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Risk Perception and Energy Infrastructure

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has launched a report on Risk Perception and Energy Infrastructure. You can read the terms of reference for the inquiry at The Geological Society made a written submission.

Submission to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee inquiry: risk perception and energy infrastructure

Submitted 13 December 2011

  1. The Geological Society is the national learned and professional body for geoscience, with over 10,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government, with a wide range of perspectives and views on policy-relevant geoscience, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies and other non-technical audiences.

  2. We have not attempted to address all aspects of the questions below. Given the inquiry’s focus on the nuclear industry, we have directed our remarks in particular towards Government’s Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) programme – the area of nuclear energy infrastructure in which the geoscience community is most actively involved in the UK, and one in which considerable work has been done in recent years to address issues of public confidence and perception of risk. We urge the Committee, in considering nuclear energy infrastructure, to recognise challenges throughout the whole nuclear fuel cycle, including ‘back end’ issues such as waste disposal, decommissioning, and the ‘dual use’ challenge of spent fuel and associated national security implications. The Royal Society’s October 2011 report ‘Fuel cycle stewardship in a nuclear renaissance’ is an excellent starting point for considering the whole fuel cycle, beyond the more obvious aspects of waste disposal and plant decommissioning.

  3. Geoscientists also have a vital role to play in understanding the risk posed to nuclear and other energy infrastructure by natural hazards. The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan have highlighted this concern. While the UK is not vulnerable to earthquakes of such magnitude, it might be affected by tsunamis triggered by events elsewhere in the world. We can quantify tsunami effects in the recent British geological record. For instance, that which hit Scotland 8000 years ago, triggered by the Storegga landslide off Norway, was around 25 metres high, and if repeated now would inundate Torness nuclear power station. More recently, the tsunami following the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was several metres high when it reached the southwest of England – a similar event now would affect Hinkley Point power station.

  4. While it is sensible to limit the scope of the inquiry to a particular area of energy infrastructure, we have included some comments relating to other aspects of the energy system. Attempting simply to transplant approaches and methodologies from one context to another is rarely successful – but with due care and attention to the particular circumstances, there are lessons to be learned, from other countries, from other parts of our energy production system, and from past experience. Many communities in the UK have a long history of living with energy production and associated risks, and of depending on this industry for their livelihoods, especially in coal mining areas.

  5. Geological disposal of radioactive waste is an example of using the subsurface, and the properties of the geosphere, as part of the infrastructure we will require to manage responsibly the entire life cycle of our energy use and its impact on the planet. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) will be another. This new paradigm of energy use is fundamentally different to the historical model of resource extraction, involving as it does the return of waste materials to the geosphere and the need to understand their behaviour. Geoscientists will be at the heart not only of achieving this, but of addressing and communicating to the public the associated real and perceived risks.

    What are the key factors influencing public risk perception and tolerability of energy infrastructure facilities and projects?

  6. Suspicion of the nuclear industry, and its reputation for secrecy, in the 1970s, 80s and 90s was a major negative factor affecting public risk perception and acceptance of infrastructure projects. This was particularly true of attempts to establish a radioactive waste disposal programme prior to the 1997 refusal of the planning application for a Rock Characterisation Facility (RCF) at Sellafield, West Cumbria. With the failure of this planning application, Government recognised the need for a fresh start and a new approach, based on openness and transparency, a deliberative approach to decision making, and early and continuing involvement of the public in decision-making. This approach has been pretty comprehensively adopted by the nuclear industry for the last decade, and is fundamental to the work of the Radioactive Waste Management Directorate (RWMD) of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). This has resulted in good progress in building public confidence in the industry, and in the concept of geological disposal of radioactive waste, though considerable suspicion remains in some quarters. The lesson here is that the prevailing culture in particular industries and professional communities has a huge impact on public confidence and perceptions of risk, which in turn can dramatically affect programme outcomes, and that to win back public confidence takes a long time. There has been understandable criticism in recent years that MRWS has progressed slowly. While there may be ways in which Government and others could improve the rate of progress, it is also important that the process be allowed to develop at a pace that public confidence will allow.

  7. It is easy for expert communities to see their own understanding of risk as privileged. However, this can be alienating to those who do not share the same assumptions, perspectives or expert knowledge – both the general public, and other specialist communities. Geoscientists, for instance, are used to dealing with extremely long time periods, and with incomplete evidence bases, both of which shape their perception of risk and uncertainty. These characteristics have the potential to be of great benefit both in delivering safe disposal of radioactive waste, and in inspiring public confidence in this solution, but unless the differences in assumptions and knowledge of geologists and others are recognised and honestly addressed, they may also risk fuelling suspicion and distrust. It is important for scientists to think critically about how they communicate their work, their disciplinary understandings of risk, and their confidence in their predictions – and for the scientific community to encourage and reward the development of relevant communication skills. Working together with social scientists specialising in this area can bring considerable benefit, and enlisting social science expertise in this way is becoming standard practice in the radioactive waste community.

