Risk perception and energy infrastructure

Written evidence submitted by the Applied Policy Sciences Unit, University of Central Lancashire (Risk 14)

Executive summary of the main points made in APSU’s submission.

1. What may be described as a ‘context effect’ explains why publics in the vicinity of some nuclear facilities like Sellafield can, overall, have a favourable public opinion towards the nuclear industry - even though they are concerned about the risks associated with that facility. This context effect may create a new political geography of risk.

2. The characteristics of perceived risks associated with nuclear facilities make them particularly influential in a negative way in the formation of public opinion relating to the nuclear industry.

3. Perceived salience and proximity to the nuclear facility appear to be two key factors which significantly influence an individual’s perceptions of nuclear facilities.

4. At the level of the wider, general public, and among individuals who are remote from nuclear facilities, popular culture and the mass media, influence awareness of these issues and amplify the impact of nuclear risk perceptions upon opinion.

5. At the local level, in the vicinity of long-term extant nuclear facilities, the nuclear issue may be seen as both salient and proximate by local publics and communities. Thus, in areas like West Cumbria, the local community context and ‘Sense of place’ can work to moderate and limit the effect of perceived risk associated with that industry in the local community and raise the apparent threshold ‘tolerability’ of risks associated with those facilities.

6. The planning process for energy infrastructure appears to lack a systematic understanding of the development of risk perceptions in their psychological and sociological contexts. The nuclear industry, for good scientific and technical reasons, emphasises quantitative risk assessments. However, this fails to appreciate or accommodate the constructed and contextual nature of perceived risk.

7. Evidence suggests that neither local nor central government systematically communicate risk, especially in the nuclear sphere, in the sense of synthesising scientific and technical assessments of risk with the qualitative factors associated with perceived risk embedded in cultural context and the rhythm of daily lives in communities.

8. In nuclear risk communication, science often fails to understand the public, in all its diversity and complexity and, as a consequence, the public are not given accessible means to understand science.

A brief introduction to APSU and the context of its work.

9. The Applied Policy Sciences Unit (APSU) is an independent political science research unit aligned with the Lancashire Law School at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and based at the Westlakes Science and Technology Park, near Whitehaven in West Cumbria.

10. The APSU’s mission is to make an original and independent co ntribution to policy and its implementation. This unit draws upon academic research, consultancy and dissemination in the field of applied policy and political science and applies them to current policy problems. In addition to UCLan staff involved in academic research and dissemination, the APSU also involves, as advisors, individuals who are professionally involved in politics, policy and government.

11. This submission draws upon work undertaken in applied policy sciences since the late 1980s in West Cumbria and further afield, relating to public opinion, perceived risk and the governance of the civil nuclear industry. This submission is, therefore, grounded in partnership working in the context of the earliest community partnership in Britain. This experience, which was centred on the nuclear sector at Sellafield, makes this work especially relevant to the work of this committee.

12. In West Cumbria the nuclear sector comprises nuclear power generation, decommissioning and reprocessing at the Sellafield nuclear complex, and radioactive waste management nearby. This industry has dominated the economy and communities of this area since the early 1950s. This complex nuclear cluster and the associated ‘Britain’s Energy Coast’ policy initiative are fundamentally based upon favourable public opinion towards the nuclear industry in this community and this favourable opinion is founded upon a particular configuration of risk perceptions in the locality. These opinions and perceptions have given and continue to give the nuclear industry a special ‘licence to operate’ in West Cumbria. They are especially revealing about risk assessment and communication relating to energy infrastructure. They have also set the scene for expansion of new nuclear power, fuel cycle activities and discussions about the possibility of a geological disposal facility for radioactive waste in this area. However, new political geographies of risk may emerge within existing areas as new infrastructure projects develop.

13. In the vicinity of the Sellafield complex, public opinion towards the nuclear industry is positive overall even though there have been a number of significant accidents involving a release of radioactivity into the environment in this area over the years. These incidents have included the Windscale fire in 1957 and the beach incident in 1983 and in 1986 fallout from the Chernobyl accident which has resulted in still-detectable contamination of parts of the Cumbrian fells.

14. Research reveals that public opinion towards the nuclear industry in West Cumbria close to the Sellafield complex is positive overall, in contrast to public opinion at the national level. This local favourability exists notwithstanding a widespread awareness and concern about risks associated with that nuclear facility. Thus, in West Cumbria there is a widespread awareness of risk associated with the nuclear industry among members of the, generally supportive, local community. However, the relationship between the site and the community within which the local public live moderates the severity and impact of those risk perceptions, as individuals balance risks against the wider and often extrinsic benefits associated with the nuclear facility.

The submission.

· What are the key factors influencing public risk perception and tolerability of energy infrastructure facilities and projects?

15. Our studies of perceived risk and the civil nuclear industry, which stretch back over almost two decades, reveal the vital importance of context in understanding public risk perceptions. What may be described as a ‘context effect’ explains why publics in the vicinity of some nuclear facilities like Sellafield can, overall, have a favourable public opinion towards the nuclear industry - even though they are concerned about the risks associated with that facility. In the West Cumbria area research reveals that the community are more risk aware yet apparently less averse, to perceived risks associated with the civil nuclear industry, than compared with the national public - even in the light of widely known accidental discharges of radioactivity into the local environment.

