Public opinion: how do we get it on our side?

21 January 2008

It is often said that winning over public opinion about its operations is the biggest and most important challenge facing the nuclear industry. When people say this at conferences, industry people tend to sigh and nod their heads, often without really thinking much about the issues. It’s kind of taken as a given – the industry generally has a bad public image and this places constraints on its operations, making them more complex and expensive, notably by the imposition of an over-prescriptive regulatory regime.

But are things really as bad as is sometimes made out and is putting a major effort into managing public opinion really so important? The answer is probably not. If we look at the situation in the USA, it is obvious that the vastly improved public perception of nuclear power has its roots in the superb operating performance of the 104 reactors in recent years. Producing large quantities of electricity cheaply, safely and with regard for the environment is far more effective than any fancy communication strategies. It is only when things start to go wrong at the operational level that the public becomes interested. Hence the incidents at German plants and the earthquake in Japan show the need for good management of public opinion and demonstrate that the industry still has a lot to learn in ‘crisis management’.

In fact, the public doesn’t usually have much interest in energy matters as a whole and only tends to get involved when there’s a crisis. If the lights go off or there are queues at the petrol station, people get highly upset and put huge pressure on industry and the politicians. But the 1980s and 1990s were a relatively quiet period; so most people today haven’t any strong and well-developed opinions about a particular fuel or energy strategy. More recently, however, we have had rapidly-rising fossil fuel prices and concerns about energy security of supply have resurfaced. But it’s probably the relationship between energy use and the environment which has begun to touch the general public’s consciousness. Climate change and potential global warming has been a gift to the environmental movement, as it presents a more credible apocalypse scenario. Most sensible people recognise that the other fears they have stirred up are groundless as, in general, economic growth can be seen to lead to a cleaner environment, but this is something new and potentially scarier.

Putting nuclear power into this perspective, there are clearly concerns in the public mind about the weapons link, over proliferation coming from the civil side of the industry and a general fear over radiation releases from operations. We can put some of this down to an irrational evaluation of the risks involved but this is something the industry has to live with. The number of people who have a hardened belief against nuclear and will be very difficult to sway are fortunately relatively few. The fact that many people haven’t had to think very hard about energy matters for some time suggests that opinion can easily be influenced one way or another.

Unfortunately, we can largely forget about politicians demonstrating any degree of leadership in this area. We know from bitter experience that they prefer to sit on the fence when it comes to any matter which can excite even a very small part of their electorate, as losing these committed votes could be crucial in a tight election. So they rely on focus groups and tend to be led by the public rather than vice versa, arguably the opposite of what they’re supposed to do. But climate change provides a fantastic opportunity for nuclear to be seen in a new light by those who have some general, but not deep-seated, concerns about it. Presenting it as a green and friendly technology is going to take time, but the message that nuclear emits few greenhouse gases seems to be slowly getting across.

Many of the problems the industry has with public opinion can be blamed on the sins of the past. Indeed, when things go wrong today, as happened recently in Germany and Japan, it is clear that the lessons from the past have not been adequately learned. Arrogant spokespeople, talking down to their audience and not being open with important information is a legacy the industry has taken a long time to shake off. Unfortunately we can see today that it still hasn’t quite got there. Society itself has now changed substantially and nuclear has had to fit in with this. The 1950s to the 1970s were characterised by state provision, deference and a belief that the application of science could bring the greatest good to the greatest number. But from the 1980s onwards, self-reliance, distrust of science and assertion of individual rights irrespective of the common good has become prominent. In itself, nuclear power doesn’t sit easily with this, as it relies on a degree of state involvement (at the very least in setting a framework for its operations in licensing, regulation and waste management) but is at last learning to exist within a climate of competitive power markets and private ownership.


