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Expert-Expert Gap? A Study of Heterogeneity in Risk Perceptions among Nuclear Experts and Its Implications for Risk Governance

Governance
Institutions
Public Policy
Knowledge
Decision Making
Technology
Jun Gyu Kim
Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology
So Young Kim
Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology
Jun Gyu Kim
Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology
Bitna Lee
Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology

Abstract

Much of the existing research and policy discourse on highly technical issues has concentrated on the expert-lay gap in risk perceptions, in which experts with technical knowledge and resources are portrayed as more or less a homogeneous community confronting citizens of lesser expertise. Empirical studies as well as discourse analyses in the fields of psychometrics and science and technology studies (STS) have thus been keen on identifying and measuring the gaps in risk perceptions between experts and lay citizens with each assumed as monolithic groups. In this study, we challenge such an assumption by exploring heterogeneity in risk perceptions among nuclear experts in South Korea. With the catastrophic nuclear accidents of the last few decades – Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima (2011), risk management and governance have become perhaps the biggest focal point in nuclear policymaking. The South Korean nuclear expert community provides a strategic research site in many ways. As a major world nuclear energy country with the geopolitical concerns with the fuel cycle issue, South Korean nuclear engineers and scientists have long grappled with various issues of nuclear risk communication. In this course of handling multiple risk issues such as nuclear safety, security, and even nonproliferation, South Korean nuclear experts have developed nuanced positions on specific policy decisions rather than making a unified pro-nuclear voice. Based on the in-depth interviews of nuclear experts in government research institutes, universities, the nuclear industry, and the relevant ministries and the analysis of the archive of key policy documents, we uncover the diversity of nuclear experts in their views of the degree and significance of nuclear risks as well as the political and technical feasibility of managing nuclear risks. One of the central contributions of this study is to appreciate the tensions within the expert community and thereby help to design a better interface – whether institutions or policies – for the governance of knowledge as well as for knowledge in governance.