Communicating about radiation in the 21st century

July 8, 2021, 9:27AMNuclear NewsPaul A. Locke


It might seem odd to begin a discussion about radiation risk communication with a title that references the 21st century. Simple math tells us that more than 20 percent of the 21st century is in our rearview mirror. Still, today we are relying on many of the concepts and ideas about communication that were developed decades ago. Using dated techniques for outreach about radiation hinders efforts to engage communities and the public in a discussion about the risks and benefits of technologies that use radiation sources.

Several years ago, I visited the Hanford Site’s B Reactor. I also toured an operating nuclear power plant that is currently part of the U.S. fleet, and I have learned about the design and operation of advanced small modular reactors. The evolution in reactor designs represented by these three technologies demonstrates that a culture of innovation and research delivers success. The nuclear industry is now, and continues to be, forward-looking as power generation, cleanup, and worker protection become advanced and are made safer, more efficient, and ready for the future.

It is past time for radiation risk communication to jump on board the innovation bandwagon, and there are many places we could begin. Using social media tools or taking advantage of other new channels of information might first come to mind. What I have found, though, is that the major challenges in moving risk communication forward are conceptual.

I think that the best place to start this transformation is to unpack the phrase “radiation risk communication” and look at what it means in practice. What is really needed when we engage in conversations about radiation with the public? While a complete answer to this question cannot be covered here, we can start by keeping four key factors in mind.

First, reject the idea that the goal of communication is to fill the gaps that might exist in others’ knowledge about radiation. This is called the “deficit reduction” model of communication, and it is based on the idea that public skepticism and lack of support are due to inadequate understanding of the “scientific facts.” If you are a scientist, or engineer, or think like one, you have likely been trained to approach discussions this way. Unfortunately, this model has not been successful in communicating with most stakeholders about radiation and, I would argue, does more harm than good.

Second, recognize that communication is a two-way street. It is important to listen first and learn what issues are most important to the audience with which you want to communicate. A listen-first philosophy will usually reveal how and why radiation issues have arisen and what perceptions about radiation exist. In some cases, it might be that radiation is tethered to other issues, such as concern for property values, or social justice, and/or civil rights. You will also likely discover that the public’s views about the risks of radiation are closely tied to the radiation source. People generally discount the impacts of naturally occurring radiation yet would dread the same type and amount of radiation if it came from a man-made source or a disposal site.

Active listening leads to the third, and most important, factor. The linchpin of successful communication is trust. Trust building should be the major goal of any communication dialogue. It means having a communications plan about how to engage effectively and continuously with stakeholders in a transparent and open way. Creating a level playing field that facilitates discussion and interaction is probably the best way to build a relationship founded on trust. Once trust is established, the fourth factor comes into play—discussing the benefits associated with nuclear technologies and how benefits and risks should be weighed.

Even after we make these conceptual adjustments, 21st-century radiation risk communication will require continuing efforts to support innovation and new knowledge about how to communicate in the future.

Legislation recently signed into law has the potential to improve risk communication by supporting research centered around one of the most difficult communication challenges—low-dose radiation exposure and its effects. This law requires that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine form a committee to develop a long-term strategy for low-doe radiation research. A key component of that strategy is to develop a research agenda that supports education and outreach activities that will promote understanding of low-dose research. If done correctly, this study could help revitalize radiation risk communication.

Low-dose radiation is one of ANS’s Nuclear Grand Challenges. ANS Position Statement 41, which addresses the health effects of low-dose radiation, states, “Radiation risk communication research and outreach, and a robust social science research program, should be prioritized to help promote science-informed perspectives regarding the risks and benefits of nuclear and radiological technologies in all industries.”

While we celebrate the next generation of technologies that use radiation for the public good, let’s make sure our communications about radiation’s risks and benefits are not left behind. Exposure to radiation can create health risks. It is incumbent on radiation professionals to explain these risks and to be attentive to the issues that they raise. It is equally important to tell the story of how these risks have been, and will continue to be, reduced, and how technologies that use radiation benefit our world.

Paul Locke, an environmental health scientist and attorney, is an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Md.