Participants in this session examined how research in the social and decision sciences sheds light on what influences public views of nuclear energy and how these insights could inform strategies for productive public engagement. Kirsty Gogan, LucidCatalyst, moderated the session, which featured speakers Baruch Fischhoff, Carnegie Mellon University; Nick Pidgeon, Cardiff University; and Seth Tuler, Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
Baruch Fischhoff, Carnegie Mellon University
Fischhoff studies science communication, especially pertaining to risk (Fischhoff et al. 1980, 1981; Fischhoff 2011, 2013, 2018; Fischhoff and Kadvany 2011; Fischhoff and Davis 2014). He said that how someone encounters nuclear energy, whether through the news, their work, or a social movement, shapes their opinion of its risks and, with it, the shifting level of overall public goodwill. For example, after the 2011 Fukushima accident, stakeholders, including nuclear scientists, experienced emotions that could sharpen or cloud their thinking and decision making, including anger, dread, panic, and stress (Fischhoff 2011).
Effective communication is crucial to productive discussions of nuclear decisions. The social, behavioral, and decision sciences have lessons for nuclear scientists on how to listen to the public and address its information needs, Fischhoff said. That science is needed because people overestimate
how well they understand others, leading to poor communication and misplaced blame (Fischhoff 2009). Fortunately, the discipline of science communication has developed ways to convey complex or emotionally charged scientific information. Applying that science requires an investment, yet it is essential to create public goodwill for an industry as controversial as nuclear energy.
Fischhoff outlined key steps for effective science communication. First, it is important to identify the facts people need to make decisions (noting that this is different from the facts people need to understand the technology). Next, communicators must find out what the public already knows and then design communication that fills in the gaps. Last, the communication should be evaluated and the steps repeated as needed. Using this process, it is possible to explain complex issues in a way that enables people to establish stable preferences, which are sensitive to the choices that they are offered (Yang et al. 2019).
Strategic scientific communication requires staffing, deliberative processes, and leadership. Staff should include domain experts, risk and decision analysts, behavioral scientists, and communication specialists, all participating in a design-and-test cycle. With diverse publics, messages may be developed centrally and then adapted to specific audiences by trusted members of their communities, to address their concerns in respectful ways. The process requires continuing two-way communication if trust is to be created and maintained (see Figure 2-1). Throughout this process, Fischhoff said leadership should prioritize communication, assume responsibility for the entire life cycle of the technology, press for industry-wide discipline, separate public affairs from public health communications, and value trust as an intangible asset with tangible benefits (Fischhoff 2009).
PUBLIC RISK PERCEPTIONS AND NUCLEAR ENERGY IN BRITAIN
Nick Pidgeon, Cardiff University
Pidgeon discussed the evolution of public views toward nuclear power and lessons from community engagement experiences, particularly in the United Kingdom. Successful public engagement requires first identifying what the public understands about energy sources and how nuclear power is perceived. Surveys consistently show that in the United Kingdom, the public is distrustful of nuclear power and wants strong regulation. However, there is no one attitude toward nuclear power; demographics, values, or context can shift perceptions and create what Pidgeon described as “reluctant acceptance.” For example, in the early
2000s, proponents in the United Kingdom and the United States sought to reframe nuclear power as important for fighting climate change and achieving energy security, arguing that nuclear energy could be a path to self-sufficiency, reliability, and sustainability (Bickerstaff et al. 2008; Greenberg and Truelove 2010; Corner et al. 2011; Taylor 2016). This effort successfully, if slowly, raised the public’s acceptance of nuclear power, although qualitative interviews revealed that the public continued to be skeptical that the experts truly understood the risks.
Researchers have found that communities with existing nuclear facilities express a more positive view of nuclear energy, although each site’s
subtle history or economic differences can color local opinions. Although anxieties about safety and waste are always lurking below the surface, the visible benefits for the community, public consultation, and trust in local managers combine to create an overall sense of acceptance, Pidgeon said. For many, becoming familiar with a nuclear facility or having its personnel as part of their community seems to reduce concerns about risk, although times of heightened tension can cause these concerns to resurface (Henwood et al. 2008; Venables et al. 2009, 2012; Parkhill et al. 2010).
To gain public support for broad change in energy systems, Pidgeon said it is necessary to engage the public in a new social contract that defines what values people want the energy system to meet and guides their thinking on what solutions are deemed acceptable (Pidgeon et al. 2014). Research reveals that the public holds two main high-level values: to reduce the amount of finite energy used, and to reduce the overall amount of energy used (Spence et al. 2020). Lower priority values are to act justly, avoid waste, understand long-term energy interconnectivity, protect the environment, and respect people’s need for choice, control, and freedom. If a new technology aligns with these values, the public is more likely to support it. Nuclear energy scores low on waste and safety, but high for reliability and not being a finite energy source.
