Word from the President

Scientists and the nuclear debate

At conferences devoted to discussing nuclear energy most of the papers presented deal with technological or scientific themes. This is certainly not abnormal as most people working in the nuclear field and attending these conferences are scientists or engineers and, therefore, tend to consider that most of the problems relating to nuclear energy - and I mean nuclear energy in the broader sense, including non-power applications - are of a scientific or technological nature and can only be solved as such.

In my opinion, this is the wrong approach. Ever since scientists and academia have existed, they have been accused of living in an ivory tower, not aware of the real concerns of people. One proposition was (and perhaps still is?) that they considered their knowledge to be of such a complexity that it is too complicated to be explained to the general public, and that anyway they were neither interested in explaining it - nor paid to do so. Instead, being the only ones “in the know,” they achieved a high social status.

I think that in this respect much has changed. Today universities and research institutes know that their stakeholders represent society in general and that communicating about the work they do is part of their social duty. Similarly, the industrial world knows that a minimum of objective communication and openness is necessary to gain long-term public acceptance.

Another persisting aspect of the ivory tower image is that we, scientists and engineers, are all too often insufficiently aware of what society really expects - or would like - to hear from us. Let me give you an example: we know that the public is afraid of nuclear accidents occurring. We answer that the probability of a nuclear accident is exceedingly small, maybe 10-5 and, in any case, much smaller than the risk of having a car accident or of suffering from cancer if you smoke. Even though this argument is an objective fact, it does not seem to change public opinion. And yet we still read in brochures about the EPR or Generation IV reactors that there will be much more passive safety in the future and that accident probability will be reduced to 10-6 or 10-7...

The public couldn’t care less about such statements or the statistics quoted because their concerns and fears are not rational but emotional. We tend to answer questions that are of a social, psychological or ethical nature with technological or scientific arguments. Take the problem of radioactive waste: is this a technological or societal problem? Is fear of nuclear terrorism a technological problem or a societal one? I am convinced that purely technological answers to these questions are inadequate.

What’s more, the press tends to vastly amplify the public’s concerns. For the press, only interruptions to life’s smooth and steady course are newsworthy and, therefore, can generate profit. Good news is usually no news, except when it allows us to dream of an idealised world in which some of our fears or imperfections no longer exist. Fear of global warming is a good basis for news: announce a project to build a windmill park and you get the usual headlines. Fear of putting on weight? Then buy a women's magazine etc...

Bad news is always news when it triggers primal concerns. A leaking pump in the cooling circuit of a power plant automatically becomes a “near disaster” for mankind. For the press, non-zero risk means permanent risk.

Politicians all too often deliberately amplify this tendency inn an attempt to try and win the votes of those whose views represent the fringes of the mainstream electorate. What they think personally is of secondary importance compared with the importance of their perceived public image. And what the population really thinks is of less concern to them than what they can make the public think. This, in my opinion, leads to a dangerous and simplistic polarisation of opinion: left = against and right = in favour of nuclear energy.

Some of you may, of course, disagree with what I just said, and reality certainly shows that there are many layers of opinion. But I think that we would all agree that the past has shown how poor communication and lack of understanding of the real public’s genuine concerns can have a devastating effect on the public opinion. This holds true not only for the nuclear field, but also for science and applied science in general. Why, e.g., has the number of students studying nuclear science decreased dramatically world-wide while the number of students studying the 'soft science” continues to increase? Obviously, purely scientific or technological answers are not satisfactory when addressing the question of what kind of society we want to live in or bequeath to our children.

It is surprising, therefore, that most of the research in our sector - and other similarly small sectors - continues to be oriented towards providing technological answers, rather than including research into the more 'human' and 'societal' aspects. It is surprising and, I believe, dangerous.

Indeed, what is our credibility today, as scientists and engineers? Why are lobbying groups such as Greenpeace often considered more credible than we are? What happens to democracy when people who try to do their work honestly and as objectively as is humanly possible - people who are true scientific experts in their field - are not considered credible by the press and politicians alike simply because they do not conform to preset or demagogical opinions?

We should not just blame 'them' however. We created many of the problems we are experiencing today due to our historical lack of transparency and poor communication. But let's learn from the past and think about solutions that will help improve our credibility.

In my opinion, we first need to have the courage to acknowledge that we understand the public has problems and concerns about nuclear energy. It is correct that the amount of power generated in a nuclear reactor can inspire fear as it exceeds by far anything that we can grasp on a human scale: we appear to be tampering with the basic limitations of natural phenomena. It is correct that waste, which remains dangerous for many generations, may also appear frightening when we think about our grandchildren. It is correct that the consequences of a major accident anywhere in the world would affect us all. Acknowledging the validity of people's concerns certainly is a first step towards improving our credibility.

Why not be as open as possible, giving information that is adapted to suit the different levels of knowledge of those who receive it? We are neither the sole source nor the sole guardians of knowledge. And we are not the only ones that can understand how a reactor works. Not giving all the information is perceived as hiding information, which is in turn perceived as tantamount to hiding danger. This is fertile ground for our opponents to exploit on ideological rather than factual grounds.

Finally, we have to distinguish between scientific and technological facts on the one hand and personal or societal values on the other hand. For example: "there is no solution for radioactive waste and the waste is very dangerous". We tend to answer this generalisation by showing that "there are technological solutions or they are within reach and, therefore, the little waste that exists can be disposed in such a condition that it will not be dangerous". We mix scientific facts and technological solutions (depth of disposal site, isotope migration through different shielding barriers, time scales involved etc...) and value-based considerations or globally accepted views (dangerous, acceptable, sustainable etc.). It is not up to us to decide what is dangerous, nor what is acceptable for other people's grandchildren.

In my opinion, it is perfectly reasonable to be against nuclear energy because the risk of a major accident is not deemed acceptable, but it is not acceptable to write that nuclear energy is more expensive than wind energy, because that simply is not true.

Lobbying groups against this or that take every advantage they can to promote misconceptions, incomplete data or lack of openness. They mix facts and values as eagerly as possible. Let us, therefore, study all aspects, not only the basic or applied 'hard' scientific ones, but also the 'human' and 'societal' scientific aspects. Let us communicate facts, without mixing value-based judgments. This does not mean that we should not express our opinions, but instead let's clearly distinguish between facts and opinions. Discussions about facts can and have to be solved by scientific research. The democratic process can solve discussions about opinions. Let us, therefore, be open about our strengths, but also about our weaknesses. And above all, let us acknowledge the respectability of people's concerns. This way we may regain credibility and provide the basic ingredients that will support a democratic debate and encourage sensible decision-making when it comes to nuclear energy.

You may wonder why I have not said anything yet about the ENS. Well, what I propose is exactly what ENS already does! Have a look at our web site, which is indexed in the ISI web of knowledge for the value and credibility of the information that it provides, and is permanently updated. Attend our dedicated conferences, such as PIME (which focuses on communication), TopFuel, TopSafe, TopSeal, RRFM etc. Read our ENS NEWS electronic magazine. And, most importantly of all, have a look at the programme of ENC2007, our biannual congress, which will take place this year in Brussels, from 16 – 20 September. You will see that it provides sessions that focus on both 'hard' and 'soft' science issues.

I hope to see as many of you as possible in Brussels at ENC2007!

Frank Deconinck
President of the ENS

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