The Future of Radiological Protection


Radiation Protection Culture, Communication and Context

Author(s): Hugh Wilkins
(Radiation Consultancy Services)


'Keeping the ICRP recommendations Fit for Purpose' draws attention to the need to ensure that the System adapts to changes in science and society, remaining attuned to evolving societal and ethical values. The cultural context in which the Recommendations now exist is very different from the setting in which they were first conceived. The age of deference to scientific authority has to a large extent gone, driven in part by the emergence of social media, fake news and widespread distrust of experts. Keeping the Recommendations fit for purpose requires acknowledgement of this changing landscape in order that they remain relevant and provide leadership to enable radiation risks to be suitably managed. This in turn requires radiation risks to be well understood by decision-makers and other stakeholders, and the corollary of good communication.

'Keeping the ICRP recommendations Fit for Purpose' ends with a quote from a recent report of a Nuclear Energy Agency workshop: 'to be trusted, you must communicate successfully; to communicate successfully, you must be trusted'. It is sometimes said that trust is hard-earned but easily lost. Organizational change is one circumstance in which there may be loss of organizational memory leading to loss of trust, inadvertent or contrived. Hierarchical structures may introduce, or exacerbate, barriers to good communication.

Communication, the transmission of messages, can be considered in terms of a simple signal:noise engineering model. It has three components, all of which are essential to good communication: transmission of a clear signal; a medium through which the signal is transmitted without significant attenuation; and an efficient receiver to detect the signal. If the signal is subjected to significant attenuation as it passes through the medium, or if the receiver introduces significant 'noise', transmission suffers - however clear the original signal. This model can be applied to communication within and between organizations, both in general and specifically in respect of radiological protection.

Organizational culture is key to good communication, and hence safety culture. IAEA, WHO, IRPA and IOMP have been proactive in recent years in emphasizing the importance of culture in radiation protection. The IAEA's recently-published harmonized safety culture model, developed from earlier NRC work, has identified traits, principles and attributes which make culture a more tangible ingredient of a good safety culture. Local context, values and ethics are highly relevant, as is the location of the ICRP system within ever-changing highly complex systems.

Keywords: culture; communication; context; ethics; values