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Science and Decisions: Advancing Risk Assessment
whether there will be a “significant” problem if the plant is built with the proposed orientation. That sets up an adversarial relationship between the plant proponent and the local community in which the community is attempting to understand the intricacies of the risk assessment (which may have shown no “significant” increases in health risks) and is often operating under the assumption that the analysis has been manipulated in ways that the community does not understand or has not appropriately taken account of exposure and susceptibility conditions in the community. Whether the power plant is ultimately sited or not and whether the risk assessment represents best practice or not, this approach does not make optimal use of the insights that risk assessment can provide in that it focuses on only one alternative other than the status quo and provides limited information to stakeholders.
An alternative orientation following Figure 8-1 would still use risk-assessment methods but as part of Phase I would instead ask about the best approach to fulfill a given societal need that would minimize net impacts (including health impacts, costs, and other dimensions). With this orientation, the regulatory body that would be permitting the proposed facility would first determine the societal objective of the facility, which could be to decrease the projected gap between electricity supply and demand in the region during periods of high electricity use. That objective could be met in numerous ways, including energy-efficiency efforts by the utility’s suppliers or customers, increased use of existing power plants, different storage technologies to meet peak power needs, or new power plants using different technologies (that is, alternative fuels and control technologies) in different locations. A donothing strategy and its implications would also be evaluated. Risk assessment can play a key role in distinguishing among the various options considered in combination with other methods and information.
In phase I, the set of possible interventions would be determined collectively by all stakeholders with the end points that could inform decision-making (for example, effects on electricity cost per kilowatt-hour, population risk, distribution of risk among defined subpopulations, life-cycle impacts, and probability of blackouts and brownouts). Stakeholders may mutually decide that some end points are unimportant or that some should get greater weight than others, and this will inform the choice of methods.
A comprehensive consideration of options at the outset would ensure that all relevant stakeholders were present, avoiding NIMBY outcomes in which an alternative site is chosen in a community that has not been involved in the process. The risk assessments and economic, technical, and other analyses would be oriented around the proposed interventions and would allow for explicit consideration of the tradeoffs among different desirable attributes of the decision and upfront transparency about the solution set, methods, and criteria for decision-making. For example, a clear presentation of the probability of blackouts under the do-nothing strategy and with alternative new facilities would help to demonstrate the importance of new capacity.
One possible criticism of this approach is that stakeholder participation and evaluation of multiple competing options require substantial effort and could lead to delays in decision-making. However, the current paradigm often leads to intractable debates about minute details of the risk assessment (Did the proponent use the right dispersion model? Were emissions estimated appropriately? Where would the maximally exposed person live?) without consideration of whether a choice among options would be influenced by these details. An upfront investment of time and effort in developing options and scoping the problem should reduce debate and antagonism considerably in the long term, should reduce analytic effort by focusing it on the end points that would help to discriminate among options, and should allow more coordinated planning of multiple projects with the same general aims. It could also be argued that explicit presentation of the tradeoffs among cost, risk, blackout