16. The characteristics of perceived risks associated with nuclear facilities make them particularly influential in a negative way in the formation of public opinion relating to the nuclear industry. That said, public opinion towards the nuclear industry is based upon a package of beliefs held by individuals, which may be strongly influenced by context, culture and social norms. Public opinion and risk perceptions may be only marginally influenced by official or technical reassurances or representations of risk.

17. Perceived salience and proximity to the nuclear facility appear to be two key factors which significantly influence an individual’s perceptions of nuclear facilities. Generally speaking, nuclear risks have certain qualities and characteristics which give them significant weight in influencing perceptions. These include their potential scope and scale - both in terms of space and time; the invisibility of man-made radiation; the perceived lack of control over nuclear issues; and their irreversible nature. These negative qualities associated with nuclear risks are exacerbated by perceptions that science and technology may not be fully in control of nuclear technology and that legislation and regulation may not provide an ultimately robust defence against the risks. We would stress, though that we are talking about perceptions among the lay public in this respect.

18. The perceived risks associated with the nuclear industry are further complicated by the invisibility and contested impact of man-made nuclear radiation. These qualities open the issue of the impact of man-made radiation up to multiple and sometimes competing interpretations, which bear upon the safety and security of nuclear installations in the public domain. Moreover, for most people, the nuclear issue is neither particularly salient nor proximate to their lives. For most individuals the print and broadcast media, who are prone to sensationalise nuclear stories, are the principal source of information about nuclear matters. Nuclear issues – especially given the severe characteristics of nuclear risks - closely relate to the factors making for sensational storylines which resonate with the public – and sell media copy and airtime. At the level of the general public, and among individuals who are remote from nuclear facilities, popular culture and the mass media, influence awareness of these issues and amplify the impact of nuclear risk perceptions upon opinion.

19. In recent years, however, the risks perceived as being associated with climate change, which have been widely disseminated in the media and which have been compared with risks perceived as being associated with the nuclear industry, have undoubtedly influenced public opinion at the national level.

20. In contrast to the above, at the local level, in the vicinity of extant nuclear facilities, the nuclear issue may be seen as both salient and proximate by local publics and communities. Thus, in localities like West Cumbria, the local community context and ‘Sense of place’ can work to moderate and limit the effect of perceived risk associated with that industry in the local community and raise the apparent threshold ‘tolerability’ of risks associated with those facilities. It must be recognised, though, that support for the Sellafield nuclear complex in this area is mainly for extrinsic reasons associated with its perceived role in the local community and economy.

21. In the vicinity of the Sellafield nuclear complex, the nuclear industry is embedded in the locality and is connected with most of the elements of the local community. The nuclear industry at the Sellafield nuclear complex is, and has been for decades, acknowledged as part of the local reality. It is part of the heritage of the area, part of the local sense of identity and ‘place’ and the facility underpins most aspects of the local economy. It is also seen as providing a future for the area and opportunities for future generations of local children. This package of beliefs associated with the nuclear industry in West Cumbria, where the nuclear industry is a proximate and salient issue for most individuals sharply contrast the majority of members of the UK public who have a more detached relationship with the industry.

22. We recommend that greater attention be paid to understanding perceived risk associated with energy infrastructure developments in their local, community context.

· How are public risk perceptions taken into account in the planning process for energy infrastructure?

23. The planning process for energy infrastructure appears to lack a systematic understanding of the development of risk perceptions in their psychological and sociological contexts. The nuclear industry, for good scientific and technical reasons emphasises quantitative risk assessments. However, this fails to appreciate or accommodate the constructed and contextual nature of perceived risk.

24. An example of this lack of accommodation is the presentation of nuclear projects in isolation from one another, and from the comprehensive backstory of engagement in the area. In West Cumbria, for example, the current public consultation document relating to the geological disposal of radioactive waste in West Cumbria does not locate a proposed waste facility in the local community, nor does it position such a facility within the local nuclear context.

25. Risk, in this context is often addressed within the confines of a safety case, which may include deterministic analysis, fault analysis, engineering substantiation, probabilistic safety analysis and consequence assessments. However, though robust in its treatment from a technical standpoint, such a process fails to address perceived risk in its cognitive, community and contextual settings.

· How effectively does local and central Government communicate risk and could it be improved?

26. Evidence suggests that neither local nor central government systematically communicate risk, especially in the nuclear sphere, in the sense of synthesising scientific and technical assessments of risk with the qualitative factors associated with perceived risk embedded in cultural context and the rhythm of daily lives in communities.

27. In West Cumbria nuclear risk perceptions and related attitudes have developed out of long term experience with a facility by the community in its area. This has been buttressed by a sense of isolation felt in many these communities which, like Sellafield and Dounreay, are otherwise remote and isolated. As a result, these communities have a unique risk awareness relating to these sites. This risk awareness is probably difficult to achieve de novo and this local ability to handle perceived risks should be seen as one of the principal assets of a locality.

