digestible example of the use of qualitative risk to demonstrate the relative danger. But Slovic says that this is not enough, (agreeing with the current trend of science communication) what needs to be done is to have ‘two-way’ communication, instead of one-way. As enjoyable as the video is, it highlights how the theme that runs through most of the videos on Veritasium can be applied to other topics. In Veritasium, Dr. Muller attempts to break down peoples preconceived ideas about how physics works, and to help people understand that using human intuition to understand complex topics is often not enough, because they don’t operate in a way our relatively simply brain can understand. I think this thought can be applied to communication as well, human society has grown to the point where our ancestral ability to socialise and gossip doesn’t cut it when it comes to understanding how large groups of people will react to and understand certain information.

To really get the message of risk communication across, a two-way dialogue needs to be started. A dialogue that takes into account the facts, but also the the lived experience of the lay public. Interestingly, at the end of the paper Slovic makes the statement that the lay public is actually better than the experts at understanding the broader consequences of these sort of events, and as such, it seems to me that the onus is on the experts to defend themselves to the public, rather than hand down wisdom from above.

Say something controversial.


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

Ethics of the nuclear debate

In class last week we were discussing ethics, and in particular, the different ethical models that can be used when justifying a position.

Ethics is the framework that we apply when we are trying to make a decision about the ‘right-ness’ or ‘wrong-ness’ of a choice. The answers we arrive at depend on what aspects of a choice or the outcome of the choice that we value highly. When people debate a topic, they are trying to prove that their standpoint is the correct or ‘better’ choice, and are actually defending their ethical standpoint as superior to their opponent’s. When you decide which ‘camp’ you align with in a debate, you are making a tacit decision to agree with the ethical standpoint of your side.

From this discussion in class, I want to apply this ethical analysis. To do this I’m going to try to dissect the ethical models used by both sides of the nuclear debate.

It seems, from what I’ve seen so far, that both sides of the nuclear debate use ‘consequentialist’ ethics as the basis of their arguments, but both use it in a slightly different way.

Consequentialism is a branch of ethics that bases its judgement of an action on the outcome of that action. This is in contrast with Deontology, which attempts to judge an action on the morality of the action itself.

The way most pro-nuclear debaters seem to argue, is that the consequences of using nuclear power are minimal (with current technology), and that the consequences of not using nuclear power are disastrous. This is a form on consequentialism that is called ‘state consequentionalism’. State consequentialism bases its judgement on the total outcome of an action, assessed in the frame of the outcome to the state as a whole. In this case, this is being applied in a way to imply that the whole global human society is a ‘state’ and that nuclear power will give a huge (and immediate) benefit to the ‘state’ as a whole.

The anti-nuclear movement is similar, but a little bit more diverse in its ethical arguments. Part of this difference is a more ‘utilitarian’ view of using nuclear power. Utilitarianism is a branch of ethics that falls under consequentialism as well, like the state consequentialism, excepting that there is more emphasis is applied to achieving pleasure.

From what I can tell, the anti-nuclear movement uses utilitarian arguments to argue for renewables over nuclear power. I see this in the fact that the arguments for removing nuclear are based around the idea of using renewables are better (in the long term). This long term vision seeks to give catharsis to anti-nuclear proponents, and society in general, knowing that their energy future is secure.

But the anti-nuclear side also uses a kind of state consequentialism, but in the opposite way to the pro-nuclear advocates. Anti-nuclear campaigners argue that nuclear shouldn’t be used because the risks are too great, and that the ends do not justify the means.

This is why, when you watch debate about nuclear power, most of the time the seem to be arguing the exact opposite of each others’ points. In the video I embedded in the last post, you can see that the debaters make opposing ‘factual’ statements about the capability of renewable energy to cover the baseload energy requirements.

Sat something controversial.


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

Introduction: The history of nuclear power (Part 1)

So, where did all this begin? Unfortunately, there is no denying that the roots of nuclear power have their origins in something far more sinister: nuclear bombs.

The first part of this two part history will focus on the initial development of nuclear energy tools, and the second part will discuss the development of this technology to where it is today.

The driving force that was WWII resulted in a burst of research on nuclear energy; nuclear fission had only been discovered in the 1930s but there were mounting fears of a German nuclear weapon(1). The Manhattan project was the result of this fear, and following many years of research in the UK and the US, the first successful nuclear weapon was detonated on 16 July 1945, at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico. The ‘Trinity’ test was the first to showcase the awesome power possible from an uncontrolled nuclear reaction(2).

image of first nuclear bomb detonation

The Trinity test, 0.016 seconds after detonation. The height of the blast wave is 200 meters.

