Lay attitudes towards nuclear technologies
EFDA Close Support Unit Garching EFDA ? European Fusion Development Agreement, CSU Garching Garching - Munich, Germany
Paper discusses public acceptability of post-modern technologies and the lessons learned from communication errors in the field of nuclear fission and then it focuses on questions related to public awareness of emerging thermonuclear fusion technology. Results of a recent enquiry, investigating the role of knowledge in shaping lay reasoning about thermonuclear fusion, are reported.
The research executed on university students' sample, combined many techniques of sociological enquiry but essentially it followed the experimental research design. Five groups of students read five versions of informative material on fusion technology prepared by fusion researchers and these groups' knowledge and judgements have been confronted among them and with the control group which has not been taken through a learning process.
Understanding of fusion measured by the knowledge test was markedly higher in the experimental groups which enabled the examination of the role of fusion understanding for its acceptability and risk perception. Judgements about various aspects of fusion technology and its risk perception were interrelated among them and interacting with being exposed or not to scientific information. Attitudes towards fusion technology depended stronger on pre-existent dispositions such as generalised risk perception level, trust in scientists and general "technological optimim" than on knowledge about fusion. Explaining of thermonuclear fusion through the confrontation with nuclear fission promoted better understanding of fusion technology, but it did not induce favourable attitudes towards fusion; on the contrary, students exposed to this type of informative text expressed lower fusion acceptability, which suggests the greater role of affective than cognitive elements in attitudes shaping. Message presenting scientific uncertainties as dividing scientific community, on the contrary to the message presenting the same uncertainties without painting the picture of experts' controversy, strengthened the relationships of attitudes towards fusion with pre-existent generalised risk perception level. The results demonstrated the holistic nature of public awareness of technology, composed of many cognitive and affective elements, interacting among them and enrooted in pre-existent attitudes and dispositions. Scientific information enhances or weakens this enrooting, depending on how it is communicated.