Psychology: phasing out nuclear energy could affect safety
The way that the phaseout of nuclear power plants in Germany is currently planned could negatively influence the safety of the facilities. Those involved could increasingly favor their own interests as the shutdown date approaches, argue scientists from the University of Basel and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin in the journal Behavioral Science & Policy. They base their argument on endgame behavior from game theory.
After the reactor disaster in Fukushima in March 2011, the decision was made in Germany to shut down eight power plants with immediate effect. The remaining nine facilities were given fixed shutdown dates; the last is planned to close in 2022. The phaseout of nuclear power plants is also being discussed in Switzerland, after the nuclear phaseout initiative – which demanded the shutdown of nuclear power plants after a maximum of 45 years of operation – was rejected in November 2016.
Increasingly self-interested actors?
The psychologists examined whether the impending shutdown of the operational nuclear power plants is leading to endgame behavior in the nuclear sector, for example in plant workers, managers, operators, suppliers and authorities.
In game theory, endgame behavior means that players behave increasingly egoistically as a game draws to an end. When transferred into the context of the nuclear industry, this would mean that those involved on every level will increasingly put their own interests first. Such a tendency could have a negative impact on the safety of nuclear facilities.
The scientists used three approaches to examine whether there are indications of endgame behavior in the nuclear industry. They considered the behavior of players in the nuclear industry as portrayed in the public record; statistics on reportable events in nuclear facilities; and the safety behavior of test subjects in experimental investigations.
• In media reports on phasing out nuclear energy in Germany, there is evidence that trust and cooperative behavior between industry operators and government decision-makers has become increasingly precarious since the phaseout decision. A loss of expertise and motivation in employees in the nuclear industry is also to be expected, caused by the foreseeable decline of an entire industry that many no longer regard as an attractive form of employment.
• Contrary to their hypothesis, in the five years since the phaseout decision in 2011, the psychologists found no statistical increase in reportable events (accidents, malfunctions or other safety-related events in nuclear facilities). This would have been expected according to endgame behavior. However, a phaseout was agreed back in 2001 between nuclear power plant operators and the government. In the five-year period after this decision, the number of reportable events rose by 39%.
• In behavior-based experiments, participants took on the role of managers. In several rounds, they had to decide if they wanted to invest in the safety of a power plant or not. If they did not invest, the likelihood of accidents increased. The results showed endgame behavior: by the end of the rounds, less was invested in safety. Only when the definite end point of the rounds was unknown did no endgame behavior emerge.
The human factor
The authors say that these results may be inconclusive, but it is important to anticipate and analyze potential behavior-based consequences in the phaseout of safety-sensitive technologies and industries. “The human factor must not be overlooked during the concrete implementation of such decisions,” says lead author Markus Schöbel. Politically motivated phaseout procedures could introduce new and unanticipated risks into the implementation.
Markus Schöbel, Ralph Hertwig, Jörg Rieskamp
Phasing out a risky technology: An endgame problem in German nuclear power plants?
Behavioral Science & Policy 3(2), 41–54 (2018)
Dr. Markus Schöbel, University of Basel, Faculty of Psychology, tel. +41 61 207 05 86, email: firstname.lastname@example.org