Devil's bargain? Energy risks and the public - Science and Technology Committee Contents


On 11 March 2011, one of the largest earthquakes on record occurred off the coast of Northern Japan, triggering a tsunami and the destabilisation of one of the Fukushima nuclear power plants. This was the first time that a natural disaster had caused a nuclear accident. Subsequently, some countries, such as Germany, Italy and Switzerland, decided to phase out nuclear power whereas others, such as France, Finland, China, the USA and the UK, continued to hold the view that nuclear energy should be part of the energy mix. Public reactions varied from country to country: in the UK there remain as many people in favour as are opposed to nuclear power.

The Government considers nuclear power to be an essential part of the UK's energy mix. Interestingly, while around half the population supported this, it appeared to be a reluctant support for the least worst option, or a "Devil's bargain". Public risk perceptions must be understood and taken into account when policies are developed, but as one factor that must be balanced against political, ethical and scientific considerations. When public opinion diverges from the evidence on objective risk, policies and decisions should be primarily based on scientific evidence on risk and safety.

Public trust is key to how risks are perceived.  The Government's position as an advocate for nuclear power makes it difficult for the public to trust it as an impartial source of information. However, regulatory bodies that are independent of Government and technically competent are in a unique position to engender public trust and influence risk perceptions. In addition to providing risk information for technical audiences, regulators  should also make greater efforts to communicate risk to the public and develop their role as trusted sources of information for lay people.

Our inquiry found a lack of coordination across Government in risk communication. A senior individual in Government should be visibly responsible for overseeing risk communication, research and training across Government and drawing together existing expertise within Departments and public bodies, by leading a Risk Communication Strategy team which should sit at the centre of Government.

Although it is useful to have a scale to enable the public to make informed comparative assessments of risk, the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) is not an adequate communication tool for conveying risks. The International Atomic Energy Agency, in reviewing the INES, should pay particular attention to (i) the technical basis of the scale and whether it incorporates sufficient information about risk as well as hazard; (ii) how to better represent orders of magnitude; and (iii) how to make the scale comprehensible to non-technical audiences. The IAEA and UK Government should also consider whether the INES, or its successor, should communicate the likely impacts of a nuclear accident on people and the environment, as well as quantifying the release of radioactive materials. Consideration should be given to the best method of communicating acute and chronic impacts.

Community benefits are an important way of building trust and negotiations can enable the public to feel a greater sense of control, choice over and ownership of energy projects. We encourage the further use of current community engagement processes led by energy companies, working with local government and the public, for building trust around nuclear new build proposals.

We were impressed by a citizen partnership model being developed in Germany for wind farms and suggest that enabling communities to feel more ownership of local energy infrastructure by offering shares in projects could be conducive to building trust and acceptance. Partnership models could form part of community benefits discussions for new nuclear build and other energy infrastructure.

The Government must ensure that lessons are learned from decades of risk communication and dialogue experiences in relation to nuclear energy when developing other energy technologies and infrastructure, particularly carbon capture and storage (CCS), shale gas and geo-engineering, which will continue to be hot topics for public debate. If the Government intends to rely on carbon capture and storage (CCS) as part of emissions reduction strategies, it should examine the difficulties experienced in Germany due to public concerns.

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Prepared 9 July 2012