Risk Communication and the Fear of Nuclear Power Plants

While the world continues to watch the unfolding tragedy at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, a number of sources seem to be going out of their way to explain to people that nuclear power is not nearly as deadly as other common sources of electric power. If I may paraphrase, that despite some isolated incidents, the risk from nuclear power plants is relatively low.

In an article titled “Why does ‘nuclear’ scare us so much?” on CNN.com, Dr. Drew Pinsky writes:

People generally think about risk from an emotional perspective, rather than from a rational one, says Richard John, associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California.

Here’s how you actually calculate risk: Multiply the probability of a consequence by the severity of the consequence. But if you ask people how risky something is, it probably won’t match up with that calculation. They’ll go with their intuition, or gut feeling.

Geekosystem, referring to the above diagram from Next Big Future, explains

But this only serves to illustrate the tendency of people — and the media that feeds that tendency — to focus on the high-impact and low-probability rather than the pervasive and pernicious.

As if the public is wrong to be concerned, and needs to be educated by the statistics.

Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is common among engineers and experts.

The problem is that it discounts people’s moral values and emotions in valuing risk.

Experts, and apparently certain members of the press, would do well to study the work of Dr. Peter Sandman, who explains that an oft-ignored component of risk is outrage.

Risk = Hazard + Outrage

Hazard is that component of risk most commonly focused on by the experts. Hazard equals the magnitude of the potential problem times the probability of it happening. Outrage, on the other hand, is what the public focuses on. Outrage is a function of 12 components:

  • Voluntary vs. coerced
  • Natural vs. industrial
  • Familiar vs. not familiar
  • Not memorable vs. memorable
  • Not dreaded vs. dreaded
  • Chronic vs. catastrophic
  • Knowable vs. unknowable
  • Individually controlled vs. controlled by others
  • Fair vs. unfair
  • Morally irrelevant vs. morally relevant
  • Trustworthy sources vs. untrustworthy sources
  • Responsive process vs. unresponsive process

The public isn’t wrong in considering these factors important, and rather than trying to correct people, engineers and experts should embrace them as part of strategic communication plans.