Thursday, March 18, 2010

Nuclear Power. It's not about the facts. It's how those facts FEEL

The Vermont Yankee nuclear power issue teaches clear and valuable lessons about the powerful influence of affective risk perception on public policy issues. A survey of Vermont citizens by the Civil Society Institute found two thirds opposed to re-licensing the plant in 2012. But what do the people who live near Vermont Yankee think? The people who look out of their kitchen windows and see the steam from the cooling towers, who drink water from local sources that would potentially be threatened by underground leaks from the plant, who see those emergency sirens on the local power poles that would sound the alarm if some sort of accident caused radiation was to be released?

Interestingly, the people who live in the immediate shadow of the threat are not nearly as worried as those who live further away. Though their actual risk is much higher should anything go wrong at the plant, the local residents reap great benefits from Vermont Yankee; high paying jobs (that average $100,000/yr. including benefits), revenues to the town that have allowed Vernon, population 2,100, to have a wonderful new library and expanded elementary school, and low taxes and high property values.

So to the plant’s neighbors the benefits outweigh the risks. The risks also seem less worrisome because residents are familiar with it, they’ve lived with for 38 years, and familiarity generally makes any risk less worrisome. There’s another reason, too. The local residents trust the people who operate the plant, because the operators are neighbors. The owners may be from out of state, but the people with control over the actual operation live down the road. When those local plant operators make promises of safety, and share concern about leaks, they make those promises on a first name basis to people they know, to people whose families they know.

Trust. Risk vs. Benefit. Familiarity. These are intrinsic factors that subconsciously play a huge role in how people see risks. Consider how these same factors color the views of opponents. Many, including anti-nuclear activists from out of state who have campaigned against nuclear power for decades all over the country, point out that the corporate owner, Entergy, wants to spin Vermont Yankee and several other nukes into a subsidiary company, and say this is a reason not to trust the company’s promises to Vermont. They cite the company’s misleading statements regarding the presence of underground pipes as further reason to doubt Entergy’s trustworthiness. They say that collapsing cooling towers and leaking pipes (of less concern to Vermont Yankee’s neighbors) should not happen at a nuclear power plant, and are evidence of how the public is at risk. And they say that despite benefits to the local population, or helping combat climate change by reducing CO2 emissions, the risk to the public from nuclear power is too high. In short, factors like Trust and Risk v. Benefit are important to the opponents too. But to them these affective perspectives argue against Vermont Yankee, not for.

Both sides are right. From their point of view. The point here is that it’s these points of view, not the facts about Vermont Yankee, that are being debated. It’s the feelings about the facts, not the facts themselves, that are driving Vermont’s decision making about how to supply itself with electricity (the plant provides one third of the current supply). That’s appropriate in a democracy. Values and facts must both play a role in any final decision. But the facts can be more clearly analyzed if the distorting lenses of risk perception are removed as that analysis is done. As Vermont’s policy makers move forward, as part of their process they would do well to separate out these affective perspectives, at least while a fact-based analysis can be done to help inform the final decision, if they want to honestly figure out what’s best for the people they serve.

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