By Mark Williams
After a day of discussion around the ethics of nuclear, one thing seems to be clear: people want to know more about the risks, and they want dialogue with experts in the form of an open forum.Earlier this month in Manchester University’s School of Chemistry, 3 invited speakers, who have a range of expertise in energy mix economics, nuclear legislation and ethical studies, discussed their findings to a group of nuclear researchers. Rather than preaching to the choir about the benefits of nuclear, this was more of a critical assessment of how industrial and political actions can affect public perception. Dialogue ranged from the cyclical privatisation/nationalisation of energy markets to the building of another fence around Sellafield. Analysis ranged from the extensive engineered barriers to minimise radiation exposure to workers, to the perceived tarnishing impact of being born in a prefecture with a nuclear contaminant history.
Take tightening security at Sellafield, for example; “anywhere with an electrified fence sandwiched between two razor sharp fences is going to make passers-by believe there is something very dodgy going on inside,” said one speaker. Interestingly, 25 years ago people were being shown around the site by tour guides; all visitor facilities have now been closed off, however. Is this a required security precaution in the light of increased terror alerts post-9/11, or is it a considerable loss of public transparency?
What of the people of the Fukishima prefecture? Parents in the region worry for their children’s future marital eligibility, but are these anxieties a result of their misunderstanding of the radiation risks? More likely it is the societal objectivity of a ‘contaminated’ community based upon a fairly global misunderstanding of radiation risks.
I’m concerned for a nuclear-curious public who have very limited public access to the nuclear industry. Politicians have been strongly in favour of nuclear since January 2008, with Gordon Brown stating “more than ever before, nuclear power has a key role to play as part of the UK’s energy mix” in the government white paper of that year. Then, just months after Fukishima, the current government said “we need […] a new generation of nuclear stations.” But with lacklustre incentives to entice private sector investment and the retraction of proposed carbon cost hikes to curb gas and coal [2011 white paper], nothing has been built and projections predict new build to be connected to the grid no earlier than 2025.
The talk subsequently focused on what can be done about public engagement. Other countries successfully engage with the public via open forums to discuss nuclear plans with respect to waste disposal (France) but little action takes place in the U.K. Perhaps some responsibility lies with nuclear specialists and researchers to try to engage the public in an unassuming, honest way, as opposed to allegedly acting like a fenced-off community, which people should be wary of.