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Aug. 13: CMU Expert Cautions That Federal Nuclear Waste Panel Risks Public Mistrust

Contacts: Shilo Raube / 412-268-6094 / sraube@andrew.cmu.edu
Chriss Swaney / 412-268-5776 / swaney@andrew.cmu.edu

CMU Expert Cautions That Federal
Nuclear Waste Panel Risks Public Mistrust


BaruchFischhoffPITTSBURGH—A renewed federal effort to fix the nation’s stalled nuclear waste program is focusing so much on technological issues that it fails to address securing the public’s trust.
     
Baruch Fischhoff, the Howard Heinz University Professor of Social and Decision Sciences and Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, and leading researchers from around the country wrote an article in the latest issue of the journal Science, arguing that a special White House panel on high-level radioactive waste needs to focus more on the social and political acceptability of the policies that it proposes.
     
In the paper, the authors state, “While scientific and technical analyses are essential, they will not and arguably should not carry the day unless they address, substantively and procedurally, the issues that concern the public.”
     
Currently, the United States may be embarking on a “nuclear renaissance” with more than 50 reactors under construction and more than 100 planned over the next decade. Meanwhile, some 60,000 tons of high-level waste have accumulated in the U.S. alone, as 10 presidential administrations have failed to develop a successful waste-disposal program.
     
President Obama is bolstering the nation’s commitment to nuclear energy with $8.6 billion in loan guarantees to two new plants in Georgia and a 2011 budget request for tens of billions more. He also has appointed a 15-member Blue Ribbon Panel to review the storage, processing and disposal of nuclear materials.
     
However, the panel is dominated by scientists, technology experts and veteran political figures, leaving out social scientists, who have a vital role to play in designing respectful, effective consultation processes leading to policies capable of securing broad, stable public acceptance. That requires clearly communicating technical information, hearing the public’s concerns, and soliciting their views on possible solutions.
     
“Disposing of nuclear waste will ultimately require public acceptability,” said Eugene Rosa, professor of sociology at Washington State University and lead author of the article. “Current efforts by the administration, such as the composition of the Blue Ribbon Panel, indicate that this important element may be overlooked.”
     
Fischhoff, whose work focuses on helping the public deal with health, safety and environmental risks, has spent more than 20 years at Carnegie Mellon collaborating with other researchers on conducting analyses relevant to the public’s concerns and communicating their results comprehensibly. “We have the science needed for meaningful public involvement,” he said. “However, in order to use it, senior leadership must view two-way communication as a strategic commitment.”
     
Fischhoff added, “The public’s problems with nuclear waste have complex historic roots. Digging out of that hole will require making it central to the consultation process, not an afterthought, while the experts focus on the issues that concern them. It would be a shame to see the nuclear power industry fail to get a fair hearing because it behaves in ways that revive old suspicions.”
     
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Pictured above is Baruch Fischhoff, the Howard Heinz University Professor of Social and Decision Sciences and Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon.