Published in the March 2011
issue of the Canadian
Nuclear Society Bulletin, Vol.32, No.1.
The Social Side of Radiation Risk
by Jeremy Whitlock
Few things in our environment are both as prevalent and as misunderstood as radiation. Bring the topic up and most conversations will turn to talk of disease, distrust, and disillusionment.
The disillusionment stems from a feeling that science has abandoned us. Science was supposed to save civilization from itself: we were all to lead healthier, prosperous lives thanks to scientific innovation
We are prosperous, but we suspect we're not healthier.
In fact we suspect that we're tolerating more pollution than ever, most of it the condoned by-product of technical progress, and top of the heap is radiation.
It doesn't matter what kind of radiation: cell phones, microwaves, airport scanners, nuclear reactors. It's all vaguely similar, and vaguely connected to our high standard of living.
The irony, of course, is that radiation is probably the most well-understood and controlled addition that humankind makes to its environment. It is a natural part of our world, and an essential component of our health-care system.
And yes, we are healthier than we've ever been.
So how can such a gulf exist between reality and perception?
How is it possible to coexist with radiation and reap its benefits, while so many of us live in fear of it?
Two recent cases bear mentioning: The public reaction to Bruce Power's plan to recycle used steam generators, and the repeated fear-mongering over contaminated soil remediation in Port Hope, Ontario.
In both cases an inconsequential radiation risk, each the legacy of immense societal benefit (electricity and health care), has been co-opted by emotional discourse bearing little connection to the facts.
It must be noted that the facts in each case are plainly available, proffered by the experts in the land following international standards. This is clearly not the issue.
The issue is communication.
If a gulf of public understanding exists to be exploited, then practitioners in the science and technology (S&T) community bear some responsibility for the situation, and for fixing it. It is incumbent upon those in this community to speak out wherever facts are being misrepresented, in plain, understandable language.
The responsibility goes further than this. Historically, communication about radiation has seldom strayed beyond a response to current events. The public first learned of radiation when two horrendous mushroom clouds devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the subsequent decades of Cold War and Chernobyl saw little attempt to counter this image on a cultural scale.
Simply put, the public is justifiably afraid, and today's fear-mongerers are a symptom, not the cause.
What's required is ongoing engagement of the broad public, not just the seeking of a "social licence" to perform a specific activity. The type of widespread anxiety that has grown around the steam generator shipments and Port Hope causes real public health issues, starting with stress and leading, in some extreme international cases, to unnecessary evacuations, abortions and other radical responses. This real health risk needs to be managed as earnestly as we approach other risks associated with industrial activity.
This means the "TLC" approach:
Trust. The public does not need to understand the science of radiation, but it needs to know that it can trust those that do.
Liability. The public needs to know that practitioners of radiation-related activities are accountable for their environmental footprint, and that this footprint is well characterized.
Consultation. The public needs to be continually engaged. This means listening and responding to concerns, as well as providing accessible information.
This isn't a trivial requirement, nor is it cheap, which explains why it largely hasn't been done (at least consistently) in the seven decades since the dawn of the nuclear age.
It can be done, however. The government established the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) in 2002 with a mandate to listen to Canadians for three years before proposing how to deal with Canada's used nuclear fuel. This essentially filled the social gap left by the previous twenty years of technical development in nuclear waste management. The NWMO did this, and Canada's official plan for long-term nuclear waste management is an envied example of successful public engagement the world over.
With an ethical responsibility to counter radiation fears, including the unethical behaviour that exploits these fears, the S&T community plays an important role in promoting the health and happiness of all Canadians.