Public enemy number one

27 July 2004

Nuclear industry people often rest under the illusion that their business is the only one under attack by strong opponents, engendering a feeling of isolation and supreme defensiveness. Far from it – these days no industrial sector gets an easy ride from public opinion. Under the umbrella of corporate social responsibility, all industrial sectors must justify their activities in terms of their environmental and social impact. The presumption today is essentially ‘guilty until proven innocent’.

Nuclear expanded in the 1950s and 60s when the world was very different. This was the era of technocratic decision-making, where a brave new world was to be created, led by the application of science in new technologies. This lasted until the mid-1960s, when a lot of scepticism had crept in and industries began to have to justify themselves. Nuclear is not unique in this regard, but it is arguable that it provides a particularly strong example of how the world has changed. But why does it generally have such a poor image with the general public?

To start with, we have to accept that those passionately opposed to nuclear have played their cards very well. The environmental movement picked well when it selected nuclear as the key issue around which all their followers can unite. Rather like Christians having to believe in God, being anti-nuclear is a prerequisite for being a true Green.

There were undoubtedly alternative possible totem poles, notably attacking private car ownership. But it was recognised that this is one of those things (rather like extra-marital sex and also price inflation) which are universally and publicly condemned, but greatly enjoyed by many in private. So best not to make an issue about automania and its environmental consequences, better to pick on nuclear.

Many of these strong opponents see nuclear as the thin edge of the wedge – they would seek to shut down the next industrial sector if successful with nuclear. Indeed, many appear opposed to modern industrial society, economic growth and globalisation. Given the evident weakness of their case and the few people who strongly support them, they have achieved a great deal.

One particular problem the industry faces is that it is readily identified as a sunset sector. Without a major plant-building programme, backed by an irrefutable economic case, the industry faces its critics with one hand tied behind its back. This is arguably its biggest public perception problem. In the Western world at least, the talk is more of plant decommissioning, much of it reflecting the burdens of the military nuclear legacy. The only significant reactor construction programmes are taking place in countries which critics may isolate as ‘special cases’. The industry needs to reverse this trend somehow – in other words, to get those countries not involved in nuclear expansion labelled as special. This will take the development of a superior economic case, as, for example, in Finland, the one shining example in today’s picture of general gloom.

Another significant problem from which nuclear suffers is the lack of strong industrial companies prepared to stand up and champion it unequivocally. In other major industries, public support has been gained by feeding on the strong image of the biggest corporate players. Take the oil industry as an example. Its activities are highly questionable from environmental and sustainability angles, yet it generally gets an easy ride from the public. Some of this undoubtedly flows from popular worship of the private car, but the strong public image of leading companies such as BP, Elf, Exxon and Shell certainly helps the overall industry perception.


Rather like Christians having to believe in God, being anti-nuclear is a prerequisite for being a true Green

Part of this problem is that the nuclear industry isn’t really an industry at all, rather a set of separate businesses participating in various parts of the nuclear fuel cycle. The conglomerates, covering several areas, amount to only Areva and BNFL. Both of these have made major efforts to strengthen their public images, with some success, but this has been insufficient – so far at least. Other large companies interested in nuclear are attached to alternative technologies and therefore won’t stand up to be counted. For example, the electricity generators will use nuclear, coal, oil or gas, with no strong attachment to any of these, while major industry suppliers such as Rio Tinto are heavily involved in coal or other energy sources. This has always been a significant problem for the World Nuclear Association (WNA) in encouraging a more positive image of the industry. There are many worthy individuals from amongst all our member companies, dedicated to the future of nuclear, but they are insufficient to carry great weight within their own companies, who are successfully involved in many other areas. It has made it particularly difficult for WNA to get strong advocates from amongst the key public affairs spokespeople of these companies.

Another issue is the lack of political support in selling the industry to the general public, which is important in a complex business requiring huge investments and long lead times. One accusation is that politicians are actually lagging behind their constituents’ views in supporting the industry. Their ‘perception of perceptions’ could be faulty, and they are frightened to support the industry, even more so than the general public. But politicians should lead the people in such complex issues as nuclear. If the UK needs a dozen new nuclear power plants, Tony Blair should be capable of standing up in the House of Commons and persuading the public that this is right. But he is unlikely to do this, preferring (like politicians around the world) limp statements of ‘retaining nuclear as an option for the future’. This essentially avoids considering the true issues and puts them into somebody else’s in-tray to be tackled in a few years time. The reason politicians do this is easy to explain.

Most politicians these days are essentially reactive rather than leaders. They use focus groups to test the impact of any policy changes and nuclear will always come up as a big ‘no-no’ in these. This is because it is very strongly opposed by a small number of people, maybe 5% or 10% of the population. Politicians avoid these types of issues as they know if they strongly push them, the 5-10% of antis will certainly vote against them, irrespective of any Party affiliation. So they are immediately losing a section of the electorate which could be important in a tight poll. Far better to perform a neat feint and talk about something else. An analogous example is the proposal to abolish fox-hunting with dogs in England. Tony Blair is personally in favour of this but there is a small minority who are strongly against and will vote against him at the next election if he pushes forward on this issue. So he has essentially avoided it, despite it having general public support, because he doesn’t want to be marked out of 90 or 95 rather than 100 at the next election.

Another problem the industry faces is down to the large number of issues under which it comes under attack. If we can satisfy the opposition on one issue, they simply move onto another. This is what I would call a ‘cumulative wearing down’ effect.

On each of the major issues, such as plant safety, waste management, radiation exposure, proliferation risks and transport of materials, the industry may win the individual arguments. When we speak to people, we can probably convince them that they can sleep easily in their beds at night, perhaps with a 90-95% margin of certainty on each issue. However, there always remains a lingering 5-10% of uncertainty. Unfortunately, these 5-10% doubts tend to be additive in peoples’ minds, possibly pushing many people to believe that nuclear power has so many little things running against it that it should be avoided. If there are so many things which can go wrong, surely it is too risky and we should look for an alternative?

Finally, what has been the industry’s prime response to its image problem? The solution today is an open dialogue with all the stakeholders, with frank exchanges of views. This is a huge improvement on the former hectoring tone of the industry, essentially with scientists and engineers lecturing the public that they were too stupid to understand the complexities of the arguments and should therefore shut up.

Today’s approach is to give people as much accurate information as possible about the industry, on the basis that if they fully understand the facts, they will be more supportive. But the facts are unfortunately insufficient as anti-nuclear people are not ill-informed but just interpret things differently, with alternative value systems. So who is providing the information is crucial, as is also the style in which it is delivered. Excellent websites, printed publicity, media advertisements and speeches are fine, but the industry vitally needs more inspirational politicians, leading companies with strong public images and third party advocates to speak up on its behalf. This will help relieve the cumulative wearing down effect which has been so pervasive. But above all else, the industry needs to get beyond its smooth talk of a ‘nuclear renaissance’ and prove it is alive and kicking by constructing plants. This would do such wonders for public perception that we may find the other problems simply drift away.

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is Head of Strategy & Research at the World Nuclear Association, where he has worked since 1995 (when it was the Uranium Institute). Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Nuclear Association and/or its members.

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