What do lay people want to know about the disposal of nuclear waste? - A
mental model approach to the design and development of an online risk
*The definitive version is available at www.blackwell-synergy.com
Skarlatidou, A; Cheng, T; Haklay, M; (2012) What Do Lay People Want to Know About the Disposal of
Nuclear Waste? A Mental Model Approach to the Design and Development of an Online Risk
Communication. Risk Analysis , 32 (9) pp. 1496-1511. 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2011.01773.x.
A. Skarlatidou1, 2*, T. Cheng2, and M. Haklay2
1 Department of Computer Science, University College London, UK
2 Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering, University College
*Address correspondence to A. Skarlatidou, 104 Chadwick Building, University College,
London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT, UK; tel: +44 (0) 297 679 2781;
Public participation requires the involvement of lay people in the decision-making processes of issues
that concern them. It is currently practiced in a variety of domains, such as transport and environmental
planning. Communicating risks can be a complex task, as there may be significant differences between
the risk perceptions of experts and those of lay people. Amongst the plethora of problems that require
public involvement is the site selection of a nuclear waste disposal site in the UK, which is discussed
in this paper. Previous ineffective attempts to locate a site provide evidence that the problem has a
strong social dimension, and studies ascribe public opposition to a loss of public trust in governmental
agencies and decision makers, and to a lack of public understanding of nuclear waste issues. Although
the mental models approach has been successfully used in the effective communication of such risks as
climate change, no attempt has been made to follow a prescriptive mental model approach, to develop
risk communication messages that inform lay people about nuclear waste disposal. After interviewing
20 lay people and 5 experts, we construct and compare their corresponding mental models, to reveal
any gaps and misconceptions. The mental models approach is further applied here to identify lay
people’s requirements regarding what they want to know about nuclear waste, and how this information
should be presented so that it is easily understood. This paper further describes how the mental models
approach was used in the subsequent development of an online information system for the site selection
of a nuclear waste repository in the UK, which is considered essential for the improvement of public
understanding and the re-establishment of trust.
KEY WORDS: Mental Models; Risk; Nuclear Waste Disposal
Democracy, which is the most defining characteristic of much of western civilisation, necessitates
the involvement of the public in issues that concern ordinary citizens, especially after the gradual loss
of confidence and trust in governmental institutions. The last decade, therefore, saw heightened interest
in the importance of public involvement within institutional democratic frameworks (1). In order to
achieve publicly acceptable solutions (2), public involvement and participation in decision-making
processes are essential in a variety of domains (e.g. transport, land-use, environmental and health-care
planning). There is evidence that public participation is also essential for the site selection of a nuclear
waste repository in the UK (3,4), which is the case discussed in this paper.
Public participation involves a set of methods that can be used to consult, involve, inform and allow
lay people to have their say, and to provide their input to a decision-making process(5). Different
methods are used to provide different levels of public empowerment, and these can vary from simply
providing information, to enable the people to make a decision for themselves, as found in public
participation models, such as the citizen participation ladder (6,7). However, two significant concerns are
associated with traditional approaches to public participation and are widely acknowledged in the public
participation literature (8-11).
First, traditional methods such as open meetings, discussion groups, citizen panels and so on,
although potentially capable of promoting two-way communication, introduce some forms of exclusion.
The time and location of meetings may restrict participation, and some disabled people, for example,
cannot attend meetings. In addition, it is not unusual to observe a knowledgeable minority dominate the
discussions, and switches the conversations into detailed analyses. In this context, Information and
Communication Technology (ICT) is seen as a “democracy reshaper” (12), because it enhances public
participation because it is “interactive, relatively cheap to enter, unconstrained by time or distance and
inclusive” (12, p.5).
Second, participatory bottom-up approaches are used to achieve broad policy objectives, and
dialogue can be promoted and trust can be enhanced, which means that the participants need to have a
common understanding of the issue under discussion, especially when risks are involved in the policy
making. However, communicating risks to lay people is a complex task, because risks are not perceived
in the same way by all individuals, as risk perceptions are influenced by a set of cognitive, affective and
social factors (e.g. previous knowledge). Studies in the risk communication field provide several
examples of the successful communication of risk messages for such issues as radon in homes (13) and
climate change (14), using the mental models approach, which is a public centred methodology that
assists the development and testing of risk messages.
There is a plethora of problems and risks that could benefit from the mental models approach. One
such problem is the site selection of a nuclear waste disposal facility, especially where public opposition
is evident in countries such as the UK. In the UK, the Governmental plan emphasises a voluntary,
partnership-based approach to identifying a solution that will become publicly acceptable. Several
studies explain that one important reason behind public opposition to locating a nuclear waste disposal
facility is the lack of public knowledge about nuclear waste issues (15). Although the mental models
approach can assist in the development of risk communication messages that aim to improve public
understanding, the majority of studies in this area are descriptive, which means that “no application of
the mental models methodology to risk communication has been reported in the field of RWM
[Radioactive Waste Management]” (16, p.23). Neither technical competency, probabilistic risk
assessments of a high standard, openness through consultation or public hearings can guarantee public
acceptance. Negotiation through compensation may resolve Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) type
conflicts, but improving public understanding is highly important in eliciting public acceptance.
