Article - Issue 29, December 2006

Perception and Reality

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

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Dr Scott Steedman FREng

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

The public perception of risk appears to dominate our national decision making process. Bob Worcester, in his excellent Lloyd’s Register Lecture in June on this subject, outlined how serious the position has now become. His MORI opinion polls show that we face an uphill struggle to communicate with the public. Scientists do too, but the MORI data showed clearly that the image of professional engineers is even more obscure in the public mind.

This has serious consequences for the energy debate. We are running out of time in announcing a decision on our future national energy strategy. Common sense tells us that the UK needs a balanced electricity mix and this must include the replacement (at the minimum) of our present nuclear generation capacity with new nuclear technology. If decisions continue to be delayed, then we risk either having to continue our heavy reliance on fossil fuels or suffering significant shortages of supply within a generation.

Other countries whose engineering and technology base we respect appear to have less difficulty in making such decisions. Finland is presently constructing a new ‘third generation’ European Pressurised Water Reactor (EPR) at Olkiluoto: a 1600 MW unit with a 60 year lifespan to be built alongside two existing plants (and a wind turbine) on the same site. The new generation EPR has benefited (in the Finnish public eye) from the excellent safety history of nuclear power in Finland and from a pragmatic and comprehensive approach to long term underground storage of waste below the site.

In Sweden also, nuclear power and renewable energy stand alongside each other quite comfortably. Sweden and Finland are both regarded as having the highest environmental credentials and leading edge construction industries. But engineers in the UK seem unable to influence the process. Obscure in the public imagination (“on the periphery” is how the Academy’s new President describes it),we lack real reach and impact. How can we move engineering from the periphery to the centre? Winning the public trust, in the words of Bob Worcester, requires more than exhorting the public to “Trust me, I’m an engineer”. Building trust, he noted, requires veracity, delivery and transparency.

In relation to nuclear energy, the MORI data shows that disposal of radioactive waste dominates public opinion. The recently published Final Report by the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) explains how for decades we attempted to impose a technical solution but failed “to respond to the need for public acceptability”. It is nearly ten years since the major site investigation at Sellafield into the potential for deep geological disposal was abandoned. Then, as now,we struggled to make key technological decisions in the national interest. Now, finally, after a new start and a fresh look at public engagement, the CoRWM has reached the same conclusion that the science and engineering community did in the mid 1990s but could not communicate: geological disposal is necessary.

From the perspective of public perception, this clear, pragmatic recommendation by CoRWM, accepted by the Government at the end of October, finally allows the nation to move forward on the issue of waste and, by extension, on a new nuclear programme. The Academy should learn from the CoRWM model. Effectively,we lost 10 years in the nuclear debate because of our national failure to understand that public engagement is vital to build trust and take important technological decisions. With our own Prime Minister warning that we now have a window of only 10–15 years to take the steps we need before reaching a “catastrophic tipping point” on climate change, our lost 10 years looks like it could be an expensive lesson.

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

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