Perceived Risks

The measurement of perceived risk has formed the backbone of the socioeconomic studies of Yucca Mountain for the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office. Both Roger Kasperson of CENTED and especially Paul Slovic of Decision Research consider themselves experts in this area, in a sense having created the field of nuclear risk perception (vs risk analysis) from scratch to buttress their sociological interpretation of technology. There is, however, a huge difference between perceived risk and risk itself: in fact the difference is so great that it forms the difference between modern civilized man and his superstitious aboriginal ancestors.

Earth Worship, through the assignment of mystical perceived properties to the rocks, streams, air and organisms that surround us, makes for interesting cultural anthropology, but abysmal science. The New Guinean who makes a god of the airplane flying overhead is indulging in risk perception; the pilot flying the airplane is making use of science and objective risk analysis (we hope!).

As late as 1900, some Indian tribes of the Southwest believed that a photograph captured part of their soul. According to Earle R. Forrest:

This was the West I had been looking for, and I decided right there to capture it with my camera.

When I mentioned the subject to Meadows (the Trading Post keeper), he smiled. "Well, you'll have a hard time until they get acquainted with you. . . . Only a few have ever seen a camera, and it's a very mysterious affair to them, for they cannot understand it. They think it's magic of some kind, and they're afraid of bad spirits" [Forrest, Earle R.; With A Camera In Old Navaholand, University of Oklahomas Press, 1970, p27]

There was thus a perceived risk for certain Navajos before the 1920s that having their image transferred to paper involved a highly threatening technological. This was a perceived risk certainly as great as that posed by Yucca Mountain to Nevadans.

Navahos are not cowards. They are courageous. But like all primitive people they are superstitious about anything they do not understand. And they could not comprehend how I could make a picture of a person by pointing a black box at him. It was magic of some kind, and they were afraid of evil spirits in the white man's witchcraft. . . ." [Forrest.; With A Camera In Old Navaholand, p33]

But why would the Navahos be afraid of this technology? After all, the camera was just a box and the pictures it produced little different from the reflections in a pool.

(Meadows) explained a little more of their belief in witchcraft. "A Navajo never dies from natural causes," he said. "If he gets sick it's because some enemy paid a medicine man to plant evil spirits in his body, and it's those spirits that make him sick. . . . They really believe that they take a great risk if they let you take a picture, for if an enemy hears about it, he'll try to have bad spirits break or damage the picture." [Forrest.; With A Camera In Old Navaholand, p33]

The Yucca Mountain repository may be perceived to threaten one's life, but even its worst critics don't believe it can steal your soul. Should we have banned cameras in the Southwest because some local populations perceived it as threatening? Should Yucca Mountain be scuttled simply because of the perception of the masses (not the scientific reality) that it is dangerous?

The consultants of NWPO and Mountain West apparently interpreted their surveys and socioeconomic data as justification for a theory that perceived risk is risk. Such a theory would be an employment bonanza for sociologists suddenly called upon to measure each subconscious perception the public holds on even the most minor technological issue. Before any road, building, machine or flea catcher could be constructed, a survey would need to be conducted to measure the public's "perceived risk" of the new technology. This theory would normally be rejected at face value, but in an academic world of Rawlsian ethics, sometimes the ridiculous is rewarded.

Paul Slovic of Decision Research and Roger Kasperson of Clark University in their socioeconomic work for NWPO forwarded in synergy a technological philosophy for Nevadans that in many ways mimicked the fear of witchcraft practiced by the Navaho at the introduction of the camera. Here is how it worked:

  1. Slovic's pet theory, the "availability heuristic", hypothesizes people are afraid of the unaccustomed and are unlikley to change their perceptions through education. For example, Slovic has long studied the inflated fears of the populace regarding nuclear technology despite himself admitting the actual risk levels are much below the perceived risk.4
  2. Kasperson's Rawlsian equity theories propose that societal ethics should be based on the needs of the "least advantaged" member. In other words, policy should be determined by the fears of the least members, often the most naive and misinformed.
  3. Combining Slovic's and Kasperson's theories at Yucca Mountain, their logic demands that the nuclear fears of the least advantaged man (who presumably cannot be enlightened through education) should be the overriding consideration in regards to storage of nuclear waste. No matter how beneficial nuclear technology might be for the community at large, nor how safely radioactive materials were used and contained, it would be perceptions of risk that ruled the use of that technology. Utilitarianism is to be replaced by egalitarianism.
  4. Finally, Slovic and Kasperson self-validated their psychological and political theories by spreading fears through their own socioeconomic studies. Relying on directed polling of the population, they not only measured fear in a scientific sense, but used those polls through the publicity arm of NWPO to enhance nuclear fear, much as if they were Navajo medicine men invoking evil spirits.

Polls done in normal socioeconomic impact research are designed to be as non-invasive as possible. Sociologists have long recognized that polling results can feed back on themselves causing a swaying of the results. Polls done in the political arena have long taken advantage of this feedback effect, and are often specifically designed to not only gauge voter sympathies, but to also sway those sympathies. The Mountain West consortium apparently turned its polls from scientific tools into political weapons, negating their objectivity to promote the anti-nuclear cause. Unfortunately, the ramifications of this are not limited to Yucca Mountain, but potentially threaten to disrupt our national economy.