Many within the public will also view the simple “nuclear yes or no” question as constraint on debate, and as a consequence they want to see how any nuclear option might compare with other available energy supply-side options and decarbonization proposals. One public engagement tool, the UK Department of Energy’s my2050 Energy System Tool,1 provides insights into people’s values and how these affect their views of nuclear power. Analyses of people’s interactions with the tool, which lets users adjust 14 different energy and infrastructure levers to illustrate the trade-offs different decarbonization efforts would require, indicate an overall ambivalence toward increased nuclear energy (Demski et al. 2017).
Closing, Pidgeon stressed that views can change over time as circumstances evolve. Highly visible events such as fires, droughts, and floods have galvanized public focus on climate change during a time of deep political divisions. In the four European countries surveyed, a higher level of concern about climate change has been associated with a less favorable view of nuclear energy (Sonnberger et al. 2021; see Figure 2-2). However, some recent U.S. survey research suggests that there may be a recent rise in support for existing nuclear plants and small modular reactors (SMRs), although the level of support can fluctuate during extreme weather events, polarizing geopolitics, or energy shortages (see Figure 2-3). Unfortunately,
Pidgeon said there is not enough reliable data yet to gauge how the upheavals seen over the past 5 years or so may be influencing the public’s perceptions of nuclear energy.
LESSONS ABOUT FACILITY SITING
Seth Tuler, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Just as there is no public consensus on nuclear energy, there is also rarely public agreement on where to site nuclear facilities. However, engaging the public in a meaningful, deliberate process may improve acceptance, even in the face of broader unresolved questions of what types of energy society wants. Tuler discussed how experiences in nuclear waste siting decisions shed light on effective strategies for meaningful public engagement.
Social sciences teach us that it is important to frame the problem, understand the options, accept all opinions, and avoid cascading missteps, Tuler said. It is also important to recognize that support, acceptance, and opposition may change over time. As Pidgeon noted, support can grow as the public becomes acclimated to a facility, which is why nuclear sites are often concentrated around particular locations (Wolsink 2007; Greenberg 2009; Jenkins-Smith et al. 2010).
Tuler described approaches that are unlikely to engender public support. Marketing or attempts to persuade can often backfire, he said, hardening opposition and exacerbating conflict. Pushing technical information and dismissing people’s concerns is similarly unhelpful. Last, accusing opponents of simply having a not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) attitude ignores the nuanced feelings people have about energy facility siting; it is possible to be supportive of a facility in a different location, believe a proposal is flawed, or change positions after learning more (Wolsink 2000, 2007).
What tends to be more helpful? Tuler said that engaging stakeholders and the wider public in a well-designed, meaningful siting process is the right thing to do, can increase a project’s legitimacy, and can lead to better decisions, even if the decision is no (NRC 2008). There are multiple frameworks for bringing the public into siting conversations. The particulars vary, but they all help project leaders and the public identify goals, hierarchies, and preferences; avoid coercion; proceed in an environment with systemic social distrust; and define and measure success.
Tuler stressed that the public’s concerns about nuclear power and safety cannot be overlooked. When decisions are controversial, a fair and honest engagement process clarifies the problem, identifies choices, addresses the full range of community concerns, facilitates learning,
reaches deep and broad community engagement, builds confidence and trust, and welcomes independent oversight.
Three recent public debates—over chemical weapons destruction, remediation of a nuclear weapons facility, and a proposed wind farm—demonstrate the importance of a meaningful public engagement process. In all three instances, the initial proposal faced public outcry and distrust, and the project leaders used methods such as acknowledging problems and being open to alternative proposals, allowing those in opposition to observe the decision-making process, building long-term relationships, promoting learning, and attending to the full range of community concerns to reach a more widely accepted outcome (Dwyer and Bidwell 2019). These are important lessons for informing engagement around nuclear energy. “Reaching clarity and agreement about the problem and the choices that are involved is really critical,” Tuler concluded. “Making choices about new and advanced nuclear technologies is not a problem that’s solved by marketing.”
Following the speakers’ remarks, Gogan moderated a discussion on public engagement, environmental justice, and disinformation.
Challenges and Strategies for Public Engagement
Gogan asked panelists what it would take for the public to become comfortable with the idea of substantial expansion of nuclear energy facilities (including widespread deployment of SMRs), in the context of what is currently understood about science communications. Fischhoff speculated that SMRs are perhaps the most likely technology to survive a fair and respectful public discussion, and posited that designing effective communication strategies around SMRs will be as important to their widespread adoption as technology or economic modeling. SMR projects that can operate with transparent, strategic leadership and proper communication have the best chance of public acceptance. For example, the process Tuler described could be used to ask the public if they want SMRs co-located or distributed, Fischhoff suggested. Effective science communication is possible, but requires strong leadership to help communities grapple with difficult issues, create a culture of respectful collaboration, and build a strong, trusted social infrastructure.
