The Risk Communication Challenges of Nuclear Terrorism


L. S. Geckle, M. A. Melanson, D. P. Alberth, M. K. Null


Public fear of radiation remains an ever-present obstacle in the daily practice of health physics. Whether it is explaining the risks of a diagnostic radiologic procedure to a patient or convincing a concerned community that building a nuclear waste disposal site in their community is safe, effectively communicating the risks from radiation is challenging. Accidents like those that occurred at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 have clearly demonstrated the widespread fear and panic that inevitably stem from a radiological incident, regardless of its severity in terms of population doses or the extent of environmental contamination. Given this unavoidable fact, it is not surprising that the deliberate and violent release of radioactive material would make an ideal weapon of terror. As technical experts keenly knowledgeable about the health risks from radiation, health physicists must prepare for the dreaded eventuality that a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) using either a nuclear device or a radiological dispersal device ("dirty bomb") will one day be used against the United States. The purpose of this paper is not to single-handedly address the complex myriad of issues surrounding effectively communicating the risks from a nuclear terrorism event. Rather, it is to suggest a process for crafting a risk communication strategy that can be tailored before an event occurs for a specific, predetermined audience. After an overview of why there is such public fear of radiation, the paper turns to a brief discussion about risk communication. Then, the focus shifts to the risk communication process and how scientific experts can forge a strategic partnership with pre-determined stakeholders to ensure that all stakeholders are involved in decisions that will affect them directly, and for developing and implementing the most effective risk communication strategies in order to save lives and protect the public health. The paper once again returns to the immediate subject of nuclear terrorism and provides a broad-brush discussion of some of the specific risk communication issues stemming from such an attack. As an example, consideration is given to a hypothetical audience, pregnant women, and how the risk communication process can be employed to provide proper risk communication to this concerned and critical subpopulation. Finally, the paper closes with a brief summary and some practical recommendations for further action.


This abstract was presented at the 36th Annual Midyear Meeting, "Radiation Safety Aspects of Homeland Security and Emergency Response", Poster Session, 1/26/2003 - 1/29/2003, held in San Antonio, TX.

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