Kudankulam, in Tamilnadu’s Tirunelveli district, houses one of the highest energy generating and efficient nuclear power plants in the country. It uses Thorium unlike conventional Uranium as core fuel for energy production which is abundant in India. After multi-level analysis and discussions between Indian and Russian governments and scientific advisory bodies, the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KNPP) was proposed in 2011 and thus became the national symbol of cordial relations between India and Russia. Ever since the beginning, the government and scientific bodies faced backlashes from the locals and led to frequent protests with respect to the risks associated with KNPP affecting their health and livelihood. Communicating the benefits of nuclear technology to the locals was the need of the hour to obtain nuclear acceptance.
Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, a face of south India and an eminent scientist, wrote to build trust among the locals, emphasizing the advantages of nuclear power. All the information regarding the usage of Thorium in nuclear fuel and how India’s Thorium reserve is enough to power the whole of South Asia was highlighted.
The risks associated with nuclear power plants are unavoidable and one cannot abandon the technology succumbing to the small sample fallacy by extrapolating historical nuclear accidents to the present day. Previous nuclear disasters like Hiroshima (1945), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) have had a severe impact on the judgement of nuclear acceptance among the masses. However, the number of direct deaths and associated negative effects have tremendously reduced over the decades.
The locals’ acceptance of nuclear power projects is critical. Perceived risks, such as the fear of nuclear radiation, waste disposal and associated accidents. The radiation from the usage of Thorium / Uranium could cause severe damage to fishes and agricultural crops which are the primary sources of livelihood for the local communities.
People with limited scientific knowledge tend to support and believe in scientists. Therefore, keeping the population well informed about KNPP can have a positive impact on the risk perception and plausibly induce locals to support KNPP.
Social Cost-benefit analysis of KNPP
Acceptance of nuclear power projects depends on various factors
- Education and gender proportion of the local population
- Distance between residence and nuclear power plant
- Trust in government and media
Public risk perception is a critical factor while communicating science, especially to non-scientific populations. ‘Culturally antagonistic memes’ aids to improve public risk perception using heuristic and cultural cognition. In our case, one might assume that the locals’ response to the establishment of a nuclear power plant in Kudankulam might reflect an improper weighing of costs and benefits. Emotional appraisals are not a consequence of information consumption but are the source of it. The important thing to note is that information is assessed in multiple ways which include the weighing of expert opinions, trust in the regulating body and efficient policy interventions . The UK undertook a nationwide citizen feedback survey prior to the establishment of its nuclear power plant. Similarly, an assessment of risk perception among the locals will provide a clearer understanding of the prevailing conditions. Mohan & Namboodhiry (2020) report interesting findings showing the type of risk perception associated with the locals.
Images: Ram Mohan MP, Namboodhiry SK.An exploration of public risk perception and governmental engagement of nuclear energy in India. J Public Affairs. 2020;e2086.
Cultural values affect actions or state of affairs determining the groups’ positive or negative affect. It is not surprising that when opposing meanings are attached to the same risk source, opposing valence affective orientations are formed leading to information processing biases towards the risk source. Affect heuristic supplies cultural cognition with cognitive mechanisms which connect cultural diversities with intellect to information processing. Therefore, even when positive externalities are proposed to the general public their information processing biases will prevent approaching the problem with an open mind and a clearer perspective.
It is interesting to note that people are ready to support nuclear technology, however, none of them is willing to accept nuclear power stations in their own localities. This public attitude is called the NIMBY (‘not in my backyard’) effect.
Other associated risks to the KNPP include information/data breach of confidential information, an instance of which happened late last year where malware allegedly from North Korea infected the Administrative Computer Network, the domain level controller of KNPP exposing inadequate safety measures at the nuclear power plant. Allegations regarding the server breach and hacking were initially denied by the NCPIL which later confirmed the hack. News reports claim that highly confidential information regarding the AHWR (Advanced Heavy Water Reactor) which converts Thorium to core fuel could be stolen in addition to the nuclear infrastructure, IP addresses of the computers and personal emails of the officials of power.
There is variability in risk perception within a particular community. Effectively communicating science to such communities is crucial, where the communicator needs to understand the target audience completely. Multiple factors like population strength, gender balance, educational status, religious and political affiliations and the locality influence information processing. A clear understanding of the target audience and effective communication is key in critical world scenarios.
- Dan M. Kahan, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Asheley Landrum & Kenneth Winneg (2017) Culturally antagonistic memes and the Zika virus: an experimental test, Journal of Risk Research, 20:1, 1–40, DOI: 10.1080/13669877.2016.1260631
- Ram Mohan MP, Namboodhiry SK.An exploration of public risk perception and governmental engagement of nuclear energy in India. J Public Affairs. 2020;e2086.