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Energy risks need better explanation by Government and regulators

9 July 2012

Independent regulators should take a more prominent role in communicating the risks associated with energy generation and distribution because the Government is not seen as an impartial source of information, according to MPs on the Science and Technology Committee.

Public distrust of governments as providers of risk information is evident across Europe. The UK Government's position as an advocate for nuclear power makes it difficult for the public to trust it as an impartial source of information. Technically competent public bodies that are independent of Government - such as the Health & Safety Executive and Office for Nuclear Regulation - are in a much better position to engender public trust and influence risk perceptions. The Committee calls on these regulators to make greater efforts to communicate risk to the public and develop their role as trusted sources of information for lay people,  in addition to providing risk information for technical audiences.

 Andrew Miller MP said:

"The public must be able to trust the information it receives on the risks of nuclear power and other energy technologies – such as fracking or carbon capture and storage.

Developing the public profile of independent regulators as trusted and authoritative sources may be one way of increasing public trust and understanding of such risks."

The report also warns that there is a lack of strategic coordination across Government when it comes to risk communication. A senior individual in Government should lead a Risk Communication Strategy team, drawing together existing expertise within Departments and public bodies – and be visibly responsible for overseeing risk communication.

Furthermore, the decision to class the Fukushima at the same 'Level Seven' magnitude as Chernobyl - despite there being significantly lower levels of radioactive material released into the atmosphere and no deaths directly attributable to the accident - demonstrates the need to revise the scale used to communicate the magnitude of nuclear accidents, according to the report.

Andrew Miller MP, Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, said:

Fukushima was no Chernobyl, but the public were left with a confusing picture of the real risks from the accident partly because it was classed as the same magnitude.
Although tens of thousands died as a result of the earthquake and tsunami, to date nobody has died, or received a life-threatening dose of radiation, from the Fukushima nuclear accident and no one is expected to.
The accident has made it clear that the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale is not up-to-the-job. The International Atomic Energy Agency should come up with a better and more accurate way of communicating the risks involved in any future nuclear accident."

The global body responsible for the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) should review the scale focusing on how to: 

  • better represent orders of magnitude;
  • make the scale comprehensible to non-technical audiences;
  • ensure the technical basis of the scale incorporates sufficient information about risk as well as hazard.

The report also calls on regulators and other information sources to emphasise to the public that exceeding recommended minimal radiation exposure levels may not pose any risk to people or the environment – and that safety thresholds may allow for significantly greater radiation exposure to occur without significant risk to health or the environment.

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