Same Issues, Different Stories

Talking Nuclear Waste and Risk Perception with Suzanne Waldman

A 2015 Breakthrough Generation fellow, Suzanne Waldman is currently completing her doctoral degree in Communication Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where she researches risk perception of nuclear power and nuclear waste. As we well know, questions surrounding both issues tend to dredge up a range of responses, from the technocratic to the anti-nuclear, that Waldman says correspond with different cultural “frames,” or worldviews. Drawing on research by Dan Kahan and others, she emphasizes that “we’re all in different tribes when we think about risk” and that these tribes each tell a particular kind of story. When it comes to the weighty question of disposing of our nuclear waste, she has set out to find, is it possible to engage these contradictory stories into some larger narrative, one that brings us closer to policy solutions?

According to Waldman, these bigger stories do exist, and they are stories with contingency and flexibility built in. With regard to nuclear waste disposal, she identifies a strong example in the perspective of the “Responsible Geologist,” a narrative that is neither “cornucopian” nor “catastrophic” but rather urges both caution and confidence in the scientific process. In this way, it accommodates the fears and values of multiple tribes without rigidly reinforcing them. And while this “third narrative” does not necessarily solve our problems in itself, Waldman says, it does offer an important frame from which to approach the policies and procedures surrounding nuclear waste management.

We recently discussed these topics over the phone, in addition to Waldman’s work for the Canadian government, the concept of resilience, and the “Pandora’s box” of social media. The following is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity. To continue the conversation, follow her on Twitter @SuzanneWaldman.

What can nuclear waste management tell us about risk perception?

There are two major ways people think about nuclear waste. One, which is the technocratic approach, says it’s manageable—it’s an engineering problem but not an overwhelming one, and we have developed techniques to handle the volatility of nuclear waste to keep people and ecosystems safe from it. Then there’s the anti-nuclear approach, which says that nuclear waste is uniquely toxic, it’s toxic for a distinctly long time, and any engineering approach that’s developed to manage nuclear waste over the timeframes that it remains dangerous is hubris.

There’s not a lot of middle ground or dialogue between those two extremes. So I started thinking more about risk, and how people think about risk, and I went through all the different risk perception theories. The way most people divide up risk perception is that experts and lay citizens see risk differently. Experts see it in an analytical way that involves numbers and measurements and standards, and people see it in a more human way, and in a more community-based way, and they understand that humans are fallible. They’ve maybe even experienced the fallibility of engineering—they’ve seen things go wrong—and they bring that awareness. They also might be frightened because of things they’ve read or seen, maybe even in an exaggerated way because a lot of media attention has been drawn to it.

There are different theories that come from different fields about who’s more right. The psychologists usually think that the experts are more right—they’re more accurate in how they think about risk and how they compare risk. The sociologists generally think that the people are more right, that they’re more tuned in to human reality and what communities need. So the psychologists’ solution is that citizens need more information about risk that’s better communicated. The sociologists say citizens need more input into decisions about risk. But neither risk communication nor this expansion of public dialogue has really resolved or dissolved these huge oppositions about nuclear waste.

I then turned to the works of Dan Kahan. He implies that we have to get out of this experts-versus-citizens division—he finds that all quite destructive. Instead, he turns to the cultural theories of risk developed by anthropologists like Mary Douglas, who noted that it’s like we’re all in different tribes when we think about risk. And really “experts” and “citizens” don’t describe the opposition. Because different experts are in different tribes, and different citizens are in different tribes, and certain citizens prefer different experts, and vice versa. So it’s almost better to think about it in a tribal way.

This theory goes together with some other theories that are pretty respected in thinking about policy—such as policy frame theory, which says that people look at things through different frames. Which leads to questions: How do you possibly coordinate the difference of frames that people bring to a subject like nuclear waste? I would say that is a harder question, and I decided to take a stab at it.

What is unique about nuclear waste when it comes to this issue of different frames?

One approach that has come out of the Cultural Cognition Project is that you have to make people turn to their practical reasoning. You have to get people to leave behind their tribes and the tribalism and groupthink that guides their thinking whenever you start talking about abstract questions, and instead get them to talk about their practical skills. You ask communities, “The water is rising: What should we do about it? How do we already know how to solve these problems?” Then you actually get people working together. So that’s one positive approach. Dan Kahan calls it “untangling” thought from identity.

But I don’t know how you do that with nuclear waste. Because nuclear waste is integrally connected to nuclear power. And any solution that people come up with for nuclear waste is always oriented to some degree toward having either more or less nuclear power. Building a nuclear waste solution that’s final and puts it out of sight in a way that’s endowed with a sense of security, like a deep geological repository, is a good starting point if you want to generate more nuclear power. Whereas if you want to reduce nuclear power, having nuclear waste in surface storage where it’s in people’s faces, and where limits to capacity might arise, is a recipe for stopping nuclear power production.

