The current political tensions highlight that people worldwide need and should have access to reliable, affordable, and sustainable energy. This is going to be a major challenge of the 21st century but an inevitable task to serve society. The sources of energy production are currently provided by a mixture of coal, gas, renewable (e.g. water, wind sun), and nuclear energy. Historically, nuclear technologies were developed for military purpose. This changed over time and the benefits of nuclear energy became an important energy resource worldwide. However, new nuclear technologies (e.g. iMAGINE) are going to benefit the society even more, but historical experiences fostered a variety of concerns from the public towards nuclear technology, please see Figure 1.
Figure 1 Societal concerns related to nuclear technology (Merk et al. 2023)
The historical perceptions around accidents, neglect of safety for humans and environment, and weapon production interests led to an critical stance and low acceptance against nuclear technology (Lei Huang,2013; Prati, G., & Zani, 2013; Bromet, 2014; Sjöberg, 2004).
People’s perception of potentially harmful technologies such as nuclear technology had been ignored over decades and this in consequence fostered a climate of distrust and hostile attitudes towards the scientific community, businesses, and governments (Bromet, 2014; Merk et al., 2023). There is no wonder that nuclear technologies are highly contested and, in some countries, despised (see Austria, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg and Portugal; Kurmayer, 2021).
However, the energy challenge, providing affordable, safe, sustainable and accessible energy and considering public engagement in energy production is still a task to be solved. Considering the increased need for energy due to electric cars, smart homes, and other electricity intensive technologies, this will remain a challenge for the generations to come. New nuclear technology might support this task but researchers, businesses, and politicians need to learn to communicate with potential host communities and respect their values and concerns (Institution of mechanical engineers, 2019).
Communication and public engagement
The communication strategies within nuclear technology historically can be named as hideous, secretive, and lacking in transparency (Merk et al., 2023). This seems to be changing. Working in partnership with communities has become recently an important cornerstone of new nuclear projects (https://www.gov.uk/guidance/communities-and-gdf). Working with communities is now recognised as crucial not only to gain a better acceptance but to engage with communities constructively. The aim should be to directly address people’s concerns and needs. Communication strategies need to include public engagement providing openness about what is done and known and what is uncertain and unknown to build trust in the society (OECD-NEA, 2022).
It is already known, that the success of any contested technology will only succeed if communities and publics are included in decision making. A recent shift from historically top down approach to bottom up is taking place. This means the society’s and public concerns need to be taken seriously in decision making around nuclear power plants and nuclear technology. New efforts in the US are currently underway to ask potential host communities for consent e.g. to build intermediate waste disposal sites (csg, 2022). A report on public engagement by the NNL (2019) in the UK states: “Effective public engagement will enable this future to be realised, as it provides a means of building trust and confidence between the public and the energy sector, and the nuclear industry must take this engagement seriously if it is to play a role in the UK’s future energy mix”.
Under the Aarhus (2001) and Epsoo (1997) Convention the public has a legal right to be involved in any decision concerning nuclear power plant developments. The Aarhus Convention guarantees the right to “access information, public participation in decision making, and access to justice in environmental matters” (Duvic-Paoli & Lueger, 2022; EU legislation). The participatory rights are established in the Espoo Convention. The IAEA suggests a holistic picture to include stakeholders in any nuclear power programs (Figure 2).
However, the IAEA (2017) states: “One of the biggest challenges that nuclear power programmes face is securing and sustaining the support of key stakeholders, including the public.”
Figure 2: Stakeholder involvement (IAEA, 2017)
The interplay of a successful communication and public engagement includes Government and energy policy, businesses and their communication strategies, trustworthy media reporting, public involvement in decision making, and the scientific community applying the newest research, and working proactively with all regulatory bodies and vice versa.
A recent example of how stakeholders and public are working together can be seen in the DOUNREAY SOCIO-ECONOMIC REPORT (EXTERNAL) (September 2022). This report addresses public engagement by quoting some voices from the society about the recent socio-economic developments. But further work needs to be placed in action to ensure the societal concerns are heard.
Risk Communication a two-way interaction
However, how a contested technology such as nuclear is communicated and how it is perceived are two different aspects. To understand this, we need to be aware of how information is perceived by humans. It is well understood that the individual risk perception might be different from the actual measurable or scientific risk (hazard) and is influenced by many factors such as psychological aspects, political identity, society, institutions, and culture (Slovic, 1990; Ritchie, 2016).
Sandman (2003) defines psychological risk perception as: Risk = Hazard + Outrage. Hazard is identified as “how much harm it’s likely to do” and outrage describes “how upset it’s likely to make people”. Outrage here includes feelings of anger, fear or anxiety. If the outrage is high, people perceive the hazard as high and vice versa. As a result of the mass media's focus on nuclear technology's history primarily through high-hazard accidents, a lot of people were outraged by that. However, the focus on benefits and positive aspects of nuclear technology is lacking. Historically, the nuclear plant providers kept a lot of information secret which created an atmosphere of distrust in the society.
Additionally, there is evidence, that the younger generation is not aware that nuclear technology is a source of low carbon energy (Institution of mechanical engineers, 2019). One reason why the younger generation is less informed about nuclear technology might be the lack of balanced reporting. Therefore, efforts need to be made to communicate this knowledge to future generations.
Additional efforts and new developments in risk communication in nuclear technology aim to change this way of reporting and pursue a new approach of openness and transparency (OECD-NEA, 2022).
Importance of community work
These new ways of risk communication include the identification of public values. Public value (basic needs, desire, and what individuals thrive for) and the public sphere (interplay of individual and their setting) are important to understand how these are prioritised by individuals and how these values might change over time. (Bryson et al., 2014; van der Wal, 2016). This aspect of community work is embedded in a variety of activities such as visiting communities, information events, workshops, qualitative studies, and creating a forum for stakeholders to participate in decision making. This new approach of public engagement and the gained knowledge supports future nuclear technology developments within public value management. As there is currently a lack of qualitative and longitudinal studies to investigate these values my contribution to iMAGINE aims to investigate the lived experiences and values of people living in host communities of potential test sites. This will enable the research team to gain a deeper insight into the needs and concerns of people living in the community including their views about historical and current developments. This knowledge will provide evidence to be able to influence stakeholder decisions and policy and practice to develop a sustainable, trustworthy, and constructive community-nuclear technology-research-business interaction.
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