At the same time, the majority of existing risk communication studies focus on the design of
information brochures. To our knowledge, there is no study that makes use of an approach that designs
and develops online information. The popularity of the Internet and the Web has established an
important area for communicating risk information to lay people, in addition to the more traditional
communication channels, to enable them to participate in public debates. Online information that is
easily accessible, and open to a wider population, may support the development of comprehensive and
accurate mental models. Thus, the mental models approach could prove beneficial not only in terms of
improving public understanding but also in the design of such online risk information.
The aim of this work is twofold. The first aim is to understand the mental models of lay people in
the UK regarding nuclear waste disposal and its site selection process, and to document further any gaps
or misconceptions, as well as any requirements. It is noteworthy that descriptive studies of this issue
refer to a wider population from different countries, although it is widely acknowledged that populations
from different countries have both similarities and differences in their mental models. The second aim
is to show how the mental models of lay people can be taken into consideration in the design of online
information, in this case a Web Geographical Information System (GIS).
This paper begins with an overview of nuclear waste disposal issues, to demonstrate that public
opposition is evident in this area. This is followed by a review of the mental models approach in risk
communication studies. Section four describes the methodological approach, and specifically the
mental models interviews that were conducted, together with the results of the study. In the fifth section
we show how the findings supported the design of an online information system. Finally, we conclude
with a discussion of the strengths, limitations and the future research directions of the mental models
approach in the case of nuclear waste disposal.
2. THE NATURE OF PUBLIC OPPOSITION TO THE NUCLEAR WASTE DISPOSAL
Nuclear or radioactive waste contains radioactive chemical elements that must be disposed of.
Nuclear waste is generally classified into three types (3): Low Level Waste (LLW) (e.g. radioactive
waste generated from hospitals), Intermediate Level Waste (ILW) (e.g. nuclear reactor products) and
High Level Waste (HLW) (e.g. Uranium and Plutonium -239). The latter (HLW) contains the highest
level of radioactivity, and must be isolated for millions of years. Several governments consider
geological disposal the most preferred disposal option for this waste (3,4). Geological disposal is based
on the principle that a repository within a suitable geological formation can act as a physical barrier that
ensures that harmful radioactivity levels will not reach the surface environment.
Several environmental and site selection problems must face the challenge of public
acceptability, and also have a strong social dimension and significant technical considerations that must
be scientifically grounded, but nuclear waste disposal “demonstrates this juxtaposition most clearly”
(17, p.2). To demonstrate this, it is necessary to review briefly the historical evidence of the several
ineffective attempts to locate a nuclear waste disposal facility in the UK.
The search for a HLW disposal facility in the UK started in 1976 following the Sixth Report of
the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (also known as The Flowers Report) and
continued for five years, until 1981. The main concern of this period was the technical dimensions of
the problem, although it quickly became evident that gaining public acceptability was of equal
importance (17). Public inquiries and the public opposition groups that formed during this period
expressed opposition, and as a result most such planning permission applications were rejected (e.g. by
Kyle and Carrick District Council in 1976; by Alnwick and Berwick District Councils). By the end of
1981 attention had turned to finding a site for the disposal of LLW and ILW, but again without success.
Several protest groups were formed, and several sites were rejected (e.g. Billingham, Elstow, Bradwell,
Fulbeck and Killingholme, Sellafield).
In 2001, the UK Government initiated the first stage of the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely
(MRWS) Programme, and later charged the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM)
with overviewing the different options, and proposing a long-term waste management strategy (18).
CoRWM suggested that transparency and openness are necessary in the implementation of a
partnership-based approach (3). In 2008 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(DEFRA) published its White Paper, in which CoRWM’s recommendations were adopted and, in
parallel, an invitation was issued to communities to express an interest in discussing the possibility of
hosting a geological disposal facility. Notably, thirteen Councils inquired and decided against hosting
the facility, and only two Councils, both in West Cumbria, expressed an interest (19).
Understanding the nature of this public opposition is fundamental to the successful
implementation of a nuclear waste management strategy, and the identification of a publicly acceptable
solution. For a long period of time, especially in the 1980s, there was a belief that public opposition to
a variety of facilities was driven purely by NIMBY-type behaviour. Schively explains that NIMBY
“characterises the social response to unwanted facilities, sometimes called locally unwanted land uses
(LULUs)” (20, p. 255).
NIMBY-type behaviour has been the focus of many studies over the last two decades, and
several authors argue that attributing the public opposition to nuclear waste disposal to the
characteristics of NIMBYism is misleading (21, 22, 23). In 1986 a study was conducted to understand the
socio-psychological elements that influence the public’s perceptions, and in particular the perceptions
of those people who lived in four areas that were identified as suitable sites for a nuclear waste disposal
facility in the UK (24). It was found that it was not NIMBYism that influenced public perceptions at all
levels and of all individuals, but a series of additional factors, such as the social and cultural context,
the lack of confidence and trust in decision-makers, and psychological factors such as “unfamiliarity,
dread, and catastrophic potential” (17, p.14). In another survey of the concerns of people living near a
potential site for hazardous waste, it was suggested that there was a variety of different public concerns
(e.g. health and safety, efficiency, lack of information), but vocabularies of motive (25), which reveal
NIMBY-related attitudes, were infrequent (23).
