Fear Sells

The key to understanding the hysteria that was generated by Yucca Mountain is a psychological theory called the "availability heuristic". That's not to say this is the only or best theory about why people exagerate their fears of unlikely events like accidents at a nuclear repository. Instead, the availability heuristic is important because it is the pet theory of the social scientists at NWPO and has actually become the means of imprinting nuclear fears and hysteria on the population of Nevada. If the availability heuristic was at one point an attempt to provide an academic theory of the underlying causes of mass fear, in the context of Yucca Mountain it became a tool for creating the impression that educating the public about real risks would be impossible in the face of this all-powerful psychological juggernaut.

"One mode of thought that provides insight into perceived nuclear risks is a judgemental rule or strategy known as the availability heuristic (Tversky and Kahneman, 1974; Slovic, Fishoff, Lichtenstein and Hohenemser, 1979). This rule leads people to judge an event as likely or frequent if instances of it are easy to imagine or recall. Frequently occurring events are generally easier to imagine and recall than rare events; thus, reliance on availability is typically an appropriate mental strategy. However, memorability and imaginability are also affected by numerous factors not related to likelihood. As a result, this natural way of thinking leads people to exagerate the probabilities of events that are particularly recent, vivid, or emotionally salient. Certainly, the risks from nuclear power would seem to be a prime candidate for enhancement by the availability heuristic, because of the extensive media coverage they receive and their association with the vivid, imaginable dangers of nuclear war. As Zebroski (1976) noted, "fear sells"; the media dwell on potential catastrophes, not on the successful day-to-day operations of power plants. [Slovic, Paul; "Images of Disaster: Perception and Acceptance of Risks from Nuclear Power", Energy Risk Management, Academic Press, 1979]

The crude interpretation of the availability heuristic, i.e. fear sells, has a corollary in the Yucca Mountain debate. If fear sells, it is then easier to sell fear than to educate the public about the true nature of the risks that confront them. It was this inverted form of the availability heuristic which became the driving dogma behind the socioeconomicstudies sponsored by NWPO. That is, instead of studying how unwarranted fears of nuclear technlogy could be overcome, NWPO used Slovic's theories of fear, encapsulated in the availability heuristic, to enhance fear!

Another interpretation of the availability heuristic is that people are incorrigibly stupid, a theory Nevadans might resent if it were fully known they were being modeled this way. If people are afraid of that to which they are not accustomed, as they are not accustomed to Yucca Mountain and the storage of nuclear waste, then the availibility heuristic implies they could never learn differently no matter what the facts of the matter. Following this line of reasoning, people who do not fly in airplanes daily or ride in high speed trains should believe these activities ought to be outlawed because their perceived fear that they might one day be forced to ride in one of these devices could never be overcome by logic or education. Fortunately, there are other theories of how humans cope with the fear of the unknown, notable the Culture Theory of Aaron Wildavsky, who assumes that members of a technologically sophisticated culture will not jump at the sight of robots, space shuttles and the Yucca Mountain repository, though it may still jump at the sight of mice.

Slovic mentions in the above citation a paper written in conjunction with Christopher Hohenemser, who happens to be from Clark University and CENTED. It was this broad collegiality between Decision Research and Clark University, developed even before the Three Mile Island accident of 1979, that formed the basis of Mountain West years later. Unfortunately this organizational incest eventually led to intellectual gridlock in regard to theories like the availibility heuristic. When a small group of academic peers extensively quote each other, it becomes easy to believe that the theories generated by this inbred group are the only interpretations of reality possible. What seems to have formed around Slovic and Kasperson in the small sub-specialty of nuclear-risk-perception was a self confirming group bubble. After a while, it became hard to criticize long time colleagues when they drifted outside their expertise from social science into hard science and finally into political advocacy. Ultimately, these scientific transgressions were tolerated because they seemed to confirm the groups world view.

To many people, an obscure psychological research theory like the availability heuristic would seem to be the last subject on which to base arguments for or against a project as technologically sophisticated as Yucca Mountain. The problem for NWPO, however, was that they were significantly outgunned on the hard science intellectual front; for every highschool teacher, housewife, or historian they could squeeze into the mold of a qualified Yucca Mountain critic, DOE had five all-star scientists who had a specialty in the field at hand.

Thus, a symbiosis developed between Paul Slovic, (the intellectual big gun of Decision Research), Kasperson at Clark University and Loux the Nuclear Waste Project Office. Slovic got NWPO funding to test his availability theory as long as it supported the view (developed by Kasperson and Clark University and adopted by NWPO) that the inordinate fears of the public about nuclear waste were unchangeable. In a viscious cycle, NWPO then generated more unreasonable nuclear fears, that Paul Slovic in turn studied and documented, so CENTED could justify their anti-nuclear policy formulations, which were fed back into NWPO's campaign of inflaming unreasonble nuclear fears among Nevadans. In this roundabout way, the consultants of CENTED and Decision Research began to imprint national energy policy with their own version of reality by means of their philosophical hold on NWPO.

All this may all be hard to believe, but some examples of the NWPO / Slovic symbiosis in this "fear sells" mode aren't hard to come by. In a letter on December 18, 1991 sent by Bob Loux of NWPO to the media, we see the State attempting to use a Slovic paper about nuclear fear to induce fear.

"The enclosed article, "Perceived Risk, Stigma, and Potential Economic Impacts of a High-Level Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada," . . . . reports on careful, scientifically sound research conducted by a leading authority in the field of social impact assessment, Dr. Paul Slovic. Dr. Slovic is internationally regarded for his ground-breaking work in understanding the nature of hazards and the processes by which hazards and risks affect individual behavior.

You will find this article to be in significant contrast to the type of wild speculation and unsupported claims about the laundry list of "benefits" associated with the Yucca Mountain repository being made by the nuclear industry and supporters of the repository in Nevada. . . ."

The fear being pushed by Loux is that no benefits are possible to Nevada from the Yucca Mountain repository and that tourists will be driven away in droves by "nuclear stigma". This begs the question of who is guilty of "wild speculation and unsupported claims", the nuclear industry and supporters of the repository forces, or perhaps Bob Loux and the State of Nevada. Because Nevada is highly dependent on gaming revenue, any adverse effects of nuclear images on the gambling rake would be a legitimate concern. The problem comes when fears of revenue losses due to nuclear "stigma" are used to heighten nuclear fears which in turn heighten fears of economic loss. This is easily recognizable as a positive feedback loop in which the experimenter has become part of the system and provides the positive feedback necessary to drive the system ballistic.

As far as being "scientifically sound research", it's interesting to look at the conclusions of the "Perceived Risks, Stigma and Potential Economic Impacts" article sited by Loux:

"The mechanisms of perceived risk, social amplification, and stigma are observable in the record of past experience with nuclear and other types of hazards. In the context of the Yucca Mountain repository, these mechanisms appear to have the potential to cause substantial losses to each of the various economic sectors at risk.

Judging from the Phoenix survey, the test site has worked its way into the imagery of Nevada for only a small percentage of people and is rarely associated with Las Vegas. Moreover, the operations of the test site have been restricted and unavailable to full public scrutiny. Nuclear-waste transport, the operation of the waste repository, and any controversies over the safety of these activities will likely be far more visible to the public and the media. In particular, tens of thousands of nuclear-waste-shipments by truck or rail throughout the United States will be a prominent reminder of the repository and its risks. As these shipments converge upon Las Vegas, nuclear associations with that city may be built to a far greater extent than has occurred with the secret, contained, underground explosions at the test site. Finally, there is no evidence that the small degree of association of the test site with the region has not actually impaired tourism and business development. Apart from the gambling industry, business development has shown little progress despite the potential attractiveness of Las Vegas for many kinds of industries. [Slovic, et.al.;"Perceived Risk, Stigma, and Potential Economic Impacts of a High-Level Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada", Risk Analysis, Vol. 11, No. 4, 1991]

Some comments are in order here. Slovic admits that the Nevada Test Site has had an only miniscuule affect on the images associated with Las Vegas in the minds of residents outside Nevada. Had Slovic actually been a Nevada resident instead of an out-of-state researcher, he would also have known that the underground explosions at the test site are hardly "secret", or "unavailable for public scrutiny". Experiments are announced before each test, Las Vegas residents often feel ground temblors and the newspapers are filled with analysis and reports of protests at the site every time a bomb goes off. Moreover, test site workers are ubiquitous, their families are residents of Las Vegas, and happenings at the site have a multitude of leaky-seive means of being reported to the public. Slovic goes on:

It may also be the case that the test site and the reapository will interact in a synergistic way to produce nuclear imagery to an extent that is greater than the sum of the individual contributions from each facility. Little is known about the dynamics of the process by which images become salient. It is certainly true, however, that individuals have a number of images associated with any particular place. There may be some threshold of repetition that moves a weak or unstable image from the periphery into the core image of a place. If so, Nevada's link to the nuclear weapons test site may increase its potential for stigmatization from the repository relative to a state with no existing base of nuclear imagery. ["Perceived Risk, Stigma, and Potential Economic Impacts", p694]

Since the one group most responsible for exploiting fears about Yucca Mountain is the Nuclear Waste Project Office, the "repetition that moves a weak or unstable (nuclear) image from the periphery into the core image of a place", would need to come from NWPO itself and from Slovic's studies of the possible negative economic impact of nuclear imagery on the State. From Slovic we have a final analysis:

In sum, our analysis indicates that the development of the Yucca Mountain Repository will, in effect, force Nevadans to gamble with their future economy. The nature of that gamble cannot be specified precisely, but it appears to include credible possibilities (with unknown probabilities) of substantial loses to the visitor economy, the migrant economy, and the business economy. ["Perceived Risk, Stigma, and Potential Economic Impacts", p694]

Is Slovic's article, as Loux claimed, scientifically sound research? The number of 'will likely', 'It may be', 'There may be', 'If so', and 'it appears' qualifiers laced in the small sections of Slovic's writing quoted above, should make even laymen pause to consider whether Slovic is doing science or editorializing. However, criticism extends into the academic community as well.

