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It's all about perception for nuclear safety

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.

Readers' comments (1)

  • I am surprised at the absence of opinion contributions to this issue.
    It is not all about perceptions and I disagree with the view of Sir David King that the risks are acceptable.
    In order to, perhaps, initiate debate about this very serious issue I have "pasted" my contribution the Declan's last article on the subject:
    " Having gained experience of appraising risk while contributing to production of BD79 “The Management of Substandard Structures” in my capacity of Chief Bridge Engineer at the Welsh Assembly Government, I am somewhat concerned about the content of NCE publications dealing with the nuclear issue.

    I have not seen any articles dealing with risk as the product of consequence and the probability of the hazard occurring. While preparing BD79 we found some difficulty in defining the limits of ALARP ( managing risk As Low As Reasonably Practicable) between the not- bothered line and the no-way line. The important thing about the no-way line is that HSE would regard management of risk above that line as potentially criminal; while failure to manage risk below the not- bothered line would not initiate court proceedings.

    Now the front cover of the 24.03.11 issue of NCE showed an alarming representation of the danger zones surrounding the Hinkley Point and Oldbury nuclear sites. The consequences of a major nuclear incident at these sites would be devastating for South East Wales and the Bristol area. I regard the consequences of failure at these sites as being so serious that they should be placed above the no-way line; and it should not be permissible to manage the probability of the hazard occurring using the ALARP, or any other principles .

    I have no doubt that the people of the Cardiff and Bristol areas would not be prepared to accept the consequences of a nuclear disaster at Hinkley or/and Oldbury. I also have little doubt that the public would not be prepared to accept the assurances of the engineering profession regarding the precautionary measures employed and the claimed extremely low probability of the hazard occurring. With regard to the probability of the hazard occurring, it was Donald Rumsveld who famously said:
    ”There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
    While his statement has generated much amusement, it is a valid representation of the limitations of the prediction abilities of the human being.
    If put to the test, I suspect the people of Cardiff, Newport and Bristol would vote for the Severn Barrage rather than nuclear power.
    As engineers, we have a duty to give our unbiased opinion on matters of policy; and I don't think we are doing that. We seem to be concentrating upon the implementation of policy decided by others."

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