Public acceptance – is there any progress?

3 November 2014

In last month's article ('The world nuclear industry - is it in terminal decline?'), I attempted to pick holes in a very comprehensive but negative report on the industry's prospects from the more sophisticated end of the anti-nuclear movement. I often feel that anti-nuclear advocates have one of the easiest jobs in the world; it isn't too difficult to produce a lot of arguments, backed by seemingly-credible information, casting the nuclear sector in a poor light. And in contrast to the claim that the industry forces stacked against them are very rich and powerful, their nuclear nemeses have (often inadvertently) helped the antinuclear cause.

[Cartoon: The Unit by Alexey Kovynev]

Certainly the decision apparently made by Greenpeace in its early days to make nuclear the prime target in its campaigns against the failings of the modern world (as opposed to private road transport) was a very astute one. (It is interesting to note, however, that the Greens are now more focused on opposing coal-fired generating stations and developments of unconventional gas fields by "fracking"). So far as nuclear in Europe and North America is concerned, there is clearly a feeling of great confidence among anti-nukes that the game is up for nuclear and it is only a matter of time before the renegades follow Germany into the land of milk and honey. This feeling of great confidence leaps out from the pages of the aforementioned report. News that the EPR at Olkiluoto 3 in Finland will now not come into operation until 2018, 13 years after the construction start, fits in beautifully with its message. Given the industry's rotten record on reactor construction outside of Asia, it wouldn't be difficult to argue that even this date will most probably be exceeded.

During the first half of 2012, I devoted four successive articles to dissecting the public acceptance of nuclear, culminating in June 2012 in some suggestions as to how the situation could be improved. One year after the Fukushima accident, this seemed a very appropriate exercise. Now, an additional two years on, it seems a good time to review if any progress has been made. Given the constant stream of bad news coming out of Fukushima and projects such as the Olkiluoto debacle, one is tempted immediately to say "no", but it's worthwhile to consider this further.

My first article (March 2012, 'Public acceptance - is it causing nuclear cost escalation') argued that a prime consequence of negative public opinion is its indirect impact on the costs of building and operating plants. The direct effect of politicians and other decision-makers having an anti-nuclear bias is clearly very important, but the influence of protracted regulatory and planning procedures on costs is very important, too. For example, it has apparently taken four years for the regulator to approve the instrumentation and control system at Olkiluoto. So nothing seems to have improved. The regulator and the planning authorities are certainly put in place to protect the general public, but ways need to be found to make things happen more quickly, as time is money in large capital investment projects. The industry is still at the very early stages of finding ways to simplify things, through initiatives such as the CORDEL group at the World Nuclear Association. But such is the (sometimes assumed) public disquiet about all matters nuclear, the tendency has been to include items such as core-catchers and defence against large aircraft impact in latest reactor designs without any proper evaluation of the costs and benefits. Anything which can conceivably contribute to greater safety has to be there. So the best becomes the enemy of the sufficiently good.

My second article (April 2012, 'Public acceptance - do we need a new approach?) suggested that we need to move beyond a fact-based approach to securing public support. It is necessary to re-examine our views about the rationality of the public and, in particular, what actually drives public fears about nuclear. This should then lead to some switch in focus and perhaps a more emotion-based approach.

Reviewing the record over the past few years shows that more focused communications with particular stakeholder groups can definitely help. In particular, there have been some good efforts targeted at the younger generations who hopefully haven't yet picked up the preconceptions and negative images of nuclear that are common among their parents and grandparents. But these efforts still require an explanation of nuclear by putting over basic facts.

Nevertheless, the approach of the industry remains far too fact-based and doesn't get to the heart of the problem. The WNA's website information library and World Nuclear News (WNN) service are both excellent, but are only providing raw material for communications. And they also, of course, provide excellent potential ammunition for the well-informed anti-nukes. In an effort to provide as much good information as possible in response to the claim that the industry is closed and secretive, there is now arguably much more nuclear information in the public domain than we have about the oil and gas industry. This can profitably be used by both sides.

Talk of "rebranding" nuclear power, a commonly-stated objective after the Fukushima malaise, has hardly been touched upon. Somehow we have got to get nuclear power depicted as a normal, everyday business carried out by average men and women, performing an important role to satisfy society's hunger for clean power. In contrast, when nuclear is 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. It offers a convenient way to add a degree of trouble, drama, or excess to any situation. We may accuse writers and editors of laziness, but it's perhaps understandable.

