The nuclear establishment – what lies within?

8 February 2017

In last month’s article (January 2017, ‘Achieving progress in nuclear – throw out the establishment?’) I made the suggestion that there is, within the nuclear sector, a significant body of thinking that one could term ‘establishment’ and which is resistant to change, such that the industry is not currently fit for purpose to meet the needs of the modern energy world. Likening it to Donald Trump’s ‘Washington DC swamp’ was simply taking contemporary political developments as a cue to highlight something important within an industrial sector, which has a vital role to play in the world’s energy future. 

That the nuclear industry is its own worst enemy when it comes to advancing its prospects is a theme that I have been gradually developing within these columns over the past few years, since the Fukushima accident in 2011. In particular, I’ve argued the industry needs to affect a ‘paradigm shift’ from the fear of all things nuclear that is ultimately responsible (amongst other things) for the poor economics that beset the sector today. The cause is the failure to grasp that public misunderstanding of radiation (and notably the perverse regulatory regime that gives official backing to this) should be the key target of industry action. The attempted ‘rebranding’ of nuclear since Fukushima has been washed away by a range of displacement activities based on trying to educate the general public with more news and facts, whilst hoping for salvation in the climate change argument.

The case that the nuclear industry does itself few favours when it comes to communications activities has been made in the UK by Malcolm Grimston at Imperial College and Chatham House for rather longer than it has by myself. His new book, ‘The paralysis in energy decision making’, highlights his arguments and usefully puts them into the context of the wider energy world. It’s certainly not easy reading (even for those experienced in the sector) as it offers a huge amount
of thought-provoking analysis of how the solutions adopted in the energy world today are definitely sub-optimal. Chapter 11 on ‘Public perceptions and the strange case of radiation’ is particularly apposite. It concludes by arguing that “Counterproductive attempts to allay public fears by treating radiation as more dangerous than it clearly is have served both to stoke up further fears and thereby exacerbate the stress- related effects of a major accident, and to pile further costs onto nuclear energy, making it less able to contribute to global energy goals’. It then admits that, ‘Reversing this path will not be an easy step to take.”

My route towards this is to start by examining in more detail what it is that lies behind nuclear fear. Radiation is obviously the key to this, as the alleged risk of enhanced exposures represents what is special about nuclear. The fear of nuclear war is now not as pervasive as it was in the 1950s and 60s, so the devastating potential impact of explosions is no longer at the forefront of people’s minds. This has arguably been replaced by the fear of more conventional, low-tech explosions caused by various terrorist groups. Yet the nuclear fear from the ‘invisible peril’ of radiation still persists. The physicist and historian Spencer Weart’s 2012 book, ‘The rise of nuclear fear’ is a brilliant analysis of how this 

has deep roots in the early 20th century, when limited facts about radioactivity first became known, producing a blurred picture upon which scientists and the public projected their hopes and fears, even before the atomic age began. This book is a slimmed- down and revised version of an earlier volume ‘Nuclear fear’ which was published in 1988, just two years after the accident at Chernobyl. This remains a classic study of the way imagery rather than hard facts and their analysis has dominated the nuclear debate, which has now helpfully been updated for the post-Fukushima era.

In common with Grimston, Weart has certainly not written a pro-nuclear polemic but both are clearly on the nuclear side, worrying that the negative features they highlight will serve as a barrier to it achieving its proper role in world energy. Indeed, Weart goes further on developing important lessons that reach far beyond the nuclear issue itself. By delving more deeply into psychology, Weart offers a dramatic illustration of the affective, emotional and instinctive nature of risk perception in general, and offers a sobering lesson about how powerfully fear can shape the course of events.

While Grimston majors on how the industry’s communications have a tendency to give out mixed (or even wholly negative) messages, and Weart concentrates on the importance of imagery, my own recent focus is on how institutions and the people within them have developed (or have failed to do so) over the past 60 years. What stands out is how much these still reflect the thinking of the early days of nuclear power in the 1950s. People still point to the importance of President Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ speech at the United Nations in 1953, opening up the myriad opportunities in the non-military sphere for nuclear technology. Interpretations differ on what Eisenhower was trying to achieve with this initiative, which led to the founding of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1957. One is that by emphasizing the beneficial civil applications of nuclear, he was trying to counterbalance the strong feelings that were steadily arising about nuclear weapons and the arms race.

Although the anti-nuclear bodies claim that the IAEA is one of the key promoters of nuclear power, I would argue precisely the opposite. That it is necessary to have an intergovernmental body staffed with 2500 people surely supports the idea that nuclear is a dangerous and scary technology? The largest department at the IAEA is concerned with implementing the safeguards regime, aiming to prevent the movement of nuclear materials from civil into military uses. Reading descriptions of the department’s publicity may give the erroneous impression that there are a significant number of countries keen on acquiring nuclear weapons. The truth is rather different. Proliferation of nuclear weapons has been much slower than pessimists believed 50 years ago years because all but very few countries have any real interest in acquiring them, as they make little sense today beyond supposedly increasing national prestige. Not due to the IAEA. History shows that if such countries are so determined to get weapons, they will invariably manage to do so.

