According to 16 social science researchers from across the country, a renewed federal effort to fix the nation’s stalled nuclear waste program is focusing so much on technological issues that it fails to address the public mistrust hampering storage and disposal efforts.
Writing in the latest issue of the journal Science, the experts, who include Lehigh’s Sharon M. Friedman, say that President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future is not focusing enough on the social and political acceptability of possible solutions.
“While scientific and technical analyses are essential,” the experts write, “they will not and arguably should not carry the day unless they address, substantively and procedurally, the issues that concern the public.”
Composed of science and technology experts and several former politicians, the presidential commission “appears to be overlooking what social scientists have learned over 20 years about public perception of, and response to, the risks of nuclear wastes,” according to Friedman, professor of journalism and communication and director of the Science and Environmental Writing Program.
Friedman has been studying risk communication about nuclear issues since 1979 when she was a consultant to the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island. She has also served as a member of several National Academies’ committees that have studied nuclear waste and radiation health effects issues.
A call for transparency and cooperation
“The issues around nuclear waste storage need to be evaluated in a transparent and cooperative environment between technical experts and the public,” says Friedman. “Communicating with people about risks from radioactive waste is extremely difficult. You can’t see or smell radiation, you don’t know what it will do to you, and dangers from various exposure levels are hard to explain. All of this instills fear in people and works against public acceptability of proposed solutions for disposing of nuclear waste.
“A number of social science studies have already addressed how nuclear waste issues can impact communities and shape policy around these issues. This knowledge should not be wasted but used instead to help find solutions,” Friedman says.
The Science paper comes while a “nuclear renaissance” has more than 50 reactors under construction in the world and another 100-plus planned over the next decade. Meanwhile, some 60,000 tons of high-level waste has accumulated in the United States without a successful waste-disposal program.
The paper goes on to say, “Addressing the relevant social issues does not guarantee success, but ignoring them increases the chances of repeating past failures, like Yucca Mountain.”
Highly controversial, Yucca Mountain was designated as the nation’s main nuclear waste repository by Congress in 1982, but President Obama withdrew its funding and asked that its licensing application be withdrawn.