may personalize the risk—that is, to see a potential harm as affecting someone they care for such as their spouse or child. Ultimately, each person decides how much risk is acceptable; the decision will be based on several factors, some of which are personal.
Some individuals and groups question the value of technical risk assessment. A survey of environmental groups in the United States suggested that “environmentalists resent the technocratic, exclusionary nature of risk assessments that undermine democratic participation in local environment decisions” and view risk analysis as a waste of resources, while little is done to reduce the risk (Tal, 1997). Part of the public frustration often originates from the fact that current policies in the United States appear to be more reactionary than precautionary in the way they manage risk (Kriebel et al., 2001).
There are many subjective dimensions to risks that are unrelated to its technical definition. These include such things as lack of understanding or familiarity with the mechanisms underlying a technology; whether a threat is invisible, manmade, or potentially catastrophic; whether exposure is involuntary, beyond the public’s control, or unfairly distributed; and whether a risk affects children (Fischhoff et al., 1981). Other societal concerns such as environmental health and food safety, property values, and decline in community image (Kasperson et al., 1988) may be hidden within the overall public perception of risk. Individual differences in risk perception and risk tolerance can also affect people’s willingness to receive information. There is also an obvious relationship between perceived risk and unfavorable mass media coverage. For example, media stories that thoroughly document accidents and threats may influence how audiences think, feel, and behave when they receive information (Slovic, 2000).
Public perceptions of risks associated with the nuclear industry are perhaps unique among advanced technologies. This is demonstrated in a 1978 study (Fischhoff et al., 1978), still relevant today, in which participants were asked to compare technologies based on nine dimensions of risk. These included whether the risk was involuntary, familiar, controllable, has potential for catastrophic consequences, immediacy of those consequences, and the extent to which scientists and the public understand those consequences. Nuclear power, non-nuclear electric power, and x-rays were scored (numerical values from 1 to 7) on these risk dimensions. As shown in Figure 5.1, nuclear power was judged to have a much higher risk than x-rays. Also, nuclear power was perceived as markedly more catastrophic and dreaded compared to other technologies that produce energy.
5.2.1 Communicating About Risk
Understanding how nontechnical audiences perceive risk is an important first step in successful risk communication. The failure to accept that many variables influence risk perceptions in a community, or labeling these perceptions as irrational, is guaranteed to raise hostility between community members and agency representatives (Slovic, 1987).