Nuclear security (the possibility of nuclear materials falling into terrorist hands or hostile forces organising an incursion into nuclear facilities) is also something the IAEA monitors closely. In the post 9/11 world, this has also concerned national governments to the extent that President Obama called a nuclear security summit in 2010 (leading to three biennial successors). The summits regularly descend into farce as delegates speak about nuclear safety rather than security. In many languages, there is apparently no distinction between the two, something that also indicates that security fears have been completely overblown. Terrorist incidents tend to be low-tech, while the possibility of any non-state actors developing and delivering a functioning nuclear weapon are effectively zero. There is a cottage industry of small organisations which seek to deny this (centred heavily in Washington DC) who get very agitated when Greenpeace activists penetrate nuclear station perimeters and hoist flags on buildings. These nuclear ‘scaredy cats’ should be looking at hospital waste for the most likely source of materials for a non-explosive ‘dirty bomb’ rather than worrying about the nuclear power sector.

To be fair to the IAEA, it does a lot of excellent work, notably on the non-power applications of nuclear technology in health, agriculture and industry. But other work which appears to be wholly positive can be subjected to different interpretations. Working with developing countries on their energy plans and helping them understand where nuclear can fit in is obviously a good thing. But then coming out with a long list of requirements in the so-called ‘milestones’ approach supports the contention that nuclear is uniquely dangerous and difficult. This helps to perpetuate the ‘paradigm of fear’. In a similar vein, I have previously given a critical review to the nuclear roadmap developed by bodies in the Organization for Economic Development (April 2015, ‘IAEA and OECD- NEA – rapid roads to nowhere?’). Long lists of requirements that need to be satisfied for success with nuclear power programmes read very much like an anti-nuclear prayer book. None of today’s countries with nuclear power did so after filling in such tick-boxes, while the two new ones with plants under construction (Belarus and the United Arab Emirates) have also done things rather differently. These and other reports are no doubt well-intentioned, but act as potent accessories to the fear paradigm.

Establishment thinking about the risks of radiation and what the actions that should be following any releases from nuclear facilities are arguably the biggest barriers to overcoming the fear paradigm. I have written extensively about this before (for example November 2014, ‘Radiation – how can the industry begin to deal with its biggest challenge?’) but what stands out is how weak the industry – through the international and national representative bodies – has been in taking on the vested interests. There are, of course, many radiological protection officers working in the industry who are invariably hard-working professionals. They are, however, giving tacit support to a system that is doing huge harm to the future of nuclear power.

The industry’s displacement activities were mentioned last month, but it is surprising few people seem to recognise that it is impossible to create a new paradigm for the industry by endlessly providing more facts and figures from improved websites and news services. The climate change argument to advance nuclear’s prospects is arguably gaining some traction from former environmentalists and may serve to maintain in operation some of the nuclear stations formerly scheduled for closure in the US. Yet these advocates fall into the same trap as many of their new friends in the nuclear sector, ending up advocating new technical solutions to what are actually deep-set business problems. The list of under development ‘paper reactors’ is as extensive as it has always been, but none (including the fashionable small modular reactors) will likely see the light of day unless the fear paradigm itself can be shifted.

On another tack, the nuclear industry possibly holds more conferences per staff member than any other. This can partly be attributed to its technical complexity and breadth of activities, but also because its members feel the need to meet frequently, as they feel under external attack. There is, however, a high degree of insularity and resistance to outside ideas, with the industry merely talking to itself. Many major conferences have become little more than industry leaders saying the same old things we’ve heard before. The belief seems to be that if something is said often enough, it may finally come true – what can be called ‘Ra Ra communications’.

Next month we will examine some new and potent ideas of what can be done to improve things and engineer a new paradigm for the industry. It is interesting to note that the industry’s new friends amongst the ecomodernists – who argue that humans can protect nature by using technology to ‘decouple’ anthropogenic impacts from the natural world – have also concluded that fear is the biggest barrier to nuclear.

Michael Shellenberger’s TED talk has received over a million online viewings but then offers basically zero little on solutions, beyond reciting the usual issues of safety, waste and the weapons link. This therefore comes out as little beyond blind belief in nuclear. We need to think more expansively and find better solutions.  

*Steve Kidd is an independent nuclear consultant and economist with East Cliff Consulting. The first half of his career was spent as an industrial economist within British industry, followed by nearly 18 years in senior positions at the World Nuclear Association and its predecessor organisation, the Uranium Institute. 

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