By Rod Adams
Dr. Peter Sandman is a communication specialist who has built a career teaching people in high-value, complex industries ways to do a better job of telling their story to customers, stakeholders, and the public. One of his key contributions to the field of risk communications that is especially important to nuclear professionals is a redefinition of the word “risk”.
While most of us have been taught that risk = consequences x probability of occurrence, Sandman determined several decades ago that there was a wide difference between perceived risk and the expected annual mortality that is determined by multiplying consequence times probability. He retitled classical “risk” and called it “hazard” and then defined the risk that people perceive as “outrage”. Here is the definition that Sandman coined in the 1980s:
He then separates risk communication into four tasks:
- Precaution advocacy to warn people and encourage them to take action when the hazard is high, but the outrage is low.
- Outrage management to calm people down when the hazard is low but the outrage is high.
- Crisis communications when the hazard is high and includes a matching outrage.
- Sweet spot in talking to people about a significant, but not particularly urgent risk.
Some nuclear professionals will immediately see that we urgently need to learn as much as possible about what Sandman has to say about outrage management.
After all, we work in a field of technology where 50 years of history has resulted in substantial and vocal outrage, even though the measured average annual mortality (hazard) of the technology has been incredibly low.
As a prime example of the immediate need to get better at outrage management, consider what has happened to the prospects for near-term growth in new nuclear power plants since March 11, 2011. Starting on that day, an event that could have been the plot line of a slow motion disaster film struck a six-reactor nuclear power station called Fukushima Dai-ichi. For weeks, the world was treated to breathless stories about the knife edge between continued life and prosperity and a radiological catastrophe that some panicked-looking television experts said was going to wipe out half of Japan. (I am exaggerating a little for effect.)
As you may recall, the story started when one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history was followed by a large tsunami that topped numerous engineered barriers over a large swath of the northeast coast of Japan. Japan is one of the most camera-endowed places on earth, so we were treated to dramatic footage of the wave that really could have come from a Hollywood movie set, but it was real. Cars, buses, and trains were washed away like so many toys. Buildings were swamped, people were screaming, and the water was filled with large pieces of rubble.
Within hours, however, network television turned away from coverage of that horrible event and from pleas to help the people who needed help to recover their lives and who would never recover some of their loved ones who had been washed out to sea. Instead, the cameras focused on the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station, whose buildings looked rather intact. According to the serious and breathless reporters, the station had lost all power and thus lost the ability to continue circulating water needed to complete the reactor cool down process and maintain a stable shutdown condition.
This post is not about Fukushima, so I’ll stop with this summary. Three reactor cores at the power station melted. Approximately 43 grams of I-131 and 4 kilograms of long lived Cs-137 were released into the atmosphere. The plant site is substantially damaged. At least four of the reactors are total losses that will require several decades’ worth of careful and groundbreaking work to clean up.
Large areas of land near the plant remain barricaded and uninhabited, but thousands of workers continue to work safely at the plant itself. There were no measured health effects more serious than a minor sunburn on two workers who waded into radioactive water without proper protective clothing. There are numerous scientific organizations gearing up for long-term studies of health effects from the release of radioactive material, but the early projections are for small, probably unmeasurable, increases in the incidence of certain types of cancers.
Outrage remains high. Only two of Japan’s 50 remaining reactors are operating and Germany has announced a decision to stop using domestically generated nuclear energy. Numerous projects that were in planning stages before the event have been shelved. No one mentions a “nuclear renaissance” anymore.
Fukushima measurably increased the Sandman–defined risk of nuclear energy, even though the event helped prove to at least some former critics of nuclear energy that the hazard part of the risk equation was quite a bit lower than expected.
There is an immediate need for nuclear professionals to become better at outrage management. In fact, it is a moral imperative because there are tens of thousands of people in Japan and around the world who are still suffering from the stress and trauma of the fear of radiation, even though it turns out that the plant’s numerous layers of protection and trained workforce kept nearly all of the radioactive material from reaching the public.
Because of outrage, Japan is burning additional coal, oil, and natural gas that is costing approximately $55 billion more every year to replace the output of the nuclear plants that are not operating—and polls show that many people are relieved that the nuclear plants are being kept from operating.