For example, in late 1992 NWPO's hopes that risk perceptions alone would be the wild card that would kill the Yucca Mountain project rose to a peak. The data Mountain West had collected on the impacts of perceived risks on real estate values, were in fact an attempt to set the groundwork for lawsuits to stop transportation of nuclear waste through the State of Nevada and the country as a whole. The claim was made that property values would be adversely affected by the negative images of nuclear waste and that the government would be unable to compensate residents.

A lawsuit in Santa Fe, New Mexico awarded $550,376 in condemnation proceedings to John and Lemonia Komis whose property was near a nuclear waste transportation route to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project facility. An additional $337,815 was awarded on the theory that their property had lost perceived value in public perception and should be compensated.

The New Mexico Supreme Court held that property owners are entitled to compensation for the loss in value to land which is caused by public fear, whether or not that fear is reasonable. The Court said:

. . . If loss of value can be proven, it should be compensable regardless of its source. Thus, if people will not purchase property because they fear living or working on or near a WIPP route, or if a buyer can be found, but only at a reduced price, a loss of value exists. If this loss can be proven to a jury, the landowner should be compensated. [City of Santa Fe, 845 P.2d at 756-757]

The New Mexico Court further held that a public opinion poll, a videotape regarding the WIPP site and expert testimony was properly admitted in support of the claim of "public-perception damages." [pages 757-759]

The fact that the state of Nevada had pinned much of its hope for defeating the repository on the "perceived risk" transportation liability issue is clear. A letter titled "NEW MEXICO CASE RAISES POTENTIAL LIABILITY FOR NEVADA, FEAR THEORY COULD HAVE MAJOR IMPACT FOR HIGH LEVEL DUMP", from the Nevada Office of the Attorney General, dated April 7, 1993, demonstrates the impact of the Slovic and Kasperson theories on Nevada and the nation According to Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Pappa :

"My greatest concern is the serious implications this case has for the state. The theory of the case, if applied by Nevada courts to the inevitable claims associated with the repository, could have far-reaching fiscal impacts,"

Senator Bryan also was quoted in the letter:

Nevada's Attorney General today has outlined yet another potential liability for the Yucca Mountain project. Her analysis of the case should serve notice that the Department of Energy should no longer duck dealing with the transportation of high level nuclear waste, but should give that issue the attention it deserves, Bryan said. "From the nuclear power plants on the east coast, across the Appalachian states and across the midwest, implications from the New Mexico case will raise incredible complications and obstacles to the DOE and the nuclear utility's plans to build a nuclear dump in Nevada."

Indeed, the implications extend far beyond Yucca Mountain to the entire question of interstate commerce of any sort. For example, could perceptions of the fear of overflying airplanes devalue property near airports, requiring compensation from municipalities? Could Nevada Power be sued because citizens perceive a gas main transporting natural gas could explode, decreasing the perceived value of their property? Could you sue if you were within a half mile of a high-voltage transformer and the public's perceived fears of cancers were suddenly raised by the media, though real risks were minimal?

It is an interesting concept, that people can sue not only for real damages, but also for perceived damages. The late Frank Clements from the Nuclear Waste Task Force, suggested in a conversation after the Sept 4, 1992 Sawyer Commission meeting that the State had high hopes this tactic would work in Nevada and all along the corridor routes to the repository. But perceived risks work both ways.

Suppose the State of Nevada inflated the perceived risks of nuclear waste beyond what was reasonable, causing an unjustified rise in nuclear risk perception. By the state's own reasoning they would be liable for the diminished value of property in Nevada caused by their anti-nuclear campaign. If the State promoted fear specifically to stop Yucca Mountain, they might well be liable for countless billions in lost property value at casinos and residences throughout the state due to revenue lost when tourists, made fearful by NWPO's public relations campaign, avoided the state.

A nation run on Rawlsian risk perception (the fears of the uninformed carrying the most weight), might well suffer from the paralysis of the entire economy. No planes could fly because of the perceived risk that they would crash into hotels, no trains could carry chemicals for fear of toxic spills, nothing could be transported or invented or built for fear that perceptions of risk would halt that endeavor. Utilitarians, in contrast, would argue that the final arbiter of technological progress must be real risk, measured as best science can allow.

Politics is the art of perceived risks; science is the objective measurement and calculation of real risks. Adding politics and its baggage of perceived risks to science as advocated by progressives like those of the State of Nevada would invalidate science and corrupt any political decisions based on what was supposed to be objective research. Unfortunately, this is a prescription for paralysis and begs the question of how much difference there is between our modern elevation of perception to reality and primitive superstitions that attributed mystical properties to inanimate objects?

In 1926, Earle Forrest returned to Navaho country, a short twenty-four years after he'd first encountered a primitive populace afraid of the magic spirits contained in his technological black-box camera:

It was at Tohatchi that I took my first photographs of Navahos this trip. In the shade of the store was an old man and his wife with a child about three years old. . . The trader told me they had many sheep and some cattle and horses. When at my request, he asked if I could take their pictures, much to my surprise they told him they would like it. The old fear of the magic black box with the evil eye had apparently vanished with the years. [Forrest; With A Camera In Old Navaholand, p196]

In twenty years, a primitive society living in an era of glacially slow communications had become adjusted to a photographic technology they previously believed capable of stealing their souls. This is a rather poignant counter-example to Paul Slovic's "availability heuristic" theory and NWPO's claim that no amount of positive scientific information about Yucca Mountain can sway popular opposition. A primitive Navaho culture accepted an equally threatening technology without the benefit of socioeconomic impact studies, Rawlsian ethics, or any of the other sociological theories advanced by the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office.