The risk perception of N-power

Tags: Op-ed
The risk perception of N-power
DRIVEN BY RISK PERCEPTION: Activists and residents stand in the waters of the Bay of Bengal during a protest against the Kudankulam Atomic Power Project (in the background) at Kudankulam this September
Many a time, public perception of risks diverges from the scientifically objective risk estimates. While this divergence is observed for different day-to-day risks, of late it has had significant implications with regard to nuclear power. In a recent article in Psychology Today, David Ropeik, an instructor at Harvard University Extension School, discussed the risk perceptions connected to the use of nuclear power. Ropeik gave the example of the US-based Vermont Yankee nuclear plant to highlight the problem.

The Vermont state legislature has decided not to re-license the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, when it expires this year. The Vermont state gets about 33 per cent of its electric power from this nuclear plant. But the decision to not re-license the plant was supported by a two-third majority. It is interesting to see the difference in risk perceptions of those who live closer to the plant and those who are far off. According to Ropeik, people who look out of their kitchen windows and see the steam from the cooling towers, and who drink water from local sources that might be threatened by underground leaks from the plant, do not seem to be as worried as those who live far away.

From a cost-benefit analysis, when the benefits outweigh the costs, the risks of a problem diminish. According to Ropeik, although the actual risk is much higher for those who live close to Vermont Yankee, the perceived benefits are much more compared with the costs associated with it. It is a fact that local residents reap great benefits from Vermont Yankee: high paying jobs, tax revenues that have given the neighborhood a wonderful new library and an elementary school. So, according to Ropeik, the benefits are outweighing the risks for the plant's neighbours. Thus, their risk perceptions are very small (and perhaps, smaller than objective risk estimates).

Some other researchers have coined a description-experience gap in people's perception of risks based upon how one gets the information on the risks. For example, when information on the risks (i.e., probability of a mishap and its consequences) is presented descriptively, people overweigh them by a large amount this probability. However, when the same information is experienced or felt (rather than read), the perception of the probability is underweighed. The description-experience gap applies well to the case of nuclear power. For example, constant assurances that Britain is safe from the harmful radiation of Fukushima power plant were not enough to prevent people from buying iodine pills at pharmacies up and down UK.

However, the same day, many Japanese, who were living in the vicinity of the power plant, did not even bother to eat the iodine pills handed to them. Britons only get to hear about the nuclear incident through written media reports or televised broadcasts. These written sources heighten the fear of developing a rare radiation sickness and cause them to panic for iodine; whereas for the Japanese, who are the focus of the disaster, their experiences of no radiation sickness (even after the nuclear incident) dampen their fears of developing the sickness.

Still, there is another factor that might colour people's risk perceptions for nuclear power. According to Ropeik, this factor is trust. For example, one reason why people who live close to Vermont Yankee might be more sympa thetic to its existence is that they trust the people who op erate the plant, because the operators are their neigh bours. According to Ropeik, the owners may be from out of state, but the people actually running things day-to-day live right down the road.

According to Ropeik, “when those local plant oper ators make promises of safety and apologise for leaks, they are talking on a first name basis to people and families they know.“ The trust factor also seems to fuel the support for people who oppose the plant's existence. For exam ple, the opponents say that the corporate owner, Entergy, wants to spin Vermont Yan kee and several other nukes into a subsidiary company and thus the state govern ment should not trust its promises. Thus, according to Ropeik, for opponents, trust is low, so fear is high.

It is the feeling and percep tions of risks that determine the decision for scrapping a AP plant like Vermont Yankee rather than the objective risks themselves. According to Ropeik, our risk perception can lead to behaviours that feel right, but actually raise our risk. He says, “when we're too afraid of some relatively smaller risk, or not as afraid as we ought to be about some bigger threat, our judgements and behaviours raise the risks all by themselves.“ Well, it is a fact that our judgements are a mix of fact and feelings, intel lect and instinct, cognition and intuition. That is how the human animal perceives risk.

(Varun Dutt is on the faculty of Indian Institute of Technology, Mandi. He is also the Knowledge Editor of Financial Chronicle)


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