sues. In describing the events shaping the MOU, this report necessarily addresses previous concerns expressed about DOE’s management of these facilities and its actions in communicating the safety and health effects of radiation releases. This report however is not an assessment of DOE’s activities. The committee’s approach to this evaluation was shaped by a number of considerations, particularly the multiple and diverse ways in which individuals and communities process scientific information related to complex, often adversarial, scientific and technological issues.
Communicating effectively about risks such as radiation health effects at DOE facilities to workers and concerned citizens is difficult for a number of reasons. First is the level of public fear about radiation from these sites. Although there is no uniform and consistent perception of radiation risk, research on the general public’s attitudes in the United States, Sweden, and Canada has shown that “public perception and acceptance is determined by the context in which radiation is used” (Slovic 2000). This means that although most people do not fear medical or dental X-rays because of the positive health value of these technologies, they do fear the radiation associated with nuclear weapons, nuclear power, and nuclear waste. Research using risk perception analysis in which different factors reflect how lay persons evaluate health and environmental risks on a number of characteristics has found that nuclear power and nuclear waste were rated as extreme in two dimensions: “dreaded” and “unknown” risks (Slovic 1987). Dreaded risks are catastrophic, deadly, and uncontrollable. Unknown risks are poorly understood, are unknown to those exposed, and have delayed effects. “Validation of these psychometric studies occurred when survey respondents were asked for word associations to a high-level radioactive waste repository. The resulting images were overwhelmingly negative, dominated by thoughts of death, destruction, pain, suffering and environmental damage” (Slovic et al. 1991).
Another finding from this research is that in every context of use, with the exception of nuclear weapons, public perceptions of radiation risk differ from the assessments of the majority of technical experts. In most instances, members of the public see far greater risks associated with a radiation technology than do experts (Slovic 2000). This disconnect between what the public and experts see as risks may lead experts to make little effort to understand what drives public fears and to dismiss these fears as trivial or “irrational.” A consequence of this disconnect is that communication efforts are frequently one-sided or unidirectional, reflecting the perspective of experts who want to communicate specific messages to the public rather than the view of what the public wants to know.
The second reason why communicating about radiation risks at DOE facilities is difficult is the complex documented history of secrecy at these sites (PSR