The People vs Nuclear Experts: Radwaste’s Tribalism

i Jun 13th 1 Comment by

The failure of nuclear experts and ordinary people to listen to and understand each other is the biggest barrier to solving the world’s radioactive waste problem.  That’s an inescapable conclusion from a thought-provoking review of HBO’s new documentary Atomic Homefront in the latest edition of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist.

The public lack trust in the nuclear sector.   The sector seems to have an almost institutionalised inability to grasp the social, political and non-technical dimensions of public concern.  This means dialogue regularly ends up like a CNN panel discussion with opposing views talking over each other and at cross purposes.  A lot of energy and effort to go nowhere, and everyone repeatedly re-trenching to their respective camps, confused and exacerbated.

As Britain and other countries agonisingly address how to permanently dispose of their radioactive waste, resolving this failure of dialogue becomes of paramount importance.  The onus is on the nuclear and public sectors to creatively and radically review how they interact with the public.  To establish the common ground required to advance this debate.

In his very readable article, Francois Diaz-Maurin of the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University, describes:

  • the historic culture of secrecy in the nuclear sector, which despite increasing transparency, permeates relationships with the public to this day;
  • a lack of concern about managing radioactive waste in the early days of the nuclear sector, which led to inappropriate disposal of some waste and subsequent perceived attempts to ‘cover up’ the mistakes;
  • the mismatch between public anecdotal experience and scientific models and research findings, which fuels discord, distrust and despair.

Both sides of the debate in the Atomic Homefront film make pertinent and valid points, but they also both perpetuate unfounded myths and misconceptions.  Regardless of your thoughts on the film, it does provide (in conjunction with Diaz-Maurin’s analysis) a helpful starting point in identifying how we can better approach and manage the multinational-but-local discussion around safe management of radioactive waste and its permanent disposal.

You can view the 1.5 hour HBO documentary Atomic Homefront online.  But recommend that you view it in conjunction with the Diaz-Maurin article.


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