Public acceptance-do we need a new approach?

20 April 2012

Last month I argued that there is a clear link between the degree of public and political acceptance of nuclear projects and their cost. It is highly likely that a substantial part of both the escalation in nuclear investment costs over the past decade and also some of the gap between these costs in the Western world and Asia can be explained by the industry’s failure to achieve greater public support. So those people who argue that “public acceptance is the biggest issue facing the future of the nuclear industry” may indeed have a very good case.

A recent (November 2011, so post-Fukushima) BBC World Service/Globe Scan international opinion poll showed some very interesting results that are not at all comforting for the nuclear industry. It must be noted that inter-country comparisons of public opinion contain obvious potential flaws, such as the difficulty of standardizing questions to fit in with different cultural norms. But in this case, the results are so clear that such considerations cannot possibly impose major drawbacks. The poll measured the percentage of people in various countries agreeing with the statement “nuclear power is relatively safe and an important source of electricity and we should build new nuclear plants”. In 2011, the highest level of support was seen in China at 42%, followed by the United States and Pakistan at 38%, and the United Kingdom at 37%. Other countries were well below this, ranging from India at 23% to Germany and Japan in the 5-10% range. Perhaps surprisingly for a nation historically so committed to nuclear, support for the statement in France was only 15%.

Although this particular endorsement of nuclear is more onerous that it could be (adding in not just general acceptance of nuclear but also a plea to build further units), these levels of support are obviously very low. Even if new nuclear projects can go ahead in USA and UK, the fact that there is clearly (at best) general indifference to them, and at worst some opposition, indicates that additional financial costs will inevitably be imposed. In those countries with even lower degrees of support, it is unlikely that new nuclear build could now go ahead. Indeed, current reactors may well face difficulties in continuing to operate.

The poll also made comparisons with the results achieved for a similar question in 2005. Perhaps not surprisingly post-Fukushima, the degree of support had dropped in every country bar the UK (and in most cases substantially so, by between 10 and 20 percentage points). The USA and UK stand out in these results because support is only slightly down in the former but 4% higher in UK. This no doubt reflects the slow build-up of support for nuclear in these two countries since 2000, as new-build plans have been developed. Both countries have arguably reacted very calmly to the Fukushima accident, viewing it as somewhat distant from any likely scenario at home.

If Fukushima has imposed additional hurdles for public acceptance, what can the nuclear sector do about this? The first point to make is that public opinion and the degree of political support for nuclear is very local. The BBC poll showed substantial differences between countries; but we know that support for nuclear varies considerably even within particular countries. Even in countries where there is strong anti-nuclear sentiment, such as Argentina and Brazil, the regions surrounding nuclear facilities are strongly supportive. It is too cynical to conclude that nuclear support only comes from jobs associated with nuclear facilities. The familiarity with the technology and the plants, accepted as merely part of everyday life in the region, is perhaps more important. This is an important reason why nuclear fails to get public approval elsewhere. Its remoteness from general society leads to misunderstanding and susceptibility to the negative images so successfully broadcast by the ranks of anti-nukes.

The general industry consensus about public acceptance is that the commercial nuclear sector started off on a very bad footing in the 1950s and 1960s and has failed to recover since. Coming out of nuclear weapons programmes meant that the links between civil and military use of nuclear science were entrenched and the fear of nuclear weapons somehow translated to the civil sector. It can be argued that this remains a powerful force today; indeed, some people see the strong public opposition to nuclear power in Germany as being at least partly rooted in Germany’s long-term position in the Cold War, with US tactical nuclear weapons located and primed for use upon its territory. And if you ask people today which word they associate with nuclear, it is less likely to be ‘power’ than it is to be ‘war’, ‘bomb’, ‘explosion’ or something similar.

The arrogance of early spokesmen on behalf of nuclear power (at least by today’s standards) also created many problems that have taken years to throw off. The degree of secrecy about information—even extending to basic facts—may have been inevitable, but it has also been a heavy cross for the industry to bear.

Today, however, the industry is a lot better. We use the same ‘engagement with stakeholders’ language as any other sector, and corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes are followed by our companies. These programmes are conducted on the basis that there is nothing to hide, and that a well-informed public is more likely to be supportive. This has also been the approach adopted by the regional, national, and international nuclear associations; trying to get the facts about nuclear across to the public will result in greater levels of support. When the old Uranium Institute (UI) became the World Nuclear Association (WNA) in 2001, a significant effort was put into developing the best web-based public information service about nuclear, while a free daily news service, World Nuclear News (WNN), was added in 2007.