However, even many nuclear professionals would also recommend that we become expert at crisis communications because our “worst case scenarios” indicate that there are times when the hazards really are high.
I have been struggling for several years with the best way to communicate the message that even the worst possible event associated with a nuclear power plant that has been designed well enough to meet licensing standards that have been in effect since the earliest days of the technology is a relatively low consequence event.
It not only has a low probability of occurring, but even if everything that can reasonably go wrong happens, few, if any people will be harmed. The primary hazards from terrible accidents at a nuclear plant are economic losses for the owners, stress-induced illness in the general population, and enormous economic losses for the community if the government orders unjustified but mandatory property abandonment.
Of course, the worst impossible but imaginable event at a nuclear plant can be calculated to result in widespread destruction and tens of thousands of calculated deaths. All one has to do to make those scenarios seem real is to make unworldly assumptions based on magical mechanisms that cause large quantities of water, metal, and ceramic material to disappear without taking any heat with them.
If you do not believe my assertions, I suggest that you curl up during the next few evenings with the SORACA reports – NUREG 1935. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission spent tens of millions of dollars and more than half a decade to produce those detailed reports. Both the Commission and the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safety (ACRS) reviewed and approved them. However, they were released without any fanfare despite the following important findings:
- Existing resources and procedures can stop an accident, slow it down or reduce its impact before it can affect public health;
- Even if accidents proceed uncontrolled, they take much longer to happen and release much less radioactive material than earlier analyses suggested; and
- The analyzed accidents would cause essentially zero immediate deaths and only a very, very small increase in the risk of long-term cancer deaths.
Aside: I cannot explain why the NRC web page still labels this list as “preliminary findings” even after the final report has been issued. Perhaps no one bothered to tell the web master. End Aside.
This kind of safety did not happen by accident; it is certainly possible to design nuclear systems that carry the risk of causing widespread damage. Instead, the achieved safety came as a result of having tens of thousands of scientists and engineers who invested their lives’ work into devising systems and structures that could suffer the worst possible stresses and yet continue to perform their safety functions. Then they added some engineering margins to make the systems even more resilient.
We have also invested huge resources into training designers, operators, and maintainers and teaching them to put safety first. The systems engineering that has been invested into reducing the hazard of nuclear technology does not mean that accidents do not occur; it is more like the kind of engineering that goes into protecting race car drivers. Engineers understand that nature and physics can produce powerful forces that cannot always be resisted. Many components and layers of material may look like they have failed, but the precious cargo remains protected.
Objective analysis of Fukushima also supports the assertion that the hazard of the worst realistic event is substantially lower than the readily measurable and known hazards of coal, oil, and natural gas, the only other means of generating similar quantities of reliable, life-saving electricity.
Now that the hard work of reducing hazard is well in hand and continues to be the daily focus of thousands of people, it is high time for the communicators to get to work on reducing the outrage that causes risk to remain high for the public, the government, and the investment community. (As Sandman would say, we need to avoid calling this risk “perceived risk”. It is just as real as hazard and can probably be calculated with significantly more precision.)
With those thoughts clearly in mind, I highly recommend carefully studying and applying the lessons that Sandman offers for outrage management. While you are learning, keep in mind the fact that people of equal talent and social science understanding have spent several decades using techniques that he might call “precaution advocacy” to purposely increase outrage about describable but imaginary risks of nuclear technology.
Here are three 1991-vintage videos that together make up Part One of an outrage management training session. You can find links to more on his outrage management web index. While you are watching, you might notice that Sandman himself has been a victim of the precaution advocacy effort that has worked hard to make people deathly afraid of man-made radiation.
Note: The passages about Fukushima were added to the post on May 8, 2013, as a result of communication with Sandman, who offered the following comment:
“One point that is in my field: There’s nothing in your post that’s different from what you might have written before Fukushima. I grant you that there aren’t a lot of documented Fukushima deaths; that the principle health impacts of Fukushima so far are psychological; that arguably unnecessary evacuation exacerbated the damage. (So did government and industry dishonesty.) Still, Fukushima was a watershed.
I would question the credibility of any nuclear risk expert who didn’t recalibrate after Fukushima, and of any nuclear risk expert who didn’t mention Fukushima when opining about the risk.”
Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.