Just 21 and 24 days later respectively, the bombs would be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was only after the end of WWII, that the potential energy generating applications of controlled nuclear reactions were explored. After the huge effort required to create the atomic weaponry that ended WWII, there was a large accumulation of technology and expertise that allowed the USA to direct its energy to energy production(1).

The first test nuclear reactor to produce electricity was named ‘Experimental Breeder Reactor-1 (EBR-1), and was switched on for the first time in Idaho, in December 1951 (1).

The US President at the time was Eisenhower, and following the end of the war he gave a speech titled ‘Atoms for Peace’. An example of cold war propaganda, this speech attempted to muffle the fear the world was feeling about living in a nuclear age, and direct their thoughts to the possibilities nuclear power offered:

“To the making of these fateful decisions, the United States pledges before you–and therefore before the world–its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma–to devote its entire heart and mindto find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.”(3)

This speech also initiated a US government program of the same name which entailed the free spread of information around the world to enable governments to build their own nuclear reactors, with the goal of cheap energy for everyone. It was through this program that Pakistan, Iran and Israel were able to build their first nuclear reactors(4).

Aside from basic electricity generation, nuclear reactors also had the benefit of using much less fuel for a given amount of energy, and it for this reason that much research in the late 40s and early 50s was directed towards producing reactors for naval use(1).

The Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) was a design that was favoured for naval use as it used ordinary water in its reactor core, where previous designs had required the use of ‘heavy’ water(1).

Following the development of PWRs the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear submarine, was launched in 1954. The USA and USSR then went on to launch nuclear powerd ships in 1959.

The first nuclear power plant that provided electricity to the grid was also a PWR, and was switched on in 1957 and ran until 1982. This was the dawn of the commercial age of nuclear reactor technology(1).

I will finish up the history of nuclear power in the next post.

Say something controversial.



  1. http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Current-and-Future-Generation/Outline-History-of-Nuclear-Energy/
  2. https://www.osti.gov/opennet/manhattan-project-history/Events/1945/trinity.htm
  3. https://www.iaea.org/about/history/atoms-for-peace-speech
  4. http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2003_12/Lavoy

Introduction: Context for the blog

For my first real post on this blog, I thought I might outline the idea behind the blog and what you can expect in the future.

In a world where climate change is a topic almost constantly in the media, energy generation and fossil fuels are important topic in both civil and political spheres. Renewable energy solutions are important and there is much exciting science coming our way in the future. Then there is nuclear power. Nuclear power, specifically fission power, has been around for a while (a lot longer than you think, as I’ll explain in my next post) and boasts significant efficiency, cost and safety (yes, safety) benefits over other non-renewable energy sources (1).

Despite this, nuclear power remains a controversial topic worldwide, and especially in Australia. Disasters such as the infamous Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, as well as lesser known incidents, such as the Sellafield fire in the UK reinforce the negative associations of nuclear power. Atomic energy of any sort has this negative association, and this is probably due to the effects of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the above ground testing in the USA, and the Pacific in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and all the negative outcomes associated with these events.

But all is not bad with nuclear power. In fact, a recent study showed that nuclear fission is significantly safer than coal power, despite the three major nuclear incidents of the past 70 years. The paper published by NASA (2), showed that nuclear power was responsible for preventing an average 76,000 deaths between 2000-2009, and an estimated 1.8 million deaths before 2000, because less coal power was needed.

The controversy surrounding nuclear power is one fraught with emotion and complex discussions of risk vs. reward. In Australia we currently have no commercial power stations, and only one small research reactor at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). However, we also have the majority of the world’s uranium ore, with current estimates at 31% of the world’s supply (we are the third largest producer of uranium after Canada and Kazakhstan) (3).

Having this valuable resource and not making use of it seems a bit counter intuitive, and there has been multiple attempts to allow nuclear power in Australia, all of which were unsuccessful. However, the nuclear landscape in Australia is still lively, with South Australia announcing a Royal Commission into nuclear power generation, in response to the current economic contraction.

Nuclear power remains contentious and I hope to delve deep into the controversy in Australia and around the world of the next 10 weeks. First I will start with a bit of history, of nuclear power itself, and the controversies and social movements that have grown up around it. After this, I hope to flesh out the controversy, identify the key players, their impacts and motviations, and really get to the core of the nuclear power issue. Thanks for reading, if you have any comments, queries or suggestions for the blog, please comment below.

Say something controversial.



(1) http://www.nei.org/Master-Document-Folder/Backgrounders/Fact-Sheets/Quick-Facts-Nuclear-Energy-in-America

(2) http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es3051197

(3) http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-A-F/Australia/

New Blog!

My name is Mathew Blanc and I am a budding science communicator. Through this blog I hope to take an in depth look at one particular recent science controversy and unpack it a little bit.

I will post a more detailed introduction in the next week or so.

Hope you’ll join me on this journey over the next couple of months.