The number of people who have a hardened belief against nuclear and will be very difficult to sway are fortunately relatively few

The best examples of winning over people in today’s world come from specific examples of planning new facilities, rather than attempts at the general persuasion of the wider general public. In Sweden and Finland, the siting of the waste repositories and the fifth Finnish reactor demonstrated that careful work with local people can bring huge dividends. The need for the new facility must first be shown convincingly, and then the public brought into the full process with the provision of clear information and opportunities for consultation. The local people must be respected as the experts in local matters and should ultimately have the final veto on the project. The companies concerned must be seen to be interested in far more than profit and be seen to ultimately have the interests of the local area and the wider country at heart. At the local level, nuclear facilities offer well-paid and secure jobs for many years in the future and have widespread economic impacts beyond the immediate investment.

The industry has identified the provision of clear and accurate information about nuclear power in general and its specific operations in particular as an important weapon in winning the public over. While knowledge is clearly better than ignorance, this approach has severe limitations and cannot be expected to achieve very much, particularly in the shorter term. An obvious observation is that some of the strongest critics of the industry are, in fact, very well-informed. Indeed, easily the best website on uranium mining throughout the world is run by WISE (World Information Service on Energy), a strongly anti-nuclear organisation. So there must be a lot more to it than the facts. Beliefs and values are arguably even more important than solid information. If you’ve taken in an argument by emotional appeal (for example, nuclear power is evil), you’re unlikely be swayed by facts that counter that belief – indeed, the opposite may in fact be the case. As many people have accepted a message that nuclear is bad, it will take a lot of effort and a long time to overcome it – lots of people have got to be persuaded to change a view that has been entrenched for many years.

The messenger and the way the message is delivered are also very important considerations, hence the search for credible third party advocates. Industries are seen as essentially self-interested by a cynical public – “they would say that, wouldn’t they” – but prominent environmentalists such as James Lovelock and Patrick Moore are worth their weight in gold when they speak up in support of nuclear’s importance. But it’s still an uphill battle and some people will never be persuaded. Nuclear power embodies all that some groups hate about the modern world – the application of science, big government and large organisations globalising production. Their arrogance mirrors that of the early nuclear pioneers – they feel they are saving the world for the rest of us, who should follow them like sheep.

Finally, it should be noted that the use of language is very important too. Again the industry suffers today for the errors of the past. If you ask anybody which words they associate most with ‘nuclear’, they will most likely say ‘bomb’, ‘explosion’ or ‘war’ and not ‘power’. The association with military uses is very hard to shake off – had nuclear power alternatively (and more correctly) been termed ‘fission power’, the difficulties over public acceptance would undoubtedly been rather less. Although it’s now rather too late to quietly re-brand the industry, it’s a lesson for the future – be careful in what you casually say, as people are receiving messages beyond what you immediately intend. The other good example is the careless terming of everything coming out of the back of a reactor as ‘waste’. This then ensured there would be a requirement that something is done about it in this, or certainly the next, generation. As an alternative, referring to ‘used fuel’ would have highlighted the potential economic value, so the time period could potentially be much-expanded (under the guise of passing on an important asset to the next generation rather than a liability). Other nuclear terms such as ‘fast breeder’ are less than ideal from the public perspective, conjuring sinister Dr Strangelove scientists at work, whereas others, such as ‘pebble bed’ seem more benign. So it’s important that scientists don’t have a monopoly in the terminology – it’s not necessary to bring in highly-remunerated image consultants for the industry, but some thought of the impact on public opinion should ideally be taken.

In conclusion, experience has taught us that there are a number of ways in which we can contribute to the industry obtaining a more favourable public image. But talk of this being the biggest single issue confronting the future is surely nonsense. The most important thing is to carry on operating the existing nuclear power plants as well as possible and the message will eventually get across. There is a variety of other initiatives which can be taken to support nuclear, but none of them is important as better crisis communications when things do go wrong, as inevitably they will do from time to time.

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

Related Articles
VT Nuclear Services secures UK contracts

Privacy Policy
We have updated our privacy policy. In the latest update it explains what cookies are and how we use them on our site. To learn more about cookies and their benefits, please view our privacy policy. Please be aware that parts of this site will not function correctly if you disable cookies. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.