It is not the intention of this paper to attribute only one dimension to this public opposition, as
it would be wrong to assume that all opposition arguments derive from a common rationale. However,
a growing body of literature ascribes public opposition to a loss of trust in government agencies and
decision-makers (26, 27), and to a lack of public understanding of nuclear waste issues. In fact two surveys
by the European Commission (28, 29) show that people are poorly informed about nuclear waste issues,
and are subject to several misconceptions. For example only 2%-3% of the interviewees thought that
they were well informed on the subject, and 10% were not even aware that nuclear power plants produce
radioactive waste (30). In a third Eurobarometer survey from 2005, with a sample of 25000 European
citizens, it was found that three out of four citizens did not feel well informed on the subject, and eight
out of ten thought that all radioactive waste was very dangerous (31) although there are different
radioactive waste types. The most common concerns include environmental and health impacts, and the
risk of leakage. Botella and colleagues suggest that only knowledge improvement has the potential to
lower risk perceptions (31).
Several approaches can support the development of risk communication messages, e.g., the
communication process, crisis, convergence, and three challenge communication approaches (32). Risk
communication messages developed using the mental models approach, which is discussed in this
paper, integrate audience analysis, which is essential in ensuring that the risk communication message
addresses the main public concerns, thus increasing the effectiveness of the approach and its success.
Although the mental models approach may support the improvement of public understanding, it is not
used to convince the public to think in the same way as scientists, which is one criticism of the deficit
model, which is discussed in the next paragraphs.
Opposition to controversial issues such as farming and food technologies, following bovine
spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), stem cell research, genetically modified organisms and “nuclear
power in the 1970s and 1980s” (33,p. 56), was previously seen as a result of the public’s ignorance of
scientific issues and science in general. The deficit model assumes that such public ignorance of
scientific facts creates unreasonable fears, and at the same time puts the experts above the ‘ignorant’
public. The Public Understanding of Science community “seeks to popularise… for example,
probability risk assessment and technology acceptance issues” (34, p. 112), and studies that are
theoretically grounded in the deficit model tend to have a pedagogic character. The assumption is that,
if the public is educated, it will reach the same conclusions, and thus opposition will be either minimised
or eliminated. In contrast, the mental models approach aims to identify the information that is important
to the public, in order to make informed decisions. This is discussed further in the last section of this
paper (Section 6).
The mental models approach has been used previously in the design of risk communication
messages associated with such problems as climate change (14). In this paper, the mental models
approach is applied to design risk communication messages intended for lay people and concerning the
disposal of nuclear waste, something that has not yet been attempted. The next section introduces the
mental models approach with existing case studies, and then presents a description of how the approach
is implemented in this study.
3. MENTAL MODELS APPROACH TO DESIGN RISK COMMUNICATION MESSAGES
Risk communication involves supplying lay people with the “information they need to make
informed, independent judgements about risks to health, safety and the environment” (35, p. 4). Several
risk communication studies describe the mental models approach to the development and testing of risk
messages, which is discussed as this section unfolds.
The mental models approach is based on the assumption that lay people may not be able to
understand a specific risk because important scientific evidence or information may not be known to
them, while they are unaware that this information exists. In such situations they are trying to make
sense of the information based on what they already know, or on other phenomena with which they are
familiar. Mental models research is strongly linked to theories of human memory and cognition.
According to several scholars, human memory is organised in schemas (36, 37) that describe how
an individual perceives a problem, or the world as a whole, and they depend highly on previous personal
experiences, knowledge, the activating stimuli and other factors. Some of these schemas are
competitive and, when humans are called to make a decision, certain schemas are activated that further
direct behaviour (38). In everyday situations these schemas are usually ready-made mental constructions,
while in complex situations new schemas are constructed, and, if used repeatedly, are stored in long-
A mental model for a specific subject might contain several schemas. Therefore it is of
particular significance that these schemas are complete and accurate, to ensure that the generated mental
model is comprehensive. If lay people are provided with new expert information that does not match
their existing mental models, it is more likely that they will reject or distrust it. Taking this into
consideration, it would not be appropriate to “rely on the intuitions of technical experts regarding either
what lay people currently believe or what they need to know” (39, p.779).
The mental models approach involves the investigation of both experts’ and lay people’s mental
models. A comparison of these two types of mental models can assist the identification of what
information it is important to communicate, the expectations and needs of the lay people, as well as
their gaps and misconceptions, which should be corrected. It should be noted that within the risk
communication field there are two types of study: descriptive studies, which draw only conclusions
about the elicited mental models, using the mental models approach; and prescriptive studies, which
use the elicited mental models to develop communication and educational tools (16).
The mental models approach, amongst others, was used for indoor radon risk (13). In that study,
scientific resources were used to construct the expert mental model, and 24 people were interviewed
for the construction of the lay people’s mental models. Several misconceptions were revealed and, based
on their findings, two brochures were designed to inform lay people about radon and its risks. In another
study the mental models approach was used for the climate change problem, following a descriptive
approach (14). Similarly, several gaps and misconceptions were discovered, which in some cases
coexisted with correct information (14). Lave and Lave explored the risk perceptions and lay people’s
mental models associated with flood risks in a descriptive study, in which 22 lay people were
interviewed. Although the population sample was entirely derived from flood-vulnerable areas of
Pennsylvania, several misconceptions about flood risks were again revealed (40).
Some descriptive-only studies of the mental models methodology were also applied in the area
of radioactive waste management, although no direct application of the findings was documented for
communicating the risks to lay people (41-44). For example, Slovic and colleagues (44) collected 10000
images in an extensive survey of 3300 phone interviews, concerning a nuclear waste facility in the USA.
