05 Aug 2021 · 9.00 am

Lukas Schemper: Communicating risk: The International Atomic Energy Agency’s communication of nuclear risk in the 1970s/1980s

Venue: Online

Lecture at the STREAMS. Transformative Environmental Humanities online conference, 3–6 Aug 2021

The IAEA was created in 1957 to regulate and promote the peaceful use of nuclear power. In its early years, it presented nuclear power as having enormous advantages compared to other forms of energy, more damaging to the environment (Fischer 1997). Yet several nuclear accidents and near-accidents from the 1970s to the 1980s fuelled already-existing public scepticism towards nuclear power (for ex. Tompkins 2018). When they occurred, media frequently turned to the IAEA as an authority. Based on research in the IAEA archives, this paper inquires into the strategies that the organisation adopted to communicate these incidences to the public and the difficulties or dilemmas that the organisation encountered in the process:

  • Nuclear energy and its risks are scientifically complex and were often misinterpreted by the public or the media. What strategies did the IAEA pursue to deal with misinformation and to convey expertise to a wider audience? How did the IAEA address fears of risk and issues of what the organisation itself termed “public acceptance”?
  • How did the IAEA communicate the issue of responsibility? The media or the public might have perceived the IAEA itself as being responsible as both a “watchdog” and promoter of nuclear energy. Yet, the message was mostly that “we live in a risky place, that we take a risk every time we drive a car, and that we clearly do and must accept such risks” (Hamblin 2012). No one is to blame in the end, and the risk remains an inevitable diffuse danger (Wallace 2016).
  • What are modes of communication between IAEA and the public? The public usually learns about the activities of international organisations through the media. But what public was targeted and what does this tell us about the groups of society particularly concerned with nuclear risk?

The historian Lukas Schemper is a research asscociate in the project Archipelagic Imperatives. Shipwreck and Lifesaving in European Societies since 1800.


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