The importance of effective nuclear risk communication

RCTC participants in Bratislava

The NEA Risk Communication Training Course was held on 7-9 December 2022 in Bratislava where participants heard from and engaged with communication experts and technical professionals working in nuclear energy organisations. 

Nuclear Energy Agency member countries have recognised for some time that effective and inclusive stakeholder engagement is essential for both policy decision making and emergency management planning decisions. In recent years a focus on how to constructively discuss matters of nuclear risk with the public has emerged as a priority for NEA member countries – not just around matters related to potential radiological or nuclear emergencies but also in day-to-day operations.

To respond to this need, the NEA Risk Communication Training Course (RCTC) was held on 7-9 December 2022. Aimed at communication and outreach officers, technical staff and inspectors working in regulatory bodies, technical safety organisations and agencies for radioactive waste management, the course focused on communicating risk on a daily basis rather than only in a crisis situation. The aim was to improve the effectiveness of risk communication with a view to enhance public understanding and improve stakeholder engagement.

NEA Director-General Magwood speaking at the RCTC in BratislavaNEA Director-General Magwood welcomed the group of communications experts and technical professionals to the risk communication training workshop in Bratislava

Over the three days of the course participants heard from and engaged with communication experts and technical professionals working in nuclear energy organisations. Participants learnt the fundamentals of risk communication and how to apply them as well as delving into the nature of modern media, science journalism and contemporary news consumption trends. One of the key conclusions was that it is better to communicate uncertainty than to ignore it. Leaning into uncertainty and communicating clearly about what is and isn’t known can ultimately build and maintain trust.

The challenge of communicating with the right balance between cultural sensitivity, seriousness and humour in order to effectively get the right message across was also explored in several sessions focusing on the techniques of communication, their implementation and their challenges.

Panelists from the nuclear communications industry at the RCTC in BratislavaNuclear sector communication experts took part in a panel during the RCTC. (Left to right) David Brazier, Jason Cameron, Salah Al Hashimi, Ann MacLachlan, Tanja Perjo. 

The very real risk of a poor communications strategy causing more damage than benefits was emphasised by Dr. Tanja Perko, an ex-journalist and public relations specialist, presently senior researcher and project leader at Belgian Nuclear Research Centre (SCK CEN).

“If we don’t design a good model for risk communication, we can do more harm than good. We have to be very aware of this threat.”

The trait of agility was also identified as being a non-negotiable for effective risk communicators, as shared by Mr. Salah Al Hashimi, Director of Government Communication at the UAE Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR).

“Be agile. Plans are plans, at the end of the day. Be ready to change and experiment with new approaches.”

Participants collaborating during the RCTC in Bratislava.One of the most valuable aspects of the RCTC for the participants was the chance to collaborate and share ideas with communication experts from all over the world. 

Many participants remarked that the course had moved beyond mutual learning towards the formation of a valuable network of communications practitioners. Future editions of the course – the next of which is planned for 2023 in the United Arab Emirates – will build on this network.

The course was organised by the NEA Working Group on Public Communication of Nuclear Regulatory Organisations (WGPC) and hosted by the Slovakian nuclear regulator UJD, in Bratislava with financial support from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

For more on the NEA’s work on risk communication, visit here.

See also