They suggested that concepts such as nuclear power plant accidents, nuclear war, and nuclear weapons
are all linked to the perceptions of the interviewees and their mental models for a nuclear waste facility,
which further influence their risk assessments. The same conclusions are also evident from the
Eurobarometer studies mentioned previously, which also demonstrate significant gaps in lay people’s
mental models of nuclear waste disposal.
The next section will use the mental model approach, first to identify the mental models of lay
people regarding the disposal of nuclear waste in the UK only, which has not previously been attempted.
4. LAY PEOPLE’S MENTAL MODELS OF NUCLEAR WASTE
In order to understand how the risk communication message concerning nuclear waste disposal
in the UK should be designed, we first interviewed experts with substantial knowledge of nuclear waste
disposal in the UK. This was followed by 20 additional interviews with members of the public, with all
the participants being British citizens. We compared the difference between the experts’ and the lay
people’s mental models, and identified gaps and misconceptions. A prescriptive approach is then
followed, discussed in Section 5, to guide the design and development of online information that meets
their needs and expectations, and aims to help lay people to correct any misconceptions, fill any gaps
and, finally, build a comprehensive and accurate mental model, which could subsequently improve their
risk assessments of the issue.
For the construction of the expert mental model, five experts were recruited, with different
skills and expertise. One works for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), three are engineers
with more than 20 years experience in the nuclear industry, and one is a PhD student with an
environmental science background and broad knowledge of nuclear waste.
For the lay people mental models, 20 people were interviewed, with an age range from 19 to
67 (average=32.2 and mode=29). All participants have a university degree in different professional
backgrounds and they are British citizens, to ensure that each has the same possibility of knowing about
the UK disposal of nuclear waste plan. All participants are London residents, although it should be
acknowledged that people from different areas of the same country might have different mental models
of the same risk (41, 43). All interviews were conducted between October 2009 and January 2010. During
this period, there were no documentaries or newspaper articles on the nuclear waste problem that we
are aware of. A BBC documentary explaining nuclear issues was broadcast in February 2010, and
another in March 2010, but both were after the completion of these interviews.
Both the experts and lay participants were interviewed using the same questions, which were
developed based on the interview template of Bostrom and colleagues (14). Their interview template is
believed to be “...easier to replicate as well as less vulnerable to the criticism that the reported beliefs
are a function of how they are elicited” (14, p.960). Here we modified it to accommodate the issues of the
nuclear waste disposal and its site selection process in the UK (Table I). As can be seen in Table I, the
interview consisted of four parts (Part I-Part IV).
In the first part of the interview, the participants were asked to describe the first five words that
came into their minds for the “nuclear waste repository” concept, and also to explain which of these
words had a positive or negative meaning for them. The purpose of the first part was to identify the
images that the interviewees held of the concept, and to further understand whether these were negative
or positive, as was previously described by Slovic and colleagues (44).
Table I: Interview Template for the elicitation of mental models of nuclear waste disposal in the UK and the
subsequent site selection process.
Q1: Could you please tell me the first 5 words that come into your mind when you hear the words “nuclear waste
Q2: Which of these words have a positive and which a negative meaning for you?
Q3: What do you know about the issue of nuclear waste?
Q4: How nuclear waste is produced?
Q5: How important you think that nuclear power is to humanity?
Q6: Would you prefer to shut down nuclear reactors in order to reduce the production of nuclear waste?
Q7: What do you know about the disposal of nuclear waste, and what are your most critical concerns associated
with this issue?
Effects & Risks
Q8: Describe some of the risks associated with the disposal of nuclear waste, and rank them according to relative
Q9: In the case of a hypothetical accident in a nuclear waste repository, how would you imagine the situation and
Q10: Is there anything that would make you feel safer?
Q11: In your opinion, who should be responsible for the disposal of nuclear waste?
Q12: Rank in terms of trustworthiness the following sources (sources provided, similar to 27).
Q13: What do you know about the Radioactive Waste Management Programme in the UK?
Q14: This is a list of criteria that will be used in that process. Please read them carefully and suggest some
weights, based on how important you think each of them is. (criteria listed, as described by 4)
Q15: What additional criteria would you add to that list? What do you think about each criterion?
Q16: Would you prefer to be informed before or after the Site Selection process? Consider the issue of trust in
Q17: How would you feel if one of the selected as suitable sites was in your area and close to your house?
Q18: What evidence about the site selection processes would you like to see?
Q19: How would you expect to see the information presented?
The second part of the interview was unstructured. The participants were asked to describe what
they knew about nuclear waste, in an attempt to identify the concepts that they think are most important
to them, without the influence of specific questions. After the respondents had exhausted their
descriptions, some neutral prompts were given to encourage conversation (e.g. how is nuclear waste
produced?). The participants were also given a list of potential information sources and asked to rank
them in terms of trustworthiness (1: less trusted to 5: most trusted source), similarly to a previous
Eurobarometer survey (28).
The third part of the interview was structured and contained different blocks of questions,
concerned with the production (Q4, Q5, Q6), disposal (Q7), and effects and risks of nuclear waste (Q8-
Q12). Part IV emphasised the site selection process for the identification of a disposal facility in the UK
(Q13-Q16). In addition, the participants were asked how they would feel if the disposal site was close
to their house, and whether this would change any of their concerns (Q17). Finally, the participants
were asked what information they would expect to find about the disposal of nuclear waste and the site
selection process on an online information system, and how they would like to see this information
presented (Q18, Q19).
