Public acceptance – what holds back the nuclear industry?

1 June 2012

It was argued last month that we have probably begun to reach some limits in employing a fact-based strategy to improve public acceptance of nuclear. Huge efforts have been made to inform people about nuclear by freely providing a lot of good information. But the message doesn’t seem to hit home with many. They still don’t know much about nuclear power and if they do, what they know is often not very favourable. Some of this can be put down to people facing information overload and not wanting to be told anything new unless it really is very important. We also know that some groups have already made their minds up about nuclear and cannot be swayed. Nuclear power essentially runs contrary to their value system, dominated by a desire for a different way of life. So although we can still make gains by better targeting information to particular groups who should be interested, and by employing more credible third-party advocates to put over the case, we still have a big problem.

The answer is no doubt a more subtle, emotive approach. Before we look at the possibilities in more detail (next month’s subject), we should be mindful of some of the difficulties that nuclear businesses face.

The first challenge in marketing nuclear power is that its most obvious benefit (billions of kWh of electricity) is invisible. That need not be a huge problem: services such as banking or insurance are heavily (and apparently also successfully) marketed through frequent advertising and promotion campaigns. Electricity supply allows the running of all of the familiar labour-saving and entertainment devices upon which we are very dependent today, so extolling its virtues should be easy. But on the other side of the coin, nuclear power’s most obvious drawback (some would say its nemesis) is radiation, which is also invisible. So we have both advantages and disadvantages that cannot readily be observed, posing interesting challenges in communications and marketing. Radiation is particularly challenging because it is definitely not good in large quantities, but is arguably harmless if received in moderation. Unless we can claim that small quantities actually do some good to health (which is a long way off but maybe not completely impossible), the argument will always be that any technology that makes more of it needs close attention. What may help is a major public education programme starting with school science lessons to promote better public understanding of radiation, but that would be a very long-term project, especially if it were to be fully international. And the risks of it backfiring are only too obvious.

Second, there are few areas where the industry can sensibly undertake an international campaign. We know that support for nuclear varies substantially from country to country (even between countries that share a border), and there are also strong regional differences within countries too. Public opinion is always local and needs developing and managing as such. Educational programmes on radiation would have to take account of different cultural and educational systems, but can arguably contain good common messages wherever they are developed. Some cultures seem more mindful (obsessed, some would say) with health and safety matters, but a response to this attitude can be built in.

Third, although we often refer to ‘the nuclear industry’, it isn’t really an industry at all. The main end product (billions of kWh of nuclear electricity) could be potentially a unifying factor, but for the fact that it is produced through a multitude of processes involving a wide variety of companies, from mineral exploration to decommissioning and waste management. Although the oil and gas, auto and aircraft manufacturing industries clearly have their complexities, they are relatively tight-knit by comparison with nuclear. The complexity of the supply chain alone, disregarding completely the difficulties of nuclear physics, makes it difficult to explain nuclear to the public. Compare, for example, how easy it would be to explain generating electricity by burning coal or with wind turbines. They can easily be explained in a few sentences. Nuclear power isn’t so easy. We therefore have to gain public and political acceptance for a wide range of activities: mining, the whole fuel cycle, reactor construction and then operations, waste management, transport and decommissioning. And this work is carried out over a wide range of countries as well.

Fourth, many of the major players in nuclear are diversified businesses. An obvious way of promoting nuclear power which faces huge criticism, is 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. In the uranium mining sector, there are important players that make far more profit from their international coal operations. They are therefore not going to support any nuclear campaign that is strongly anti-coal, which for example advocates punishing carbon taxes. Similarly, many nuclear utilities have significant coal and gas generating units. They have hedged their bets by going for a portfolio of generating options and will not favour the nuclear sector by criticising their other plants. So a starting point for much nuclear public relations work has to be the acceptance of a variety of generating options. This issue particularly affects the work of national nuclear associations, who have to be mindful of the wider interests of the generating companies who are their members.