So I found this book called Narrative Policy Analysis about what you do when people have different stories. What the book says is that you need to try to find a bigger story that holds the different stories together. Ideologies tend to reproduce very rigid stories about every topic, so somebody with a very environmentalist worldview is going to come at every toxic substance and apply similar solutions to it. “Okay, we have to stop producing it, or we have to take it out of circulation completely, because it’s artificial, it’s damaging, nature’s better.” Whereas a technocrat is always going to come at a waste problem with a different story, which is, “Okay, it’s a little scary, but we can manage it—we just have to set up the right systems.” You can see that opposition playing out very clearly around nuclear waste.

But I looked further, and I actually found a third story about nuclear waste, which has a little more conditionality in it, which says, “Storing nuclear waste is indeed a hard problem and a sensitive problem, but we can probably set up systems to do it, given enough time, and understanding, and experimentation.” That happened to be the story that has been told about nuclear waste by geologists for thirty years.

That was the conclusion of my thesis, and also the jumping-off point I end with. Can we find more of these “third” stories—stories that are more flexible, stories that include different sets of possibilities within them? Then we can at least focus our conversation in the narrower space in that third story where there’s some uncertainty, rather than in the vast space between the first two stories.

I feel like everybody’s trying to solve this problem right now—the problem of tribalism seems to have knocked us on the head lately, as people have been dividing up into more rigid groups about virtually everything and clinging to the simple solutions that are provided by their cultural leaders, which really inhibit discovering the more complex and flexible solutions and policies that are needed.

Would you tell me more about the specific case of the Ontario Power Generation’s Deep Geologic Repository that you studied, and the controversy surrounding it?

This case is kind of a funny one. The idea, as I understand it, was that the request for a deep geological repository was generated by the municipality, where there are some nuclear reactors that have been there for a long time and an above-ground nuclear waste storage facility, and where the people are all very used to nuclear substances—indeed, the mayor at the time of the request was a nuclear engineer. So it was a very unusual community that approached the corporation, Ontario Power Generation, and essentially asked for the project, which is an unusual circumstance. But it gave the process an illusion of wider community acceptance than maybe it should have. So they didn’t do an elaborate multi-site siting process, and people further afield from the proposed facility, but adjacent to the lake, revolted against the idea.

Again, it comes down to worldviews. When you look at the site on the map, which is how the activists always present it, you think, “Oh, that’s kind of near the lake.” But when you look at a geological section, which is how the company always presents it, you see all the layers of rock over it that have been there for a million years. The proximity to the lake isn’t really necessarily even pertinent from the geological point of view.

And that’s where your narrative analysis comes into play, right? About what kind of stories and images motivate people?

Well, that’s where the internet comes in. Because of the way worldviews work, and because of the way social media works, it’s possible to create a huge uproar by describing your community’s situations in a way that pushes people’s worldview buttons and gets their ideological stories going. And you can arouse a lot of outrage on an international level. And more specific questions about the project itself, such as “could it leak,” “what would happen if it leaked,” “what are the actual hazards and risks”—there’s not any attention given to those. Also, certain kinds of math that is relevant doesn’t get done. Could we manage without producing any more nuclear waste in southern Ontario and not produce a lot more greenhouse gases? There is a story that’s told—“we can have ‘cleaner’ kinds of energies”—but that story is pretty under-evidenced right now. But when you belong to a worldview, you probably don’t probe the limits of your story very hard.

What drew you to issues surrounding nuclear power and nuclear waste in the first place?

I started off thinking about oil pipelines—that was the first energy-related communication project that came my way—but then I started to learn about different sources of energy, because I had naturally also started thinking about climate change, which goes together with oil. I talked to people in favor of renewable energy, and I talked to people in favor of nuclear power, and I felt that the nuclear power people’s numbers made better sense to me—their logic made better sense to me. And when I started to look at the the risks of nuclear power, the numbers didn’t seem very frightening, whereas the risks of climate change were starting to look pretty darn frightening. And I continue to find that people who are willing to take nuclear power seriously and who are working on nuclear power have a lot of integrity.

How does this all tie in with your governmental work?

I work in this really weird, quirky center that’s part of the Canadian government, which almost nobody’s ever heard of. We actually have a little division in our centre that deals with community resilience, so I get to work on projects about helping communities assess local risks and helping them build resilience. It’s an important risk topic, but more relaxing than nuclear waste because who can argue with resilience? It’s not very controversial.

Would resilience possibly provide one of these larger narratives that bring people together?

Yes, maybe. I’m reading this book right now called Resilience, the premise of which is that resilience thinking and resilience governance come out of an understanding of the world as complex, and an understanding of social order and ecosystem order as complex, and not very able to be controlled. So yeah, it might be a totally new meta-narrative. Because it’s not very technocratic. But it’s not very environmentalist either—well, the community-thinking, the localism of environmentalism is in keeping with resilience, but the tendency that environmentalism has to think that certain solutions are good and certain solutions are bad is not resilience-based thinking. Resilience-based thinking involves trying a lot of things, letting different communities try different things without a lot of judgement, and then being very attentive to what works and doesn’t work, and changing course when it doesn’t. It’s about trying not to be rigid.