During the third part, when the interview focused on specific issues, such as the UK Nuclear
Waste Management Programme, the participants were provided with some additional information (i.e.
the concept of the deep geological disposal was explained to them). In the fourth part they were also
asked to weight the site selection criteria, as these are described in the White Paper published by
DEFRA (4). Participants were asked to describe what they think would happen in the case of a
hypothetical accident in the disposal facility, and how they would imagine the situation and its
The interviews data were transcribed and coded by one person, who has an extensive knowledge
of nuclear waste disposal issues and the site selection process in the UK. In the first part of the interview
all words the interviewees used to describe the “nuclear waste repository” concept were collected and
grouped as positive or negative based on their suggestions. Then, the expert mental models were
constructed, which were discussed with another two experts. The same person transcribed and coded
lay participants’ interview data, guided by the already constructed expert mental model. Indicatively,
expert concepts that were not mentioned by lay participants considered as not being existent in their
mental models; expert concepts that were also mentioned by lay participants considered as existent, and
the answers were further checked for their content and amount of detail provided and; expert concepts
described using wrong terms or additional concepts irrelevant to the context considered as
4.2. Interview Results
The first important finding, which is in line with previous studies, is that the majority of the lay
participants has a negative image of the “nuclear waste repository” concept, and most of the
interviewees used negative words to describe their perceptions (Table II). Also, from the words they
used it is clear that they have many misconceptions (i.e., “No-Civilisation” or “Chernobyl”, which was
mentioned by several respondents). The experts’ images are more ‘accurate’, since the words they use
do not reveal misconceptions, while an almost equal number of negative and positive words are used to
describe the same concept. At the same time it should be noted that all the lay people (20/20) that
participated in the interviews have a positive attitude towards nuclear energy (e.g. “I imagine it is very
important because we are always concerned about future fuels”), which contradicts the findings of
previous studies (e.g. see Ref. 31).
Table II: Words describing a “Nuclear Waste Repository”. (Note that participants were asked to explain which
of these words have a positive or negative meaning).
Words with negative meaning
Fear, Scared, Cancer, Disease,
Pollution, Environmental Pollution,
Polluted Soil, Harmful, Harmful to
Health, Harmful to Wildlife,
Contamination, Safety, Toxic,
Tricky, Radiation, Radioactive,
Long-Term, Uranium, Chernobyl,
Colorado Springs, Scotland,
Sellafield, Iran, Transportation,
Location, Money, Expensive,
Mines, No Civilisation, Agriculture,
Power-Nuclear Power, Landfill,
Land, Argument, Corruption,
Animals, Accumulation, By
Need, Problem, Drigg, Sellafield,
Volume, Selection, Decision, Public,
Words with positive meaning
Important, Disposal, Renewable,
Insulation, NDA, Sweden, Deep,
Geological, Safety, Containment, Long-
Term, Cumbria, Support
Words with neutral meaning
Green, Smoke cloud
The lay interviewees (19/20) admitted that they knew very little or nothing about nuclear waste
(e.g. “I know very little really…erm I don’t know anything about it to be honest”) or the Governmental
Plan for the disposal of nuclear waste in the UK (e.g. “No…nothing about the disposal…I only know
that they plan to build more nuclear power stations”). Interestingly enough, 18 of 20 lay people that
participated in the interviews did not know how nuclear waste is produced, which is in line with all
Eurobarometer findings (28, 29). On the other hand, the experts provided very detailed responses,
including descriptions of waste streams and background information, engineering principles and the
UK Nuclear Waste Management Programme.
Concerning their trust perceptions, (Table I - Part II – Q12) lay participants admitted that they
trusted academic institutions and scientific papers most, and governmental bodies least, although most
of them also thought that the Government should be responsible for the disposal of nuclear waste.
Independent scientists were also the most trusted source, according to the findings of Eurobarometer
(28). The experts’ first most trusted source was independent governmental bodies, and their second most
trusted source was governmental bodies (e.g. “Government will not deliberatively mislead the public”),
while the least trusted source was Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).
The lay people that participated in the study suggested that more information publicly available
(i.e. information about “risks”, “accidents” and “how a problem will be treated in case of an accident”)
would increase their confidence and make them feel safer. Experts, on the other hand, focused on
scientific research and engineering principles, but also on the importance of transparency in the
decision-making process. When the participants were asked about the site selection criteria, the highest
weight was assigned to “Potential Impact on people” and the second highest to “Potential Impact on
The mental models’ interviews revealed that lay participants emphasise the risks, but most
likely, lack of, as they do not mention, fundamental information. Although lay participants use a
different vocabulary to express their concerns (concepts), their conceptualisations are very similar. Most
participants emphasised the following risks: Safety (e.g. “leakage”, “accidents,” and most participants
referred to the “Chernobyl” and “Three Mile Island” incidents); Health Risks; Environmental Risks
(e.g. “groundwater pollution”); Disposal Site (e.g. “Where will the waste be disposed”, “the amount
of land that will be wasted”, and “transportation to site”); Future Waste (e.g. “what are they going to
do with future waste?”). Other risks, which were mentioned by one participant only, while these were
not existent in the expert mental model, and were thus treated as peripheral concepts, involved “what
will happen if the wrong model is applied by the government?”, “the risk of the material getting into
the wrong hands” and “mistrust of the government if something goes wrong”.
