Communication of uncertainties related to radiological risk situations

Hoti Ferdiana


Thijssen Peter, (UA),

SCK•CEN Mentor

Perko Tanja
+32 14 33 28 51

SCK•CEN Co-mentor

Abelshausen Bieke
+32 14 33 80 38

Expert group

Nuclear Science and Technology Studies

PhD started


Short project description

Nowadays, our society is defined by greater access to an ever growing pool of information about various topics, including radiological risks. Yet, this increased access has not alleviated fundamental problems in communication. Communication about radiological risks, especially for low radiation doses (for instance for long-term post-accident exposure situations or exposures to NORM), faces specific challenges: complexity in assessing causal relationships, uncertainty and ambiguity in interpreting results (Klinke and Renn 2002). Scientific advice related to radiological risks for policy makers or potentially affected audiences has traditionally been framed as providing objective knowledge to support rational decision making. From a scientific standpoint, communication about radiation risks continues to struggle with the issue of uncertainty (Jensen 2017). Whether and how to present uncertain science to the public or non-expert decision makers is a critical question that remains largely unaddressed. For instance, in an emergency situation to what extent and in which manner should information about uncertainty in atmospheric dispersion model results be communicated to decision makers and the various publics (OECD-NEA, 2017)? Due to the intensified societal and political pressure concerning transparency and the importance placed on risk communication as stated by the revised Safety Standard Directive (Directive 2013/59/Euratom art. 70&71) and the amended Nuclear Safety Directive (Directive 2014/87/Euratom)) uncertainties concerning radiological risks will be increasingly in public and stakeholder focus. Communication on these issues thus needs to be improved and embedded within risk management approaches (Thomson, 2002), (Renn 2008)).

Communication may also influence the societal uncertainties faced by stakeholders in different radiological exposure situations, for instance where and how the remediation of contaminated environments may affect the personal or social life. Societal uncertainties relate to value judgments and concerns of various societal actors, including the general public with respect to health, social, environmental and economic or other impacts of exposure to radiological risks (French et al. 2017). Societal uncertainties related to radiological risks may arise from differences in opinions, perceptions, attitudes and concerns shown by societal actors (Perko et al. 2017).

This PhD project will build upon the characterisation of societal uncertainties identified in number of H2020 projects (CONFIDENCE, TERRITORIES and ENGAGE) and the collected communication practice about uncertainties, specifically with the aim of reducing these uncertainties. The main focus of the PhD research will be dedicated to the development of communication models and tools for radiological risks that allow for addressing scientific and societal uncertainties. Its goals are better decisions, better science, and better support for science.

Theoretical background: The PhD research makes use of state of the art risk communication theories and practices, including framing theory conceptualisations (Iyengar 1991), information processing models and decision making models such as Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) by Cacioppo & Petty (1984), mental model approaches (Bostrom et al,(1994)), and practical work with communication of risk (RISCOM model, Andersson, K. 1998 ). Additionally, theories from other fieleds are explored to observe underlying sociological and psychological trends and the influence on risk communication: for example group strategy theories in social psychology (Petrieff and Miller, 2008). Cross-comparison opportunities with other fields such as medicine and aerospace are researched in the initial literature review of the PhD. Three case studies are considered in the PhD research: i.) emergency situations (case study within CONFIDENCE, ENGAGE and BSS public information & transparency projects), ii.) long-lasting radiological exposure (case studies on post-accident contexts and NORM contamination in TERRITORIES), and iii.) decommissioning of nuclear installations (BAROMETER and ENGIE decommissioning project if accepted).


The objectives of the PhD can be formulated as follows:

  • Systematic literature review of risk communication models with particular emphasis on communication of uncertainties;

  • Development and testing of new communication models addressing scientific and societal uncertainties through experimental research;

  • Formulation of practical guidelines for risk communication about uncertainties.

Methods & data: Concerning NORM contamination, data will be drawn from the ongoing TERRITORIES project and expanded upon with additional empirical evidence. Concerning nuclear emergencies a similar methodological approach is applied within the CONFIDENCE, BSS public information & transparency project. Connections with the ENGAGE project will also be explored. Concerning the decommissioning of Nuclear Power Plants data will be drawn from the ENGIE project and BAROMETER (possibility of inclusion of the topic in the SHARE project is investigated).

The analysis of literature on risk communication strategies will be conducted in a systematic manner. Depending on the heterogeneity of methodological designs, either meta-analysis or meta-synthesis will be conducted. This analysis will serve as basis for the experimental designs set up to develop communication models that allow for contextualisation to the three case studies considered in this PhD project. Contextualisation will be included in the experimental design in two ways. Firstly, the radiological risk context will determine the frame of the design, the participants and the methodological approach. Secondly, contextualisation will account for the inclusion of societal characteristics. For this purpose, the project will draw on theories and practices such as the trust, confidence and credibility framework and instrumental designs for risk communication (Renn, 2008).

The experimental design will be conducted with lay publics and selected stakeholders, addressing both the concerns experienced by a community (or individual), and the uncertainties arising from the way recommendations and information are taken up by lay publics (French et al, 2017). Therefore, stakeholders will include institutional stakeholders (e.g. authorities, experts and first responders) and concerned populations. For emergency and NORM contamination, the concerned population includes communities living in (potentially) affected areas. Concerning the decommissioning of Nuclear Power Plants, the concerned population consists of people living within a 20km radius from Belgian Nuclear Power Plants.

The PhD research will add to risk communication literature and help formulate practical guidelines for risk communication in the three case studies considered.