Pidgeon noted that it can be particularly challenging to engage the public around emerging technologies that still have many unknowns. In these cases, it is important to anticipate designs, use, consequences, and public acceptance to start a respectful discussion, he said, pointing as an
example to the surprisingly positive results of an effort to engage the public early on around nanotechnologies (Pidgeon et al. 2008). Tuler noted that insights from the social sciences can help to craft policies, decisions, and communication, and added that it is important to establish shared definitions for terms like “opposition” and “acceptance.”
Todd Allen, University of Michigan, asked if panelists could point to any examples in which the community was actually empowered to proactively decide what energy technologies it wanted to support. Nobody could. Tuler said that the public usually is not asked what pathway it wants to pursue; instead, a developer typically has already chosen a site and an energy type before the public is invited to weigh in. Gogan noted that seeking such broad public guidance may be more feasible in some countries than others; for example, it is the core principle behind the 2050 Pathways project in Europe, but in the United States, these choices are more often made at the state or local level, and it is unclear how inclusive the processes have been. Pidgeon added that these multiple top-down power levels create complications. Decarbonization affects people’s livelihoods and local economies, in addition to advancing overall climate change mitigation goals. He said that it is possible, if difficult, to make changes that respect people’s values, and suggested more research is needed to understand how bottom-up initiatives can help nations decarbonize their energy systems (Pidgeon et al. 2021).
While most of the focus around public engagement is concerned with the front end of building nuclear facilities, Allen asked if researchers have studied public perceptions and attitudes after a plant is built. Tuler pointed to the work of Hank Jenkins-Smith and Judith Bradbury; Tuler and Gogan also noted that the decommissioning of nuclear sites in the United States has posed special challenges from a public engagement standpoint. Fischhoff suggested that the National Science Foundation should invest research funding into studying this question.
Jaquelin Cochran, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, asked the panelists to comment on public engagement around nuclear power through the lens of environmental justice and equity. Pidgeon answered that equity comes up in several different ways. Distributional equity refers to how risks and benefits are distributed across a community, and process equity reflects the degree to which the decision-making process addresses community concerns. Seeing decision makers take ownership of risk could make a difference for public perceptions of fairness and justice; he noted that in focus groups about SMRs, people frequently comment that if these facilities are truly safe, they should be located near the
White House, although of course regulators are unlikely to support siting in a densely populated area.
Tuler added that equity and environmental justice are rooted in issues of power. Who has the power to decide? Who is affected by the decision? If there are public hearings, who has the ability to show up and the ability to voice their view? Gogan pointed out that marginalized groups are more likely to be opposed to nuclear energy, which might be linked to the fact that they historically have not held decision-making power (Weart 2012). Pidgeon noted that researchers have also observed gender differences, in which men and women have a similar understanding of the technology and the issues, but differences in how they express that understanding and voice their opinions. Both examples underscore the importance of designing communication strategies for specific audiences, Gogan said. She suggested that an awareness of environmental justice should be incorporated into best practices for science communication, and that the nuclear establishment should also look at other controversial issues such as marriage equality, where successful public engagement built trust and contributed to decision making.
Fischhoff remarked that in his experience studying environmental justice, the lack of trust in scientific institutions can be quite striking. People may trust polluting industries more than scientists because the industry at least provides jobs, while it is unclear what scientists provide (Rosa et al. 2010). As a positive example, he pointed to public engagement around equitable allocation of vaccines for COVID-19, where many experts worked hard to hear outside voices, create communications that targeted different audiences, and partnered with trusted community groups (NASEM 2020).
Ethics, Education, and Disinformation
Participants explored how the engineering community can improve its ability to engage effectively with the public. Ahmed Abdulla, Carleton University, asked about the role of engineering education. Fischhoff answered that the problem is not a lack of ethics among engineers, but a lack of decision-focused social sciences training to help engineers to understand public concerns and make a business case for communication. He suggested that curricula include decision-focused projects that require collaboration between social sciences and engineering. Tuler noted that at his institution, students learn to deprioritize efficiency, ask questions, and frame problems during a required project-based learning curriculum outside of their major.
Richard Cupitt, Stimson Center, asked if the panelists had encountered any disinformation campaigns around nuclear technology, particularly
for SMRs. Pidgeon answered that while misinformation around climate change exists, he is not aware of it around nuclear energy in particular, and Gogan added that geopolitics will likely play a role in the emergence of any such campaigns. Fischhoff stated that it is critical for organizations to get ahead of disinformation by creating trusting relationships and sustaining them by quickly and effectively communicating information that engages and empowers the public. Once disinformation gets a foothold, it can be nearly impossible to regain the public’s trust and address the problem, akin to the challenges the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has experienced in the response to COVID-19.
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