Figure 1 provides a simplified expert mental model, which illustrates only the top concepts
associated with the site selection of a nuclear waste repository. The concepts in doubled-line circles
illustrate those concepts that also appeared in lay participants’ mental models. As can be seen from
Figure 1, concepts such as Risks, Safety and Transportation issues were the only ones mentioned by lay
participants. Concepts that referred to the waste streams that influence the packaging, storage and
disposal options (e.g. LLW can be disposed of in near-to-surface facilities, while deep geological
disposal is the preferred option for HLW) were not mentioned by lay interviewees. These components,
which most likely do not exist in lay people’s mental models, do however directly influence how the
risks associated with the disposal of nuclear waste are perceived. In a similar perspective, the expert
mental model revealed the importance of public acceptance and additional site selection criteria for the
final disposal facility. Again the interviews revealed that lay participants were most likely unaware of,
as they did not mention, anything about the site selection process and the subsequent criteria, although
it is believed that these elements too have a direct impact on their risk assessments.
Figure 1: Expert mental model for nuclear waste disposal. This influence diagram shows only the top concepts,
as each concept can be further broken down into more detailed influence diagrams. Double-circled lines describe
the concepts that exist in lay people’s mental models.
Figure 2 provides a more detailed expert mental model that focuses more on the risks associated
with nuclear waste disposal. Again the concepts in doubled-line circles illustrate the concepts that exist
in lay participants’ mental models, as the other expert concepts are not included in their answers. Notice
that again there is a significant number of concepts that lay people are, most likely, not aware of.
Figure 2: Expert Mental Model for Nuclear Waste Disposal Risks (modified from 45).
It is evident that the risks described by lay interviewees are very abstract, and show several knowledge
gaps and misconceptions, including:
• Lay participants are unaware of the regulations (and the fatal radiation levels) associated with
acceptable radiation levels close to nuclear waste sites.
• Lay participants are not aware of the deep geological disposal concept, which introduced the
multi-barrier concept to minimise potential risks. As a result they fail to recognise the risks
associated with packaging and infrastructure, repository design, inadequate research and the
long time scales that establish uncertainty regarding the geological environment. These risks
are all included in the experts’ mental models, and are of critical importance. It is necessary for
lay people too to understand and appreciate these risks, and to understand that risk minimisation
can be achieved through future research, the multi-barrier concept and engineering and
• Experts describe the risks associated with current surface storage (short-term) of nuclear waste
and transportation issues. The consequences of an accident in a surface storage facility or during
transportation could be disastrous, as radioactivity could easily reach humans and the
environment. However, only one lay participant suggested that it was necessary to explain to
the public the “risk of not disposing of nuclear waste”.
• Lay interviewees associate potential accidents with the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl
incidents. When the lay interviewees were asked to describe how they imagined a hypothetical
accident their answers included, amongst others: “That’s hard to tell. I imagine that waste
would come up over ground and this would have effects on a very very wide area”, “I imagine,
for example, that in the case of leakage there would be hysteria and of course that would be a
disaster. The towns should be evacuated and explosions are going on up to the ground”. Within
this context it is clear that people do not know much about the concept of deep geological
disposal, and the real risks associated with this disposal option.
An important part of the mental models approach is to identify lay people’s needs and expectations
regarding information about the disposal of nuclear waste, and about the site selection process that
should exist in the system. Although lay interviewees know very little about nuclear waste, they have a
very clear picture of what they need to know (Table III). Table III summarises what information the
experts think should be communicated to lay people, and what lay interviewees suggested that they
want to know about nuclear waste.
Table III: Information needs as described by expert and lay participants.
1. Radioactive Waste
Life of Waste
Types and Categories (and health
impacts for each category)
Nuclear power stations and storage of
Accidents (e.g. deaths from cancer)
How to reduce
Geological Disposal concept
Area Needed for geological disposal
3. UK Plan
UK Site Selection Approach
Timelines and Process
Plans for future Waste
How long will remain on site
4. Site Selection
Why a site is suitable compared to other
Criteria used to select site
How long will waste be dangerous
Effects on future generations
1. Radioactive Waste
Radionuclide decay and duration
Geological Disposal concept
3. UK Plan
Briefly, how the site selection process
will take place
4. Site Selection
Benefits of suitable sites
Explain that it is not an atomic bomb
Importance of repository’s stability
Consequences of not disposal nuclear
Information about accidents
Both the experts and the lay participants were asked what were their expectations of an online
system that provides information about nuclear waste disposal issues. First, the experts suggested that
technical information should not be communicated to lay people (e.g. “when it is too complicated
people will just switch off”), although it is essential to more knowledgeable people. Both lay
interviewees and experts suggested that a combination of media was necessary to communicate the
issue effectively. Simplified text, with external links to provide more technical information and maps,
graphs and diagrams, were suggested by experts and lay interviewees. For analogies the experts
recommended that these should be made using terms and examples that the public can understand (i.e.
“the existing volumes of nuclear waste can fill the Royal Albert Hall five times”). Finally, only the lay
people who participated in the study suggested that they should be allowed to comment, and to have a
say through the system.
5. DEVELOPMENT OF ONLINE INFORMATION FOR NUCLEAR WASTE
Following the study, an online system needs to be developed to provide information about
nuclear waste, its disposal and the site selection process. To achieve this, we first investigate whether
existing online sources satisfy people’s requirements, based on the findings listed in Table III. We focus
on lay participant’s requirements, as it is more likely that lay people who will decide to interact with
such sources will firstly look for specific information, which satisfies their needs and expectations.
