EDMONTON — Nuclear experts trying to reassure the population that risks from nuclear power are minimal are missing the point, says a university social scientist.
As experts mount education campaigns, pull out charts and try to win on the strength of their data, people turn away, unable to believe they're getting a full answer, Debra Davidson, a sociologist in the department of rural economics at the University of Alberta, said Wednesday.
The only way government and industry leaders are going to win people back is by admitting the debate is not black and white, she said. "I know that's a fine political line to walk on."
Proponents worry if they come out and say "accidents are possible," they will create fear and no one will to accept their product.
"What I would say as a social scientist is exactly the opposite," said Davidson. "If you want to alleviate the concerns of members of the public then acknowledge the concerns. They're already scared. They're more likely to be afraid of people who say, that will never happen."
Davidson is the lead author on a report released this week trying to bring a new perspectives between the extremes. She worked with a group of economists, sociologists and an English PhD candidate from the University of Alberta and the King's University College, and will be co-hosting a followup forum at the University of Alberta on Jan. 31.
Ontario-based Bruce Power is considering building a 4,000 megawatt nuclear power plant north of Peace River, the first in Alberta, and an environmental assessment is expected later this year.
Davidson said the other element that is missing from Alberta's nuclear debate is that there are risks on all sides.
Climate change poses a risk to current and future generations, and nuclear power is an alternative to the carbon-emitting coal-burning plants that currently provide most of Alberta's energy.
She said there are also the risks of creating lasting conflict in a region and people living in fear, both of which compromise the quality of life. "And isn't that why we're building power plants in the first place?"
A technical expert might tally the numbers and decide the risk of death is minuscule compared the risk of a car accident people face every day. But for members of the public, those numbers are just the beginning of a risk assessment, Davidson says.
They want to know who is going to die and how. Are they all from one's own community, and are they mostly small children? Do those who die have any control over their exposure? And how well can the calculation be trusted when the organization presenting the numbers has been wrong before?
Industry experts may argue that fear and dread of nuclear power is wrong, but that's not the point, Davidson said.
"What matters is that fear exists."