  8. Another major factor in shaping public risk perception and acceptance of energy industry is its historical role in local communities. This was particularly true in traditional coal mining communities, where the local economy was often heavily dependent on mining, and workers and their families were often all too familiar with the associated risks. It is not surprising that the only volunteer communities in the UK so far to have expressed an interest in hosting a geological disposal facility for radioactive waste are in West Cumbria, where the nuclear industry is well-established, familiar to the local population, and economically important, despite the continuing distrust of that industry by some.

    How are public risk perceptions taken into account in the planning process for energy infrastructure?

  9. Public acceptance and risk perception were central to the deliberations and recommendations of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) in its original incarnation from 2003-2006. The importance accorded to these factors alongside scientific and technical considerations initially caused a degree of disquiet in some parts of the scientific community. However, Government, the NDA, Site Licensing Companies and others involved in MRWS have continued to recognise the vital importance of public confidence, and this is embedded in the MRWS process through the principles of volunteerism and community partnership. The details of the planning process for later stages of MRWS are not yet known, but the Geological Society recognises the importance of continuing to address public engagement, acceptance and risk perception as the programme develops. In so doing, it is essential that the central importance of geoscience in site selection, development of the safety case and safe implementation of radioactive waste disposal is not compromised. Geoscientific information, insights and judgments can play a central role in helping to meet public concerns about risk, and decision-making processes should be carefully designed with this in mind.

  10. We have no comment on how public risk perceptions are recognised in the planning process for nuclear infrastructure beyond waste disposal.

    How effectively does local and central Government communicate risk and could it be improved?

  11. Regarding local government, we note that MRWS is in its early stages, and that local authorities’ engagement with risk and its public perception in this context is similarly new. We applaud the work which the West Cumbria MRWS partnership is undertaking, in engaging with the NDA, British Geological Survey (BGS), the wider scientific community, other stakeholders and local communities, and in communicating a wide range of specialist advice and input to local communities and decision-makers as they consider whether to proceed with participation in the MRWS process. We also note the work which the Nuclear Legacy Advice Forum (NuLeAF) has done in supporting local authorities in addressing these issues.

  12. We have no comment on the effectiveness of central Government in this respect, or on other aspects of nuclear infrastructure.

    To what extent can public perceptions be changed by improving risk communication?

  13. An important part of CoRWM’s work from 2003-2006 was not just to recognise public perceptions in its deliberations, but to start to build public confidence in its recommendations, and to address how this might be continued. Again, this has continued to be a priority for the NDA and others. It is difficult to quantify the extent to which greater public confidence in the concept of geological disposal and the MRWS programme can be attributed to improved risk communication, rather than to greater transparency of process and engagement with the public and stakeholders more generally. Indeed, it is impossible to pick apart these closely linked considerations. But it is unlikely that the progress which has been made with MRWS would have been achieved without effective attention being paid to public risk communication and related matters. (An early priority for CoRWM was to learn lessons from other public consultation processes. A particularly salutary case was the GM Nation debate, which had just come to an end and was widely regarded as having been unconstructive. This was attributed in large part to extensive gathering of (relatively uninformed) public opinion, without engaging participants in the process. By contrast, CoRWM undertook several intensive exercises to help members of the public engage with a range of experts and stakeholders with differing perspectives, and to understand their views in that context.)

    How does and should the Government work with the private sector to understand public perceptions of risk and address them?

  14. Industry has a vital role in understanding and addressing public perceptions of risk. This is nowhere more clearly understood than in the hydrocarbons sector, where the long-term commercial success of infrastructure investment on a vast scale depends on building and maintaining public confidence. In recent years, considerable effort and expertise has been devoted to improving public engagement, and to understanding and seeking to address public questions and concerns, rather than making assumptions about what the perceived risks are. We would be pleased to identify examples if this is a line the Committee wishes to pursue. There are valuable lessons to be learnt in other parts of the energy sector, and Government can play a useful role in facilitating this.

    How do risk perceptions and communication issues in the UK compare to those of other countries?

  15. Internationally, all successful radioactive waste disposal programmes identify the importance of public confidence, and some form of volunteerism and partnership with local communities are key elements. The need to pay careful attention to public perceptions of risk and to the communication of scientific understandings of risk is widely recognised, and within the well-established international radioactive waste management community, these matters are actively discussed alongside (and in conjunction with) scientific and technical issues. This international community is generally both sophisticated and well-informed in its understanding of the similarities and differences between national programmes and contexts, from the waste inventory and geological settings to broader cultures of citizens’ relationship with authority, traditions of decision-making and legal frameworks. The number of radioactive waste management programmes worldwide is very small, the financial and institutional investment required significant, and the timescales required for implementation unprecedented compared with any historical civil engineering project. So it is essential that every opportunity for learning between programmes is taken, both regarding scientific and technical understanding and public engagement, but also that such learning is sensitive to national context.

    Concluding remarks

  16. We would be pleased to discuss further any of the points raised in this submission, to provide more detailed information, or to suggest oral witnesses and other specialist contacts.