The following Websites were included in this investigation: the Committee on Radioactive
Waste Management (CoRWM: http://www.corwm.org.uk, Independent Governmental source);
Greenpeace UK (http://www.greenpeace.org.uk, Non-governmental source); Nuclear
Decommissioning Authority (NDA - http://www.nda.gov.uk, Governmental source); and finally the
Spatial Decision Support System, for the site selection of a nuclear waste repository in the UK by Leeds
University (http://www.ccg.leeds.ac.uk/teaching/nuclearwaste/, Academic source). As Table IV shows,
none of the Websites meets all the information requirements of lay people. Neither have they focused
on gaps and misconceptions, in order to correct them.
Table IV: Comparison of different information sources for lay people’s information requirements. E.: Existent;
N.: Not Existent; R.: information provided by reports; L.: information provided by External Links
Lay people’s needs and expectations
1. Radioactive Waste
Life of Waste
Types and Categories (and health impacts for
Nuclear power stations and storage of nuclear
Accidents (e.g. deaths from cancer)
How to reduce
Geological Disposal concept
Area Needed for geological disposal
3. UK Plan
UK Site Selection Approach
Timelines and Process
Plans for future Waste
How long will remain on site
4. Site Selection
Why a site is suitable compared to other
Criteria used to select a site
How long it will be dangerous
Effects on future generations
The design of online information for the communication of risk messages is very different from
designing a brochure or any other text-based information. First, it cannot be expected that people will
spend a substantial amount of time in front of a computer screen reading about the disposal of nuclear
waste. Second, a Website, in contrast to a brochure, does not require purely linear reading, as the user
can navigate between different sections, search for specific information, download additional
information and refer to external sources.
Atman suggests that “Poorly structured or superfluous risk information may bore recipients or
frustrate their attempts to understand what is really important” (14, p.796). The information was therefore
grouped, based on the mental models results, and user information needs and expectations, as described
in Table III. The menu of the system provided has the following sections: Home, Radioactive Waste,
Disposal, UK Plan, Risks, Site Selection, Maps, Blog, Contact Details and FAQ (Frequently Asked
Questions). Figure 3 illustrates the Radioactive Waste page, which provides the following information:
what is radioactive waste, its types (how each type is produced) and volumes, its radioactivity and the
life of nuclear waste, the waste sites and how nuclear waste can be reduced. Organising the context
according to the needs and expectations of lay people is expected to improve navigation, and to increase
satisfaction. A search function is also provided to help users find specific information.
Figure 3: The Radioactive Waste page of the online information system designed to inform the UK public about
the disposal of nuclear waste and the site selection process in the UK.
The information content was built using lay participant’s vocabulary, for example, the “life”
(term used by lay interviewees) of nuclear waste, instead of “radionuclide decay and duration” (term
used by experts), so that the information can be easily communicated. Each page provides an outline
describing its contents. The headings of the outline are also based on lay interviewee’s vocabulary (e.g.
“How it can be reduced” instead of “Waste minimisation”). It should also be noted that headings and
outlines are used to further support information recall (47, 48), although this is subject to further
evaluation. Breadcrumbs are also used to further support navigation and hypertext, to increase the
efficiency of the information structure.
The majority of information is provided in a textual form with the option to be printed, but
images and videos about nuclear waste issues are also provided, as all the participants suggested. For
example, information that corrects misconceptions, such as that the Chernobyl accident happened in a
nuclear power station, not in an underground disposal facility, is provided in text-based form, and
relevant videos are also available.
Taking into consideration the learning curve, and any additional future needs that might be
created, external links are available from all pages of the website, and they direct users to sources such
as the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s website, where users can find more detailed information.
In this perspective, scientific reports and additional documents are available for downloading.
A Web GIS application is provided, and it describes the different criteria and different scenarios
possible using maps, but a further description of the Web GIS interface would be beyond the scope of
this paper. A blog, a message board and a forum are also available, so that people can comment and
express their opinions about the site selection process in the UK, as was also suggested by the lay
Finally, it should be noted that the tools that provide information to lay people, and that also
allow participation in decision-making processes, should be “rational and trusted” (12, p. 11). Therefore,
a set of trust-based guidelines, developed by Skarlatidou and colleagues for interface design, was also
taken into consideration in the development of the proposed system. These include elements that
emphasise the development of the Web GIS application, but also the development of the overall user
interface design, which was developed after an investigation of similar systems that provide lay people
with environmental information to understand what influences lay people’s trust perceptions while they
are interacting with such applications (49, 50). Some of these guidelines refer to the colour combinations
used, contact details, external links and a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section, which are also
suggested by additional trust-related studies from the e-commerce domain (51-53).
6. DISCUSSION AND FUTURE RESEARCH
This paper describes the investigation of lay people’s mental models for the disposal of nuclear
waste in the UK, and its site selection process. It also describes the subsequent development of an online
information system, which may help lay people to build accurate mental models. Several studies from
the risk communication field have highlighted the importance of the mental models approach in the
design of effective risk communication messages, and despite the fact that descriptive studies of the
nuclear waste domain have documented the gaps and misconceptions in lay people’s mental models, a
direct implementation of these findings (the prescriptive approach) was never attempted, and this paper
attempts to fill this gap. Moreover, the mental models for the nuclear waste disposal issue were never
investigated for the UK context only.