28. A most significant issue in risk communication in the planning process is, however, communication between different levels of Government. Government is not a monolithic structure and Local Government operates through different Government departments than does other areas of policy. This may mean that voices articulating local risk perspectives may be difficult to hear as they are insulated by different levels of Government and isolated from different policy networks.

29. We recommend that greater attention be paid to communities within which existing nuclear facilities are located, like West Cumbria, in the policy process and that greater emphasis be placed on local government articulating risk perceptions to all levels of government involved in nuclear infrastructure policy and projects.

· To what extent can public perceptions be changed by improving risk communication?

30. We do not believe that, in respect of nuclear energy infrastructure projects, public perceptions of risk can be easily achieved by improving communications about the risks associated with those facilities. Clearly, the reassurance of regulatory control is of fundamental importance in the operation of these facilities, but it does not appear to account for the increased support in the vicinity of facilities like Sellafield. We would stress that this additional support is due to the embedding of the facility within the local community identity and within the rhythms and activities of daily life – the local ‘zeitgeist’.

31. At the national level, we have seen in recent years some emphasis on the risks associated with climate change and, in the context of an increasing awareness of those risks, an improvement in the level of public support for nuclear energy. At the national level, it is the ranging of one risk against another that may have resulted in this change as individuals see the nuclear issue as a lesser and therefore more ‘acceptable’ risk than climate change.

32. Perhaps the most problematic public will be those within whom a facility may be sited de novo. Perceptions among this group will be entirely dependent upon technical risk perceptions and the history of nuclear facility siting and associated scientific and regulatory reassurance at sites like Druridge Bay in Northumberland in 1979 and more recently Kirksanton and Braystones in Cumbria, suggests that without this embedding of a facility into the local community which is only achieved over time, new project implementation in a greenfield site may be very difficult, and costly, to achieve. These emerging political geographies of risk may have significant implications for local government as affected communities emerge within wider political units over time.

33. The above observation again emphasises the special nature of communities like West Cumbria in which there is a high level of local community support based on a long standing relationship with the nuclear industry and a wider social and political context within which to locate the risks they perceive as being associated with it.

34. Risk perceptions may also be addressed by the more careful use of language. In communities like West Cumbria, for example, risk perceptions use a lexicon of terminologies many of which are embedded in lay local discourses and culture. Beyond such localities nuclear risk communication is often much less successful as technical terms and terminologies are used in attempts to convey complex scientific terms and concepts. In short, in nuclear risk communication, science often fails to understand the public, in all its diversity and complexity and, as a consequence, the public are not given accessible means to understand science.

· How does and should the Government work with the private sector to understand public perceptions of risk and address them?

35. Given the increasing globalisation of the nuclear sector, and the involvement of the private sector in the design, operation and siting of energy infrastructure facilities it is essential that Government work with industry to understand and address risk perceptions in localities. Of special importance will be the localisation of risk in the context of multinational consortia and the preservation of the special relationship with communities in the vicinity of existing nuclear facilities.

36. One of the problems at the national level may be traditionally lower levels of trust accorded to industry, especially non-local companies, in risk communications.

37. The nature of public sector policy is changing. Government is less dominant in policy design and implementation and is more involved with multinational companies. In policy partnerships in future infrastructure developments, Government are increasingly involved with private sector organisations and the financial sector. In these complex policy networks there will be a key role for Government to represent and articulate lay and locality risk perceptions especially in wider, global policy settings which may be detached from their local implementation.

· How do risk perceptions and communication issues in the UK compare to those of other countries?

38. We believe that the same problems apply in other countries than those mentioned above. The issues are common across countries, though in many newly industrialising countries there is little experience with nuclear facilities, or technologies in the public domain - especially long-term relationships with nuclear facilities such as in West Cumbria.

39. With many new countries seeking to adopt nuclear energy without much public experience with nuclear issues, there is clearly scope for sharing of insights from more established countries like to UK – especially in the field of risk perceptions and its relationship with public opinion.

Members of APSU and their interests

UCLan staff

Dr Graham Baldwin (ex officio Chairman of the APSU), Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic) and Vice President of the University of Central Lancashire

Professor Keith Faulks (ex officio Deputy Director of the APSU), Dean of the School of Education and Social Science at the University of Central Lancashire

Lynne Livesey (ex officio Deputy Director of the APSU), Dean of the Lancashire Law School at the University of Central Lancashire

Dr Rick Wylie (ex officio Executive Director of the APSU), Samuel Lindow Academic Director at the University of Central Lancashire's Westlakes Campus

External Advisors of APSU

Professor John Fyfe, International Strategic Development Specialist

Lord Roger Liddle, public policy specialist and Chair of Policy Network, the international progressive think tank

Councillor Michael Heaslip, representing Workington St Johns Ward in Allerdale Borough Council

Jamie Reed MP, Member of Parliament for the Copeland constituency

Tony Cunningham MP, Member of Parliament for the Workington constituency

John Thurso MP, Member of Parliament for the Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross constituency

Applied Policy Sciences Unit, University of Central Lancashire

14 December 2011

Prepared 22nd December 2011