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Opinion: June 2011

After Fukushima

We need a democratic debate, argue Alister Scott and Jim Watson

Japan’s earthquake and the subsequent devastating tsunami are extraordinary events by any standard. The evacuation of thousands from the danger zone around the stricken Fukushima nuclear plants, and the difficulties caused by power black-outs give us a text-book case of how human choices and technology can increase our vulnerability through unintended side effects.

We need a democratic debate, argue Alister Scott and Jim Watson

Japan’s earthquake and the subsequent devastating tsunami are extraordinary events by any standard. The evacuation of thousands from the danger zone around the stricken Fukushima nuclear plants, and the difficulties caused by power black-outs give us a text-book case of how human choices and technology can increase our vulnerability through unintended side effects.

It is too early to say precisely what has gone wrong. Brave operators are still battling to control the situation, at a time when many of them must be facing personal loss as a result of the tsunami.

For the rest of us, we need to be thinking about the implications for how we collectively make decisions about the future use of nuclear power. Both blandishment and outright rejection have been hasty and unhelpful.

Need for measured critiques

Such incidents are often made worse by the ways in which the industry and governments handle them. This can be seen in the early stages of this disaster with officials, nuclear industry representatives and even supposedly independent commentators telling us that all is fine. But as things get worse, people wonder why early reassurances were issued when there was clearly no basis for them.

What officials and politicians seem not to understand is that most people accept that they will only ever have a rough understanding of the facts. Instead, people instinctively ask themselves, ‘Can I trust those who are in charge here?’  In this connection, strong government support for nuclear power can raise suspicions about the close relationship between government and the industry.

What are the implications? First, industry and governments need to be more straightforward with the public. Statements that imply full knowledge when the situation at Fukushima is far from resolved are deeply unscientific; a more humble approach where officials are frank about the unknowns would paradoxically engender greater trust. Nuclear’s opponents also need to adopt a measured approach in their critiques.

We need a fuller democratic debate about the choices we are making about technology. Catastrophic potential needs to be a central criterion in decisions about technology. Advice from technical experts is useful, but some of the most significant questions are ethical in character.

UK debate

With respect to the UK, our research has highlighted that political debate on energy security has often been simplistic, narrow and closed. Policy-makers have rushed to embrace nuclear power as the answer to energy security and climate change. This was perhaps most famously the case when the then Prime Minister Tony Blair pre-empted the conclusions of a consultation about energy options, publicly telling the nation that nuclear power was back ‘with a vengeance’. Contrary to such definitive statements, our research has shown that new nuclear has mixed implications for UK energy security.1

Similarly, those firms and investors who have become involved in nuclear have often failed to take regulatory and political risk into account. History shows that nuclear accidents can lead to tighter regulations, which in turn increase nuclear costs.

Further ahead, the proponents of hazardous technologies need to bear the full costs of their products, including insurance liabilities and the cost of independent monitoring of their environmental and health effects. As it stands at the moment, taxpayers would bear the costs of any future nuclear incident, and environmental monitoring of hazardous products is patchy.

Critics of technology are often dubbed in policy circles as anti-science. Yet critical thinking is a central element of any rational decision-making process. It is ironically less scientific to support a particular technology in an uncritical way. Democratic debate about our choices over technology needs respectfully to embrace the full range of views, treating them as useful sources of intelligence. Quiet voices sometimes bring wisdom.

1 Jim Watson and Alister Scott (2009): New nuclear power in the UK: A strategy for energy security? Energy Policy vol. 37 pages 5094 - 5104 

The crucial one-fifth of a second

Tim Radford on public engagement and science journalism

Tim Radford on public engagement and science journalism

Here is a paradox: journalists and broadcasters have a role in the public engagement in science, but only if they don’t give it a thought. There are several reasons. A journalist must maintain detachment, even from notionally good causes such as public engagement. Public engagement is a generalisation, and journalists, like readers and listeners, prefer the particular rather than the general. But the most urgent reason is that journalists write a story with only one thing in mind: how to make somebody read it.

Keeping the contract

But this is exactly where questions of public engagement begin. Are we writing about archaeological discovery, global warming or precision measurement of Himalayan altitudes? Does the public know about ground-penetrating radar, albedo or isostasy? Are we going to use those words at all? The last two are relatively ‘old’ science (they date from 1859 and 1914, according to the second edition of the OED) and the first phrase is relatively new technology. If we do use these terms, with extra explanation, will we then also use others such as radioisotope dating, methane hydrates or orogeny? The answer is: not if we can help it.

One needlessly incomprehensible word is all it takes to break the silent contract between writer and reader. As I am fond of pointing out, it can take a scientist several years to establish a conclusion – about, perhaps, cancer genetics - and several months to get it published. It can take a reporter many hours to read the research, talk to the scientist, and then write the piece. The next morning, the reader gets as far as the word ‘allele’ and stops reading in just one-fifth of a second.

On our own terms

But if journalists don’t use such words, how will lay people ever know them? The answer is straightforward: our business is telling stories. We have a responsibility to democracy to tell people things that may be important to them. But we tell these stories on our terms, and we are free to choose the words. Readers are not obliged to master the jargon of science, but they are entitled to learn of its discoveries.

I make a distinction here between science bloggers and journalists in what remains of the traditional mass media. Science bloggers can fairly assume that their audience has logged on to read about science. Newspaper readers buy the paper for news: any news. So the challenge for any mass media science writer is to make the science story as compelling or provoking as a story from the world of sport, politics or economics. This should not be difficult.

New words for new discoveries

I am also fond of pointing out that, unlike most reporters, the science correspondent has the opportunity to write something that has never been written before, and very occasionally something that no-one could ever have imagined writing before. With that privilege goes responsibility. New discoveries require new words. According to something I read in Nature two years ago, biology alone has added 60,000 new words to the Oxford English Dictionary.The entire Avon catalogue of Shakespeare is composed in about 30,000 words. So reporting also becomes an exercise in translation: new terms are introduced cautiously, and with a simple glossary. 

For most of my science reporting life, whenever science reporters used the acronym DNA, they would add ‘the four-letter alphabet of life, encoded in the nucleus of almost every living cell’ or some such variation. And then, some time this century, we stopped doing so. DNA had entered the vernacular. The public had become a little more aware. Without planning to do so, we achieved engagement. Big deal: it only took 25 years. 

Dr Alister Scott
Dr Alister Scott is a Visiting Fellow at SPRU at the University of Sussex
Professor Jim Watson
Professor Jim Watson is Director of the Sussex Energy Group at the University of Sussex
Tim Radford
Tim Radford was science editor of the Guardian until 2005. His geographical memoir The Address Book: Our Place in the Scheme of Things, is published by Fourth Estate
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