Watching reactions to the unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan, I am reminded of risk management guru Peter Sandman’s work on “the components of outrage” (Chapter Two of Responding to Community Outrage), which does an extraordinary job of spelling out the challenges risk communications professionals face when dealing with this kind of incident. It helps to start with some basic facts. Consider this study published four years ago in The Lancet, which found that coal power, for example, causes 1,000 times as many serious injuries and 500 times as many fatalities as nuclear energy. Oil is somewhat safer than coal, but still many, many times more dangerous than nuclear, as this chart from Seth Godin illustrates quite dramatically. (For a more in-depth overview, this Foreign Policy article is excellent.) In other words, in a sane and rational world, it would take a dozen or so incidents such as the one we have seen at the Fukushima Daiicha Nuclear Power Plant before people started questioning whether nuclear energy was “worth the risk.” So prominent environmentalist George Monbiot had the most appropriate response to events in Japan when he wrote that the disaster had changed his mind about nuclear: “As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.” But Monbiot appears to be in the minority. The New York Times reported on the challenges facing nuclear lobbyists as a result of events in Japan. In the UK, Friends of the Earth was quick to publicize a study showing increased opposition to new nuclear plants. A survey in India found 77 percent of the population worried about nuclear safety. The general consensus seems to be that there will be more resistance to nuclear as a result of the tragedy in Japan. To understand why, we need to come back to Sandman’s theory of risk perception, which states that “risk = hazard + outrage.” The hazard from nuclear power is clearly far lower than the hazard from coal, oil and gas—a hazard the majority of the public accepts more or less without question. So clearly, it’s the outrage element of the equation that raises the level of concern. And looking at Sandman’s work on the components of outrage, it’s easy to see why. Sandman lists a dozen factors that lead to an increase in outrage, and many of those factors apply to nuclear power:
  • Coerced risk causes more outrage than voluntary risk, and the majority of people living close to nuclear plants did not volunteer to be exposed to the risk;
  • Industrial risk causes more outrage than natural risk, and nuclear is pretty obviously industrial;
  • Exotic risk causes more outrage than familiar risk, and most people are far less familiar with nuclear power than they are with oil and gas;
  • Memorable risk causes more outrage than unmemorable risk, and nuclear incidents—Three Mile Island, Chernobyl—are extremely memorable;
  • Dreaded risk causes more outrage than undreaded risk, and activist groups have been successful in creating and nurturing nuclear dread;
  • Catastrophic risk causes more outrage than chronic risk, which may be the biggest challenge, since nuclear incidents tend to be catastrophic, while fossil fuels do their damage primarily by creating chronic illnesses and environmental problems;
  • Risk controlled by others causes more outrage than risk controlled by individuals (which is why people fear air travel more than car travel), and nuclear power is completely beyond an individual’s control.
Sandman’s final two factors are not “inherent” to the industry, but relate to the behavior of those running it. Risk perception can be mitigated if those responsible for the risk are trustworthy sources and if they appear to be responsive to societal concerns. Conversely, risk perception is exacerbated by untrustworthy sources and lack of response. This article provides a good overview of where the Japanese nuclear industry comes out on the trustworthy/responsive scale. In other words, the nuclear industry—in Japan and beyond—faces a massive challenge if it is to overcome public skepticism. In fact, its communication efforts need to be nearly flawless: candid, credible, transparent, and responsive.