A question of trust3 April 2002
Maintaining public trust in the nuclear regulatory body is essential for effective nuclear regulation. If public confidence is lost, then political confidence will be lost, and the regulatory body will no longer have the necessary means for its continued successful operation. By Jukka Laaksonen
The issue of public confidence in the nuclear regulator was discussed at the CNRA workshop - "Investing, in trust, nuclear regulators and the public" - held in Paris at the end of 2000. Public confidence is of equal importance as technical competence, independence, and adequate resources. In order to gain public confidence, each regulatory body needs a long-term strategy for public communication. The strategy must be built on a culture of openness and on active collaboration with the media.
It is important to convince the people that the regulatory body works for them and for their safety, and is not promoting the use of nuclear energy or any other interests. Therefore, when communicating with the public, the regulator should not give the impression that it is trying to gain public acceptance for nuclear power or other activities it is regulating. Instead, regulators need to build confidence in regulatory programmes and in their willingness to provide the public and the elected decision-makers promptly will all relevant information. The target is to become a confidential agent of the public in matters of nuclear safety and radiation protection - an expert organisation at the service of the public.
Where public confidence has been lost, it must be restored. This is very difficult and may take a long time. For this process, responsibilities must be unambiguously assigned and those responsible must be fully accountable.
A generally accepted view at the workshop was that one should not aim for "blind trust". It is better to aim for "sustainable trust", which is not at risk of being suddenly lost as a consequence of an unexpected incident. Sustainable trust can be achieved by being open about the weaknesses in the regulatory programmes and about any lack in knowledge. It should also be made clear that incidents cannot be absolutely eliminated.
The only way that regulators can be perceived as being credible in emergencies, or in any other events where the public has a reason to be concerned, is to have earned credibility in advance through daily dealings with the public. If the regulatory body's existence, role and responsibilities are not known, the public cannot differentiate between the information coming from a regulatory body and the ad hoc messages from sources that have limited understanding of the situation.
Being known requires proactive information. A regulatory body benefits from a high profile, which it should shape by itself. At the workshop, good examples were presented on how to increase and maintain the visibility of a regulatory body among the public. A common observation was that the news threshold in this field is very low - minor events can attract considerable media interest. The nuclear regulatory bodies are in a good position to keep the public informed, because they are in the news in various connections.
Direct personal contacts with certain stakeholders are also valuable. In some countries journalists have appreciated encounters where they are briefed by regulatory experts, and can ask any questions on selected topics of their interest. The aim of such encounters is not to produce immediate news, but rather to make sure that the journalists get to know the experts personally, and can request for information from the right source when they need it.
Other important partners for direct personal communication are local politicians and citizens' groups in the neighbourhood of existing or proposed nuclear sites. They are often participants in the regulatory process, and have a desire for interaction and consultation with the regulatory experts.
The most important communication channel is through the news media. It is the only way to get the attention of a large audience. Press releases, press conferences, and articles written by the regulatory experts are the standard means for approaching the public through the news media. Some regulators even have their own text page on national TV channels where they can provide current information.
At a more advanced level of media relations, the regulators well-known to the journalists are often asked to be interviewed or make statements on current issues of interest.
Regulatory websites are most important today, and each regulator seems to have one. A website allows information to be published at low cost. Moreover, information can be provided at various degrees of depth to suit different audiences. Periodical publications are not so efficient in reaching the general public, but some regulatory bodies have their own magazines that are mainly distributed to professionals in the field.
The role of direct communication should not be overlooked, and it is advisable to build up a wide network of direct contacts. Of special value is a partnership with persons and organisations that have credibility with the public. Such persons are, for instance, leading politicians and other opinion leaders, medical doctors, pharmacists, teachers and civil defence workers. Commendable partner organisations are the authorities working in other domains of public safety, or those in charge of environment protection, public education institutions, and the scientific community at large.
A presentation on a public nuclear safety information centre operated by a regulatory body was received with great interest. This centre could serve as a model for similar centres elsewhere. Such a centre could stand alone, or alternatively be erected and operated under an umbrella of a larger public science centre.
