Former government chief scientist Sir David King last week became the latest in a long line of of technical experts to state that nuclear power is the safest form of energy.
Yet as the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan continues to leak radiation, concerns about the safety of UK’s nuclear fleet and in particular the planned new-build programme are still being expressed.
Senior engineers believe that there could be a problem with risk perception and communication between experts and the general public.
“Safety is the number one public concern in the nuclear industry and it is the safest form of energy on record,” says King. “Thirty people were killed in a coal mine in the same week [as the Fukushima crisis] which was not reported.”
“Logic is not enough…People may hold irrational and illogical views but they’re still valid”
Judith Hackett, Health and Safety Executive
But while the Fukushima crisis is undoubtedly serious, the magnitude of the disaster there should be put into context by engineers, so that the public can develop more informed opinions about safety and risk.
“Logic is not enough,” says Health and Safety Executive chairman Judith Hackett. “People may hold irrational and illogical views but they’re still valid,” says Hackett. “Establishing public trust and confidence is imperative.”
The Engineering Council believes that engineers must take a leading role in communicating risk in a way that hasn’t been achieved previously.
Its risk working group chairman David Bogle believes that there has been a lack of leadership from engineers as the world has struggled to comprehend the implications of the Fukushima disaster.
“A lot of recent press reports describing the Fukushima accident are made by scientists as opposed to engineers,” says Bogle.
“Engineering is a risky business,” adds Engineering Council chairman professor Kel Fidler. “You only have to look at events at Buncefield, Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima to realise that.”
He was speaking at the launch of the Engineering Council Guidance on risk document aimed at encouraging engineers to join the debate when risk issues are being discussed.
The view of engineers is that for every Fukushima, there are many facilities that successfully operate and, as a result, go largely unnoticed. Engineers must communicate risks and benefits for any project, while being clear that no infrastructure is risk-free.
“There will never be full scientific knowledge of a project, so it’s about explaining the risks and benefits and being honest about what we can do” adds Hackett.