While the popularity of all of these services has grown, nuclear’s public image problem still limits their potential success. English-language nuclear websites may claim that they have been particularly successful as support for nuclear seems greater and stronger in both USA and UK; but there are always exceptions to the rule. In Australia, significant problems remain in gaining public support for both uranium and nuclear power itself.

We have always known, however, that facts are not enough. Many anti-nuclear people are obviously very well-informed and highly intelligent. The problem is that they see the world rather differently; their value system seemingly harks back to a no doubt mythical pre-industrial age where the world was a simpler place, where the abundant countryside was very green, and where the trials and tribulations of the modern world didn’t exist. Nuclear power embodies much of what these groups hate about living today, and simply feeding them facts will only reinforce their dislike. It can be argued that this attitude is also a very potent force in Germany’s strong anti-nuclear sentiment. Despite success in the world economy and a strong scientific and engineering culture that favours rationality, Germans are strongly opposed. A lot of this may be rooted in a somewhat romantic view of the past, in which nuclear is a very unwelcome imposition.

Another issue is the force of testimonial; who puts across the facts can be more important than the facts themselves. Good third-party advocates are crucial to the industry, but they are hard to find. Environmentalists who are supportive of nuclear, such as Patrick Moore and James Lovelock, can be very influential, particularly with young audiences, but more are needed. Facts about nuclear are more persuasive if an independent is doing the telling.

Even the best sources may struggle to be heard. Often, people either don’t want to be bombarded with facts, or simply don’t respond to them. Persuasion thus requires a more subtle and emotion-based strategy. Most people deal with enough difficult issues in their daily lives without having to worry about where their electricity comes from. Although they really should think about it, they would rather not. Only when we have an energy crisis, when the lights go out, when there are queues at the gasoline pumps, or rapidly-escalating prices, that most people will take any notice. Then we get the usual knee-jerk reactions, probably leading to inappropriate short-term policies. Few countries actually have coherent energy strategies. It doesn’t seem as though the general public demands this kind of planning from its political leaders. Which is a bad thing. We have to accept that energy is still thought of by many people as rather like water: it is almost an act of God that it should be there. Nevertheless, we can see that the obvious impact of energy use on the environment is gradually changing this. The debate about climate change is all about magnitudes and types of energy input.

So how do we get through to people? More focused communications with particular stakeholder groups can definitely help, and much of this will necessarily involve explaining nuclear and putting over basic facts. It is widely recognised that we have to start with younger generations who haven’t picked up the preconceptions and negative images of nuclear common amongst their parents and grandparents. Efforts to engage with schoolchildren have been made in several nuclear countries, namely in Korea where there is a publicly-funded body called KONEPA specifically designed to explain to all its citizens nuclear’s important position within the world energy mix.

But the effectiveness of all of this work will probably remain limited. Although the nuclear industry can continue to refine its websites and talk to key stakeholders very nicely, there will always be an important element missing. Somehow we have got to get nuclear power depicted as a normal, everyday business carried out by average men and women that carries out an important role to satisfy society’s hunger for clean power. If nuclear is ever depicted on television, it’s never in the background, as a motor manufacturing plant or a food processing factory might be. If nuclear is ever introduced in a book, TV series or movie, it is always to heighten dramatic effect. Not to speak of ‘The Simpsons’. This is the problem: the industry has become an easy target for disparate groups of people opposed to modern living. It also offers a convenient way to add a degree of trouble, drama, or excess to any situation. So in response to the question, “What did your wife say when you told her?” one might reply: “She went completely nuclear!”

An earlier comment (July 2010, pp. 10-11) talked about the scary image of nuclear, and how the lack of accidents, rather than being a good thing, can in fact work against the industry by stoking fears of the unknown. Lots of small reactors dotted around the country may be well be far better for public perception than a few large plants located at isolated points on the coastline. They look rather scary, even if you understand the technology. Another problem is that both the only product of the industry (electricity) and its major obvious downside (radiation) are invisible. How can we promote one and succeed in quashing excessive fears about the other, when we can’t even see either?

There are therefore some big challenges for the industry; indeed the marketing people would probably say that nuclear needs a complete rebranding. We certainly need some new approaches and to rethink our fact-based strategy, which fails to hit home with many of the industry’s most important stakeholders.

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is deputy director-general of 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.

This article was published in the April 2012 issue of Nuclear Engineering International magazine.

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