Another way to reach a good number of the public is to have one's own stand at some of the larger exhibitions, and to distribute topical information leaflets to interested visitors. Such exhibitions can be, for example, in the field of medicine, housing or energy.
Talking and listening
In order communicate effectively with the public and other stakeholders, and to address the issues of real interest, it is necessary to listen to their concerns. Contact with the local people in the neighbourhood of nuclear facilities is a most valuable source of feedback.
Issues of public concern have in many cases turned out to be different from what the experts regard as the most relevant risks. The public has little confidence in probabilistic approaches, and generally do not understand risks expressed in terms of probabilities. Instead, many believe that zero risk is possible, and they expect that their direct questions be answered clearly and in plain language.
A most difficult thing is to respond to emotional, irrational fears. Such fears cannot be removed by giving facts, so an appropriate way must be found to respond at the emotional level.
Science and technology are poorly understood by the public, and concerns after an event can easily lead to a crisis, either false or somehow justified. Crises are frequently amplified by the media. The regulatory body can do nothing but explain the facts and try to put them into perspective, but the public reaction to this information strongly depends on the trust built earlier.
A regulatory body must be reachable any time when needed. The news media, and even members of the public, need easy access to experts who can tell them about matters of immediate concern. Some regulatory bodies provide details on how their experts can be contacted outside office hours, should sudden information be needed. For instance, one regulatory body has a communication contact person reachable 24 hours a day from a given phone number. This person has the task of finding a regulatory expert who has adequate knowledge of the topic of interest.
There was a general consensus at the workshop that official documents need to be easily accessible to the public, although regulations in this matter vary amongst countries. Some regulatory bodies routinely publish public documents on the Internet. Many others make such documents available at request.
A team effort
The role of professional communicators in regulatory bodies is important, but a common view emerged from the discussions that public communication should not be left solely to the communication experts. Communication duties can be integrated into the other tasks of suitably qualified technical staff.
All managers of the regulatory body must understand the importance of public communication. The entire regulatory staff must be prepared to give complete, clear, and accurate answers to questions on their own work. Training on communication skills is thus an essential part of staff training.
Internal openness and good information exchange within the regulatory organisation is needed to ensure that external communication is done in a consistent and coherent manner. Communication officers must follow closely the daily decision-making within the regulatory body, and assess the relevance of decisions in terms of the public interest. However, the technical staff must also know when to submit information to be publicly available.
Openness can sometimes strain the resources and have adverse impact on primary functions, but if communication is not done timely and properly, the efforts needed later on may be much greater.
Good cooperation between regulators of different countries, and especially the need to harmonise emergency plans internationally, was emphasised. In today's global information environment, news on regulatory positions and actions spread quickly from one country to another. Journalists and public interest groups are likely to attack any differences between the different regulators' responses to the same issue.
Confidence can quickly be lost if the information and guidance given by regulators is not consistent and coherent in neighbouring countries. An example was presented on iodine prophylaxis: in this case, practices and guidance were different in nearby communities next to the same nuclear power plant, but in two different countries.
An interesting parallel was made by a speaker who described the experience of communication within the food and agriculture industry. The public perception of risk deviates from the expert's view in a similar manner as in the nuclear field. Abnormal incidents are hastily reported and uncritically accepted, and the public reactions are very strong. There is excessive media interest, dubious validity of scientific reports, and defensive researchers. Laymen find it difficult to cope with large amounts of information, to differentiate between essential and non-essential data, and to distinguish between reliable information and junk data or groundless opinions.
CNRA moves on
As a key recommendation for further international work in this field, it was recommended that the CNRA should consider establishment of a standing advisory body with a mandate to help developing public communication of regulatory bodies. In a meeting in June 2001 the CNRA decided to set up a working group on public communication of nuclear regulatory organisations.
In its first meeting, the working group agreed that establishing a permanent network among nuclear regulatory organisation communicators would be a good method of sharing issues, questions, information, early warning about decisions having potential international impact, and plans regarding possible future actions.