Ross Hemphill of Argonne National Laboratory and Gilbert Bassett of the Department of Economics at the University of Illinois wrote a scathing rebuttal to the Slovic article which also appeared in the journal Risk Analysis. It is not usual for a journal to run a full length rebuttal to a previous author's article, usually such comments are limited to letters of discussion. It's worth quoting Bassett and Hemphil's main arguments:

Slovic et al. consider the potential for a high-level nuclear waste repository to have "adverse economic effects" on the city of Las Vegas and the state of Nevada. The conclusion seems to be that the potential is great. But no quantitative estimates of the magnitude of impacts are presented. Further, if "potential" is supposed to connote more than "anything is possible," then, in our opinion, the conclusion does not follow from the survey data or method of analysis. We are not saying the repository will be without affects, but rather that no impacts are demonstrated. The conclusion about large impacts is the opinion of the authors and not a consequence of empirical data. [Bassett, Gilbert; Hemphill, Ross;"Comments On 'Perceived Risk, Stigma, and Potential Economic Impacts'", Risk Analysts, Vol. 11, No. 4, 1991, p697]

In a conversation with Gilbert Bassett, he used the words 'bad science' to refer to the Slovic results. In their exuberance to prove that dire things would happen if Yucca Mountain was built, research conducted under the auspices of Mountain West often drifted from science into the realm of political advocacy. According the Bassett and Hemphill:

The scenarios about what will happen at the repository in the future, while "potentially" valid, are speculative and not based on the evidence. The validity of the assertions is arguable, but beside the point. The assertions are opinions that are not informed by the survey data on public perceptions. This jeopardizes the aim of providing a convincing demonstration of the importance of perceptions in social impact assessment. It also means the conclusions regarding the repository are not based on scientific evidence. [Bassett; Hemphill, Risk Analysts, Vol. 11, No. 4, 1991, p698]

In fact, many of the statements issued by NWPO were not based on scientific evidence, but on the opinions of its researchers, some of whom have been working for twenty years to stop nuclear energy. It was little wonder that their social and energy policy agendas began to encroach on their science. A final word from Bassett and Hemphill:

If anything, the evidence goes the other way -- 50 years of the test site has put "nuclear" into the Las Vegas image set for only 1% of the sample. This does not mean the same will hold for the repository. It means that the formation of images and stigma is a complicated process that will be determined by intervening events and, "by proper safety design and management . . that instill and maintain trust and that work to protect the economic base of those individuals and communities whom the facility puts at risk. [Bassett; Hemphill, Risk Analysts, Vol. 11, No. 4, 1991, p699]

Slovic and the other social scientists under Moutain West were under pressure to make their data and conclusions regarding nuclear stigma fit the results expected by NWPO and the state's politicians. In 1979 when Slovic et al. were not in the employ of an anti-nuclear state agency fighting Yucca Mountain to the death, they'd had the leisure to be more candid about possible routes to the acceptance of nuclear energy:

These examples (x-rays, Hermiston nerve gas repository) illustrate the slow path through which nuclear power might gain acceptance. It requires an incontrovertible long-term safety record, a responsible agency that is respected and trusted, and a clear appreciation of benefit. [Slovic, Paul, et.a.; "Psychological Aspects of Risk Perception", Accident At Three Mile Island, Westview, 1982, p13]

Of course, the converse is also the formula to kill nuclear power: distort the safety record of nuclear energy, destroy the credibility of the agency involved at Yucca Mountain (DOE) and question at every point the possible benefits to people of Nevada. NWPO and Nevada's politicians have fully employed these negative tactics in their fight against Yucca Mountain, following in inverse the receipe so clearly stated by Slovic et al. in 1979.

Fear sells. A normal citizen led protest of Yucca Mountain might have focused on technological and safety issues, states' rights and adequate compensation as its primary concerns. Under the tutelage of Mountain West and its social scientists, Nevada's citizens were instead molded by sophisticated psychological techniques that drove anti-nuclear hysteria home. Soon, fears of a relatively benign Yucca Mountain repository were emplanted in a population that had lived thirty-five years in harmony with the Nevada Test Site where hydrogen bombs were regularly exploded above ground.

According to NWPO and the Mountain West researchers, DOE wasn't to be trusted, there would be no benefits, nuclear waste would be transported through the spaghetti bowl, the Las Vegas economy would collapse, volcanos would erupt under the site, earthquakes would shake Yucca Mountain to pieces, ad infinitum In all this, there was a decided lack of credible technical evidence that Nevadans would be at any overwhelming real risk. Instead, perceived risks were raised to new heights and fear was sold to Nevadans by the Nuclear Waste Project Office and its psychologists. They knew only too well how to mass market nuclear hysteria with a theory they affectionately called the availability heuristic.