Don’t double down on sitting down

29 March 2023

The nuclear industry likes to chart its development by its problems and by its successful responses to them. What about recent successes that were due to other people?

A year ago nuclear entered a new era with a number of firsts: The first time a country with nuclear power attacked another. The first time disinformation was used by a government to spread fear about its own nuclear power plants. The first time an operating nuclear power plant was attacked. The first time a nuclear facility was occupied by the army of another country.

Even though Chornobyl is again under Ukrainian control, the situation at the Zaporizhia plant remains fraught under Russian occupation and close to the front line. Thankfully however, the public and political appetite for news about it has waned over the course of a year. There are only so many times newspapers can run headlines about a station being disconnected from the grid when nothing tangible ever results.

Usually after a safety incident the industry prides itself on a prompt, unified response that divides time into a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ with an updated operational mindset. That doesn’t seem to have happened this time. The most marked reaction has been for a majority of nuclear organisations to extricate themselves from involvement with Russia and its state nuclear company Rosatom, but that’s not universal by any means.

In October last year Rosatom declared that because the Zaporizhia plant lies in an area of Ukraine claimed by Russia it therefore owned the plant and started forcing employees to sign new employment contracts. This was shocking, and also intriguing because by that logic all six reactors as well all their used fuel storage must be operating without valid licences, which is a clear violation of the Convention on Nuclear Safety. Obviously Rosatom had no choice but to comply with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s agenda, but the collective nuclear industry did have a choice how it responded. Yet strangely, Rosatom remains a member of some quite prominent organisations as if nothing ever happened.

As for this column’s call (NEI, March 2022) for industry to show some solidarity with Energoatom and with its workers, who were generating vital power and maintaining safe conditions while literally on the frontline of a war? Nothing. Not even when they were kidnapped amid allegations of torture. It was the nuclear societies led by ANS that created and promoted a fund to support their fellow workers in Ukraine.

Despite several attempts by Russia, its accusations never got off the ground that Ukraine had been violating safeguards at Chornobyl and Zaporizhia and had intentions to misuse nuclear materials. That was mainly thanks to efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency to demonstrate that the safeguards system was working. The Agency was also putting out regular updates on the situation, balancing pressures from both governments and even publishing information contrary to official misinformation when necessary. Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi truly stepped up and stretched the IAEA’s remit to the limit in a time of need, and he continues to do so as he works for a safety and security protection zone around the plant.

Some people privately say that IAEA occasionally over-emphasised the risk of accident while explaining the importance of its role, and that may be true. It’s hard to know without the privileged information they have access to. The fact is that no other expert organisation even really set foot on the playing field to do better.

How about the suggestion (also NEI, March 2022) of mounting a factual information response to put some expert context around daily headlines claiming disaster was imminent? Not really. That need was actually fulfilled by individuals in the sector who self-organised to share and interpret open-source information flowing from Ukraine, with many contributing first-hand expert knowledge of the technology as well as power plant operation. Most of them did so in fear of their employer finding out about their efforts to support Ukraine and help nuclear.

In fact, some such volunteers do suffer career damage as result of the good work they have done. Many have been told by prospective employers that they would have to stop explaining nuclear safety basics during a crisis, stop sticking up for Ukrainian workers and would have to delete those viral posts seen by millions for fear they might contain something the new employer, as well as its partners and entire governance structure, does not 100% agree with.

Relying on volunteers and outsiders to tackle its thorniest PR problems is a bad habit of this industry. There is a big crossover between those explaining events in Ukraine and the pro-nuclear activists highlighted by the new film Atomic Hope, by Irish filmmaker Frankie Fenton. The documentary follows people who independently realised that nuclear energy has a reputation crafted by its enemies and completely at odds with reality because it refuses to mount any serious PR defence of itself. While leaders were sitting back and doing almost nothing for nuclear’s image and business case, those advocates took on the anti-nuclear dogma that dominates the climate change movement and gradually forced nuclear onto the agenda. They succeeded and now industry and IAEA are stepping forward in the bow wave they created.

Even at the hugely successful recent COP climate change meetings, the majority of industry presence is organised and staffed by volunteers putting in long hours on top of their day job. They have done stellar work, with the quality of representation increasing year on year. But let’s be clear: it is really weird for a global engineering industry to rely on unpaid volunteers to plan and execute its strategic communication. The normal thing is to organise through a central point, usually one of the big trade associations, and place a serious contract with a public relations firm to help them craft an appropriate presence. Nuclear’s rivals don’t rely on the goodwill, spare time and unpaid labour of junior employees who inherited the role from forebears who simply could not believe there would be barely any representation if they didn’t step up.

There is of course a limit to what an industry like nuclear can do to improve its own image given that people prefer to take on information from spokespersons they can relate to. An option here is to use staff members to boost representation using employee advocacy. Most other industries do this by finding a handful of workers who they support to be widely visible in social media and other forums. But no, apart from some exceptions like EDF, ANSTO and the volunteers at COP, nuclear doesn’t really do that either. Instead, it more often tries to shut people down.

Workers, volunteers and third-party advocates from outside the sector are great additions to the team who will reach audiences that industry spokespersons never will. As such, the industry needs to find acceptable ways to support the advocates it trusts without compromising their independence. But no matter how successful that is it will never reduce the need for industry to have a strong voice (or voices) of its own, to take real positions on real issues, and to live up to its supposed ethics when the chips are down.

Will this situation ever change, after volunteers have achieved so much for industry free of charge? My fear is that having seen the climate movement magically unlock before their eyes and gotten through a year-long communication crisis, industry leaders will not realise how lucky they have been but rather will say, “See, we were right to sit and do nothing!”

Jeremy Gordon is an independent communication consultant with 18 years of experience in the international energy industry. His company Fluent in Energy supports partners of all kinds to communicate matters of clean energy and sustainable development.

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