The rosy tint of nuclear risks
Report from Radioactive Times Volume 4, Number 1, June 2000 (content not updated)
The nuclear industry is always on the lookout for new ways to overcome its poor public image. The latest appears in Nuclear Energy, the house Journal of the British Nuclear Energy Society. It is a simple colour coding system for communicating "the scientist's quantitative measure of risk" to the public, whose risk perceptions are warped by instinct and anecdotal evidence spread by the news media.
According to the paper's author, P Spare, of Nuclear Technologies Ltd., the problem is that "adults find the concepts of risk and probability extremely difficult", which leads to the public and specialists "talking different languages and adopting polarised points of view", particularly when debating new technologies and putting the hazards they present into the context of everyday activities.
Spare proposes that "a scale of seven or eight colours based on the rainbow would be comprehensible to even the very young." Calculating the annual risks of death from a range of activities, he uses the traffic light system -- red for danger (e.g. mountaineering, heavy smoking), ranging through orange (breast cancer, work in mining and farming, Natural Background Radiation), and yellow (accidents on the railways and at work, skin cancer) to green for "acceptable" risks, (fatalities from using domestic gas supplies).
Even safer than "acceptable", the risks of being killed by lightning and dangerous dogs are coded blue, a category which is subject to "very occasional public interest" and "rare Government intervention". Less probable still, the risks of dying from being hit by a meteorite or from radiation from nuclear power plants -- risks said to be between 1 in 30 million and 1 in 300 million annually -- are coded white. But here, Spare says, "disproportionate safeguards" result from "exaggerated concerns encouraged by pressure groups". This identifies him as part of the lunatic fringe which would like to spare the industry a lot of regulation.
The "white" status he accords to nuclear power, and the assumed relationship between nuclear pollution and Natural - "orange" - Background Radiation depend, of course, on the false science of average absorbed dose embodied in ICRP's external irradiation paradigm.
The Laboratory RaT asks if this is why the coloured images of the earth provided by satellites show nuclear power stations as white.
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