Why isn't nuclear (more) popular?

20 November 2005

Opposition to anything to do with nuclear is central to the Green creed – indeed, it is an issue such groups have used as a unifying force amongst their often disparate memberships. The roots of anti-nuclear sentiment clearly stem from the links between civil nuclear power and nuclear weapons. The devastating effects of the atom bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 and the fears induced by the subsequent nuclear arms race were shadows that the civil nuclear sector has never succeeded in casting off. The campaigns against nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1960s involved an entire generation of young people from many political persuasions who found a common cause around which to rally. But the idealists who hoped that nuclear weapons could be removed from the face of the Earth have been sadly disappointed – you can never ‘un-invent’ a proven technology. However, it is arguable that the movement has actually been rather successful on the basis that there has been no subsequent use of nuclear weapons after Japan in 1945; the number of countries possessing them has hardly increased; and the quantity of warheads held by the major powers has been reduced. Testing of weapons has also been greatly constrained by treaty.

The civil industry cannot escape its obvious origins within the military programmes and there are links still evident today, the most beneficial of which is the down-blending of Russian Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) from former warheads, into reactor fuel to satisfy around 10% of current US electricity requirements. Many of those formerly marching against the bomb still have deeply-held convictions against any use of nuclear technology; indeed in extreme cases, even the beneficial applications in medicine and agriculture. Nuclear power stations provide a very obvious symbol of something people are at best very suspicious of and, in other cases, strongly opposed to. Major incidents, such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, are seized upon by opponents as evidence of society’s foolishness in playing with the nuclear devil, but perhaps equally important is the clever presentation of masses of evidence of seemingly minor incidents and weaknesses in the nuclear case.

Supporters of the civil nuclear industry argue that this is all rather unfair. They point to the barriers between the military and civil sides of nuclear and claim that the connections made by opponents are illogical. For example, not many people object to the widespread expansion of civil aviation on grounds that planes can also be designed as formidable fighting machines, able to deliver death and destruction. By any scientific evaluation, the industry’s safety record is excellent and studies show that the external costs of nuclear are minor when compared with other electricity generating technologies. The thousands of deaths in coal mining each year, explosions at gas terminals and devastating floods when hydroelectric dams are breached, receive a fraction of the publicity accorded to even minor nuclear incidents. Those in the industry know that journalists like an easy story and nuclear provides this only too readily, as it is impossible to operate entirely without incident. Each of the main arguments used against nuclear, such as safety, waste management, risks of proliferation and economics have been rebutted as far as possible, yet the general anti-nuclear sentiment has been very hard to shift. People who live near nuclear power stations are usually highly supportive, on the basis that they provide stable well-paid employment and few problems, but there remains a widespread view elsewhere that nuclear is a risky option and its proponents merely acting out of self-interest.

If the industry’s case is so strong, why has it not been more successful at rebutting its opponents? There are four main reasons – historically poor communications, the sheer number (if not the quality) of arguments used against it, the deep emotional currents that often swamp consideration of the facts in people’s minds and finally the changes in the political process in key countries.

The civil industry’s early communications with its stakeholders (to use modern parlance) were undoubtedly poor, and this remained the case until comparatively recently. Arrogant scientists and engineers would address audiences and the media as if they were children – basically saying, “We’ve developed this marvellous new technology for you, so you’d better go out and use it. Just do as I say!” Memories of “too cheap to meter” are frequently brought up and although they exaggerate what was generally said, it’s true that the obvious potential costs of nuclear were dismissed while only the benefits were given any credence. The other arrogance was to suggest that nuclear could eventually dominate the energy world, on the basis that fossil fuel supplies would soon run out and become uncompetitive. It has taken a long time for the industry to live all this down but that is now starting to happen. It is not a matter of slick industry salesmen in sharp suits replacing well-meaning but incompetent boffins, but more of being keen to engage with all groups of society and patiently explain both pros and cons of nuclear and other technologies.


