Public acceptance – what do we need to do now?

1 July 2012

This is a very appropriate topic for my 100th article for this column, which started in March 2004. The constraints on the industry imposed by the general public and their political representatives remain as real today as they were then, especially in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident. At least today we have a lot more reactors under construction than in 2004, but the German phase-out reminds us that we still face some severe difficulties to overcome if nuclear is to achieve its full potential as an essential clean, reliable and affordable energy technology for the 21st century.

The economic challenge facing nuclear, particularly the escalating capital investment costs of new reactors, may be the most obvious constraint on the building of hundreds of new reactors, but in March I also presented a way in which poor public acceptance creates a substantial addition to costs. In April it was suggested that we now need to move beyond a fact-based approach to securing public support. We need 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. Last month, I took a step back from this and highlighted some of the difficulties that the nuclear industry faces in dealing with public opinion. These important issues may at least partly explain the industry’s poor performance. Yet they don’t excuse it – the industry has to live with the world as it is and overcome these hurdles.

As a starting point, it is important not to throw out the baby with the bath water. The industry’s factually-based approach, much greater openness, and its attempts to engage more proactively with key stakeholders have achieved some gains. It is still clear that the reason why journalists come out with stories that can be depicted as anti-nuclear, is often because of lack of solid information rather than mischievous intent. So industry bodies still have a lot further to go in working with the media; they can also help by identifying good experts and third party advocates to provide advice and information for particular stories or broadcasts. Further development of websites offering lots of good nuclear information and pro-nuclear arguments, and enhancements of the nuclear presence on social media, is also still very worthwhile. Producing better content for specific targeted groups, such as school students, would also be helpful. Finally, more coordination between various nuclear associations and societies around the world should allow better dissemination of standardised key messages to more localised audiences in ways that do work.

It is important, however, to move the communications effort toward emphasising the positive aspects of nuclear and dealing with only those negatives that are substantive (and which we must therefore act to do something about). Nuclear does need rebranding; the images of weapons, danger and death that have inflated public fears and led to the common assumption that nuclear power is a ‘doomsday machine’ have to be replaced. In its communications, the industry is increasingly focusing on three benefits of nuclear power: light environmental impact (low greenhouse gas emissions and clean air); reliability (24/7 operations; fuel cycle offers enhanced security of energy supply); and affordability (excellent economics in most cases; one of the lowest operational costs per MWh generated). Whatever can be done to push these benefits of nuclear will be very helpful; maybe advertising companies and other communications experts need to be brought in. Perhaps campaigns could be hung on a catchy slogan such as “The future needs nuclear.”

Those opposed to nuclear power tend to produce a huge number of separate arguments against the industry in an attempt to wear public opinion down. Most of these are very weak and without substance, so the industry must be careful not to (perhaps inadvertently) support them. Unfortunately the industry is often its own worst enemy here. Take, for example, the essentially spurious argument that new nuclear build will suffer from shortages of key components and skilled labour. Despite the fact that the supply chain and labour markets will react to new orders (even if prices may rise slightly), the industry has given credence to the idea by organising conferences and meetings about it. Nuclear security and non-proliferation are similar. Although there are numerous think tanks and research centres which get excited by such matters, the industry really doesn’t have a case to answer. But events like the recent Seoul Nuclear Security Summit sends the message that nuclear security is a significant concern. This then feeds the public’s fear.

The industry must do all it can it scotch such arguments—and quickly too. The most basic are really ridiculous, such as the claim that there are high greenhouse gas emissions associated with the nuclear fuel cycle (the move away from gaseous diffusion to centrifuges for enrichment has cut carbon emissions from the fuel cycle) or that nuclear provides no net energy addition (in which case, why are all of these privatised utilities bothering?). These should simply be shown for what they are whenever they are brought up.