My third article (May 2012, 'Public acceptance - what holds back the industry') took a step back and highlighted some of the difficulties that the nuclear industry faces in dealing with public opinion. For example, the nature of the final product, electricity, (invisible and easily produced by alternative technologies) is not so exciting. The industry (if it can be termed an industry at all) has a multitude of processes involving a wide variety of companies, from mineral exploration to decommissioning and waste management. The nuclear sector also tends to be very parochial, not only between but also within countries. Plants are quite isolated, and staff build up a high degree of loyalty and teamwork to run them. Yet this can bring with it an over-defensive attitude to external criticism. Operations naturally achieve very high degrees of local public and political support, but this doesn't tend to reach very far afield.

Another important point is that the nuclear sector lacks the huge dedicated mega-companies of many other sectors, for example in oil and gas or aviation. They build up strong corporate brands, which then are used to leverage strong support for their (often environmentally-unsound) business activities. The few major players in nuclear also tend to be diversified businesses. One way of promoting nuclear power would be to highlight the clear deficiencies of other modes of electricity generation. But the players involved in the industry will not support a strong pro-nuclear campaign that could damage their other interests. Hence the big guys tend to shy away from mentioning their nuclear activities. EDF, for example, tends to emphasise its "clean power" credentials and ignore the fact that this is largely a product of its nuclear interests.

These factors can explain some of the industry's issues with communications, but they don't really excuse it. The industry has to live with the world as it is and overcome these hurdles. The final article (June 2012, 'Public acceptance - what do we need to do now?') put together some proposals on how best to proceed. An important element, particularly post-Fukushima, is to get away from talking about safety all the time and emphasize more positive messages about nuclear, focused on the fact that it is clean, reliable and affordable. Statements such as, "new reactors are 60 times as safe as those currently in operation" or "radioactive waste is not very dangerous but we're going to bury it 800 metres underground" and "the industry only emits 7% of its allowed releases each year and carries out tests well beyond regulatory requirements" may be well-intentioned and factually accurate, but create the wrong impression. The aircraft industry talks about safety from time to time, but avoids making it a major message. And it never uses it as a competitive marketing message for different designs.

This is an area where where the industry has arguably made some progress, at least in some countries. A more positive message has begun to get out and Fukushima is put down as a very unique situation, not readily applicable outside of that country. But there are still big barriers in others, for example the big differences in public opinion towards nuclear in Germany as opposed to the United Kingdom.

The final article also mentioned the concepts of "dreaded risk" and "confirmation bias". Dreaded risks are those that strike disproportionate fears in people, in which no numbers or technical arguments can influence a person's perception, and which are almost impossible to counter once established in someone's mind. Nuclear power can be associated with fears about nuclear war and the dread of a slow and very painful death by radiation. Cancer itself can be said to be a dreaded risk for many people (even though today a lot more is known about diagnosis and treatment than before). The theory of confirmation bias posits that the majority of people look at the world not to find the truth but merely to find evidence to support previously-instilled beliefs. They have little interest in learning that they may be wrong; they don't want to change their point of view. According to this idea, offering more evidence could turn out to be counterproductive.

The industry is only at the first stage of dealing with these difficulties. One approach is to write off the older generations and concentrate on communicating with the younger groups, who are maybe more flexible in their beliefs. This is, however, a solution that will take time to bear fruit. Nuclear advocates are often seeking quicker fixes, so the mooted full nuclear renaissance of the 2000-2005 period can be restored.

Ultimately, however, the fear that surrounds the word "nuclear" has to be removed. And the source of the fear is undoubtedly deep concerns about the impact of heightened levels of radiation. The big positive of nuclear is producing a huge amount of energy with a small quantity of material. The big negative is fear of radiation. The huge quantities of water at Fukushima containing very low levels of radiation have become a big issue because of this, while 100,000 people are still evacuated from their homes for the same reason.

The obvious conclusion is that until there is a proper understanding by the general public of radiation, the nuclear industry has no chance of reaching anywhere near the potential that its advocates hope for. There are lots of other worthy things that can be done in nuclear communications, as mentioned above. But even the world's greatest marketing genius couldn't successfully promote nuclear while there is such a deep climate of fear lying behind it. The industry's many efforts in communications can maybe be criticised as essentially avoiding this key very difficult issue. Next month's article will therefore look specifically at radiation and how we can take away something that is supposed to be very special about nuclear. This is clearly a fix that will take a long time, but continuing to avoid it now just delays a realistic solution.


Steve Kidd is an independent nuclear consultant and economist with 17 years of work in senior positions at the World Nuclear Association and its predecessor organisation, the Uranium Institute.

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