Fifth, 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. BP, for example, spent megabucks rebranding itself as ‘Beyond Petroleum.’ It built a more green image by use of a green livery and by highlighting its (very small) non-oil and gas operations. BP’s interest is clearly that the oil and gas era lasts as long into the future as possible. Although it is obviously investing heavily in the next energy era which lies beyond this one, history suggests that that era is likely to be led by a new group of companies we haven’t even heard of yet. Corporate monoliths tend to fare badly when out of their comfort zone; note the oil companies’ failures to get very far in the international mining industry in the 1980s and 1990s. Although BP’s (and maybe the whole oil and gas industry’s) image took a battering from the Piper Alpha disaster, it is still working hard to recover this. As are Exxon, Total, Mobil and the others. Emphasizing investments in green technologies makes them look like good guys, while everyone conveniently forgets the bad things that their other operations do to the environment. This strategy isn’t possible in nuclear. The largest dedicated nuclear company, Areva, is a minnow compared with the oil and gas majors. Although it has tried a lot of good corporate marketing (as BNFL did in the past) it cannot be of the same magnitude as in the other industries. At least not yet—as the nuclear sector corporate structure consolidates, new players will hopefully be able to achieve the scale that is necessary.

“Nuclear companies in general have usually not been proactive enough in explaining and promoting the technology and the business.”

Sixth, nuclear-industry businesses have diverse interests in different areas of the reactor lifecycle. The degree of commitment of many companies to a nuclear renaissance is limited since their main business lies in another area, such as waste management and decommissioning. By only focusing on them, one could easily get the picture that nuclear is in a sunset rather than sunrise phase, with plants gradually shutting down and any resultant mess getting cleaned up. They also attract the (often unfair) criticism that people today and in the future are paying for the industry’s past sins. (In fact, most of what is getting cleaned up today in the United States and United Kingdom is the product of former military programmes). Nevertheless, the big companies involved in waste management and decommissioning don’t necessarily feel affinity with campaigns promoting nuclear new build around the world. Their employees (and maybe even their employees’ grandchildren) have jobs for life; clearly new reactors would expand this opportunity even further, but that isn’t their main consideration at present.

Seventh, the nuclear sector also tends to be very parochial, not only between but also within countries. Plants are quite isolated, and the staff located there build up a high degree of loyalty and teamwork to run its operations. 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 reach very far. Nuclear facilities have often found it difficult to convert local support into regional or national approval. But in many cases they have probably not tried hard enough. A ‘back to the wall’ psychology has often predominated, almost to the degree of “we know that you don’t like us, but we don’t care”.

Nuclear companies in general have usually not been proactive enough in explaining and promoting the technology and the business. Although they are now at least doing very good local work with their obvious nearby stakeholders, this work often doesn’t extend beyond that point. The buck tends to get passed to either the national nuclear associations or the engineering institutions. This is essentially a second-best solution. The idea of all the companies involved in some way in nuclear within a particular country pooling their resources and equipping a national body to stand up and fight for the industry is superficially appealing, but has some weaknesses. On one hand, if companies care so strongly about their business, they should be prepared to invest directly in defending its interests. On the other hand, such organisations risk uniting competing rather than complementary businesses with clashing agendas. Unity is not necessarily strength if the message gets diluted along the way.

To the extent that many nuclear communications activities have been led by national nuclear bodies, there has so far been little international coordination of key messages and also no great attachment to establishing an international nuclear brand. National bodies are naturally mainly concerned with their own constituencies. Since public and political approval of nuclear varies so greatly, they have to use whatever messages and tactics are most appropriate. Those looking at their work from outside can easily pick up mixed messages. For example, national nuclear bodies usually decide to place a major focus on safety in their work, while they are often constrained from mounting a major attack on either carbon emissions or the obvious weaknesses of a renewables-friendly energy strategy. Internationally, however, bodies like the World Nuclear Association have more freedom.

How to do the best for the nuclear business by coordinating all such efforts still needs to be developed. In the aftermath of Fukushima, there is at least a positive feeling that the dent in public perception has been contained, and the future outlook for the industry remains good.

This article was first published in the May 2012 issue of Nuclear Engineering International

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.

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