The biggest example of the nuclear industry shooting itself in the foot, however, comes from risk communications associated with nuclear safety, and it happens every day. Malcolm Grimston of Imperial College and Chatham House makes the point that the public believe what they believe, in large part, due to how the industry has acted over the past 40 years. He argues that our constant focus on communicating safety has taught the public that the industry must be dangerous since we talk about it so much. So statements like, “the 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. What other industry talks about safety all the time? Why keep bringing it up when a more positive message can be put across? Such as that nuclear power has a very small impact on the environment with effectively zero emissions of any kind, and that we know it has killed by far the fewest number of people per TWh of any other generation type. But since these arguments go down like a lead balloon with the public, it may be best to stay away from safety unless the point is explicitly brought up by the opposition.

There is a related problem with the division of nuclear reactors into generations, usually Gen I to Gen IV, sometimes (and absurdly) with additional pluses, as in ‘Gen III+’ or ‘Gen II++’. The problem is that the distinctions become associated with safety, and the marketing people start claiming that one reactor type is safer than another. Yet a reactor is either safe or it isn’t. Regulators today confirm that lots of Gen II reactors are safe to operate without significant risk of radiation exposure to the general public. The later generation reactors can also be certified as safe. Safety is an absolute quality. Messages about reactors being “more safe” than others are difficult for the public to understand. If vendors start competing heavily in terms of safety, the biggest victim will be the industry as a whole.

Another point is that the value of probabilistic safety analysis has been severely questioned by Fukushima. Theoretical calculations of very low accident probabilities are just that – theoretical. In the real world, accidents usually occur because of things that nobody has thought of, or have wrongly dismissed as unimportant. The industry has to accept that accidents will indeed happen in the future, but the most important point to add to this is that they will only have relatively minor consequences, not usually involving deaths. It would in fact be better for the industry had it experienced more medium-level accidents in the past to make this very point, so there wouldn’t be such a fuss surrounding each incident. If the public can begin to accept that the industry is safe, like it has with commercial aviation, accidents will be quickly forgotten; lessons will be learned, improvements made, but no stigma attached.

Unfortunately the risks of nuclear power are just not regarded in this benign way. Although we may argue that the fully rational person is aware that the risks of any release of dangerous radiation, however caused, are very low, the majority of people just do not think that way. Rationality is in the eyes of the beholder! If the nuclear industry has been inadvertently scaring them about safety for the past fifty years, surely it’s not irrational for the public to be afraid? Are we not tacitly admitting that we are operating “doomsday machines” by promising to do so very carefully so that everything ought to be OK?

The concepts of “dreaded risk” and “confirmation bias” may help here. Dreaded risks are those that strike disproportionate fears in people, in which no numbers or technical arguments can influence a person’s perception, which is almost impossible to counter once established in someone’s mind. Nuclear power taps into a fear of nuclear war, and the dread of a death by radiation that might be slow and very painful. Indeed cancer on the whole can be said to be a “dreaded risk” for many people (even though today a lot more is known about their diagnosis and treatment than before). So by this argument, the nuclear industry has already lost the battle with older generations and should concentrate on educating the young. Explaining all about Fukushima and radiation becomes particularly important with them.

The concept of dreaded risk may also be useful in explaining the German fear of all things nuclear. Its location on the front line of the Cold War, with tactical US nuclear weapons stationed on its territory, may explain a lot of what we see today. But it seems to have unfortunately spread to the younger generations there too; unlike the youth of many nations, they seem to have inherited the same opinions as their parents.

Confirmation bias is another useful concept. It 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. We have always known that this is the case with the hardened anti-nuclear activists, who basically are not keen on most features of the modern world, not just nuclear power. But if this attitude is a more widespread phenomenon, all of our efforts on explaining things may come to naught. Even if it is acknowledged that nobody died from radiation at Fukushima, which was a severe accident, that it happened at all tends to confirm the view that nuclear is unsafe and has to be watched very closely.

So we definitely need some new approaches, and we have to go beyond facts. This is where we need the input of some new thinking, from marketing experts. This could be their biggest-ever challenge—to sell nuclear power to the world. There are some good ideas to kick off above, but we really need to start from the other end, by understanding people and their emotions rather better than we have so far. As I said in April, somehow nuclear has to come to be depicted as a normal, everyday activity, perhaps as a benign backdrop in a soap opera. But we’re only just beginning to think how we can really achieve this.

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.

Note this article was first published in the June 2012 issue of Nuclear Engineering International

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