The previous ineffective governmental attempts to locate a nuclear waste disposal site in the
UK were mainly the result of public opposition, and the current governmental plan focuses on a
voluntary, partnership-based approach that may minimise NIMBY-type conflicts. However, several
studies highlight the importance of improving public knowledge about nuclear waste issues, in the
attempt to minimise additional opposition arguments, and to provide the basis for meaningful and
effective public involvement in the decision-making process. This knowledge improvement could be
achieved in different ways and through different means (i.e. by providing the public with scientific
material), and it is first necessary to ensure the effectiveness of the approach. The mental models
approach aims to improve lay people’s knowledge, but to avoid the flaws of the deficit model, some of
which are particularly important for the nuclear waste disposal case. These are discussed in the
It was explained in Section 2 that studies grounded on the deficit model have a pedagogic
attitude, and they communicate scientific facts and figures to the public in an attempt to improve the
public’s knowledge. In this perspective, the deficit model was criticised for its simplistic nature, because
attitudes towards science are more complex, and are influenced by several factors that also depend on
the topic or hazard under discussion. One such criticism, which is particularly relevant to the context of
nuclear waste, is the decreasing levels of trust in experts and governmental bodies. For example,
CoRWM (3) and DEFRA (4) emphasise the importance of transparency in the site selection process, in
order to build public understanding, trust and confidence. Given this, a pedagogic dialogue, channelled
by governmental bodies, that attempts to educate lay people about scientific facts, and to prove to them
that the experts are correct, could have the opposite results, if trust has not first been established, and if
the information provided cannot be understood by lay people.
On the other hand, the goals of the risk communication studies and the mental models approach
are to identify the gaps and misconceptions of lay people, and to try to educate people by providing the
information they need, and which will help them to formulate comprehensive and accurate mental
models. In this context, as Sturgis and Allum explain, “It has been argued that risk communication
delivers benefits that advocates of the deficit model overlook—for example, such communication
supports democracy, by allowing the public to make informed and educated choices” (33, p. 115). Therefore
the aim is not to provide lay people with probability assessments and scientific figures and facts, which
might further alienate them, make them feel uninterested and possibly decrease trust.
As has already been demonstrated, people are not interested in learning about nuclear science
and extensive scientific data. Instead they want to learn the fundamental information. This is that
communicating information about the chemical elements of Uranium and Plutonium-239 and their
properties is very different from introducing lay people to basic concepts, such as the multi-barrier
concept of deep geological disposal, which is strongly related to the risks. Moreover, it was also
demonstrated that what experts believed should be explained to the public differs from what lay people
want to know. It should be noted, that future work is necessary to address some concerns with respect
to the population sample and the fairness of the procedural framework. For example, this involves
extending the population sample to further include people, who live in different areas in the UK in order
to investigate their mental models. This is essential before it can be confidently suggested that the
proposed online risk information, contributes in the construction of accurate and comprehensive public
mental models on the nuclear waste disposal.
It should be further noted that there are several ethical implications associated with the mental
models methodology. One such ethical implication is that such systems can be used to change views
and influence opinions, which is unethical from a moral and scientific perspective. From the users’
perspective it is also unethical, as lay people do not expect that these systems may mislead them. Thus,
it is necessary for the developers to design such systems without the intention of misinforming the final
user, to ensure and safeguard the system’s credibility and avoid its abuse. During the interviews, some
experts suggested that in the proposed system risks should be simplified, or that some of them should
be “hidden”, because “talking about risks raises awareness”, as one expert suggested, which is also
believed to be unethical. The Forum On Stakeholder Confidence (FSC) recommends that the mental
models methodology can be used to communicate problems when “The primary goals of
communication may be encouraging behaviour change or facilitating participation in public
discussions, but these goals are pursued indirectly, by conveying substantial information about a
hazard, rather than directly trying to influence choices” (16, p.5), which are the exact intentions of the
It is widely recognised that if a risk communication is not effective then the results of these
systems may have the opposite results (e.g. see Ref 35), and may also confuse and frustrate users.
Therefore further research is required for the evaluation and subsequent redesign of the system.
According to Bostrom and colleagues, such an evaluation includes “whether recipients understand the
message, remember it when they have finished reading, hearing or seeing the communication, and make
appropriate inferences from it” (14, p.796). Such an evaluation is currently underway and includes
evaluation of the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the constructed mental models using a
confirmatory questionnaire. Despite the fact that a further discussion of this evaluation is beyond the
scope of this paper, it should be noted, that eye-tracking equipment will be also used to investigate
whether the structure of the information is effective, as well as, how the users read and process the
information and whether they like it and trust it.
To conclude, the risk communication approach adopted here does not ignore all the other factors
previously mentioned that potentially influence public attitudes towards nuclear waste. Neither it can
be ignored that there are other elements, such as motivated reasoning and cultural cognition that may
further influence public beliefs in such controversial issues as is the nuclear waste disposal. Yet the
intention of this paper is to fill the gap in linking risk communication and information system design.
There is also a further belief that it is only ethically correct, and a social obligation, to help people
appreciate and understand the real risks associated with the disposal of nuclear waste. This is possible
a way to re-establish trust, because transparency means not only involving the public in a decision-
making process (but nevertheless trying to hide information that might “raise” awareness), but also
discussing openly all the elements that could help people to make informed decisions.
This project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
and Arup via Engineering Doctorate Centre VEIV at University College London.
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