Arrogant scientists and engineers would address audiences as if they were children

The industry argues that each of the key arguments used against nuclear technology have very little merit. In each case it may well be realistic to persuade 95% of the people of this. Or alternatively to persuade everybody with a 95% degree of certainty in his or her mind. Yet the residual 5%s remain very important, because they are additive. The 5% doubters in the population on one aspect (for example, risks of nuclear proliferation) may be an entirely different group from those concerned about another issue (maybe plant economics). So with several separate arguments used against nuclear, it is not difficult for opponents to achieve a significant minority of doubters in the population. Alternatively, the 5% elements of doubt in any individual’s mind on each issue are similarly cumulative. Lots of 5%s begin to add up to the extent that many people will say, “Well, there has got to be something wrong with this technology, as so many little things can go wrong – lets just use something simpler.” This ‘wearing-down’ process accounts for much of the anti-nuclear movement’s success – no matter how many arguments are rebutted, there always seems to be another one.

The industry has put a lot of effort into presenting the facts about nuclear power and other power generation technologies, through establishing good websites, providing media interviews and addressing conferences and other interested audiences. This has certainly helped counter some of the more unreasonable claims of the anti-nuclear movement, but it has not been enough. More third party advocates have been needed but these have only comparatively recently emerged, notably some formerly identified as leading environmentalists. The bigger problem, however, is that the debate cannot be answered only by reference to the facts. It is conceivable that both sides can agree the key facts, but the interpretation of these and their meaning can differ appreciably. This is because of different views on risk-taking and the values one ascribes to aspects of the world. For some people, a 1% chance of a nuclear accident in the UK over the next 100 years causing 100 deaths may be completely unacceptable, but can be taken easily in their stride by others who know of the extent of coalmining deaths each year.

It is clear that nuclear power needs top-level political support to prosper in any country. Not financial support, but at least the establishment of a reasonable licensing and regulatory regime, defending the interests of all parties, plus clear policies on aspects such as used fuel management and plant decommissioning. Uncertainties on these are fatal to a technology requiring heavy upfront investment and many years of operation before profit. Yet such support has become hard to win as politicians have generally become more reactive, responding to focus groups and the like, rather than strong conviction-led leaders. They know that nuclear is an issue that gets a small percentage of the population very excited, either pro or con. So if the government comes out strongly in favour of new reactors, for example, it is likely to lose the votes of all those fiercely opposed to nuclear, irrespective of other considerations in the next election. These votes could be crucial in a tight ballot; so nuclear is, for politicians, a dangerous issue. Thus it tends to be swept under the carpet through fence-sitting, putting off energy revues until later and so on. We have only recently begun to see the reversal of this, particularly with the Bush administration’s strong support for nuclear in the USA, but it may take greater general public acceptance before other politicians put their necks on the line.

Does this then leave one pessimistic about the nuclear sector’s ability ever to win much better general public support? Not necessarily. Indeed, all industries feel that the general public is against them, or at best somewhat sceptical about their activities. Obtaining planning consents for expanding operations always requires a lot of care and attention and providing new jobs in an area is not necessarily sufficient to gain support. Nuclear is not exceptional here and should never expect to be loved. Industry participants often seem to have a chip on their shoulder on this aspect, whereas they should be more confident and ready to move onto the offensive. Producing power for the masses is hardly a glamorous activity but the first point to demonstrate is how important it is, both in the developed world (where electricity demand continues to rise) and in those nations where power supplies are either non-existent or subject to interruption. The difficulties nuclear faces in putting across its case, highlighted above, can best be countered by quietly continuing the years of safe, economic operation and gradually putting across the facts in good communication programmes. The complexity of the technology is a barrier, given the low attention span and impatience of both the general public and their elected representatives, but we must continue the effort to explain. The best approach is carefully to explain that each energy option has obvious costs and benefits and nuclear just has its own unique set. Its merits, however, mean that it should be carefully considered amongst every country’s energy strategy.

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is Head of Strategy & Research at 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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