Jeremy Gordon, suggests why the nuclear industry should pay more attention to naming its reactor designs.

BELIEVE IT OR NOT, ‘Sandwich IV’ is the best sandwich available in the canteen of the International Atomic Energy Agency. At €3.20 it is higher priced than Sandwiches I, II or III and contains a small but well-composed selection of foodstuffs. I found its nutrients enabled my body to renew itself and my life to continue adequately until lunchtime.

Research into consumer behaviour in supermarkets has revealed that we use a mental facility called ‘simulation’ when we are shopping. In the case of food that means we imagine and actually experience something of the smell, the feel in our mouth, the taste and the temperature while we stand in the aisle weighing up the purchase. This is why food usually comes in clear packaging that helps the process. Letting us see it gives a cue based on what you will make with it, or where it came from.

Another big element in food marketing is the name, and this is where researchers hoping to influence consumer choices have recently made some findings about the feelings that the name of a food can evoke. ‘beef’ is fine, ‘spiced beef’ seems better, but ‘Columbian spiced beef’ is indulgent, aspirational, evocative and desirable. More relevant to us is the finding that healthy options like ‘low-sugar’ and ‘guilt-free’ foods were seen as worthy but boring. A study found that ‘guilt-free veggie sausages’ were sold a lot less often than ‘garden bounty sausages’ although they were precisely the same product. A little artistry in the naming of products not only steers people to choose one thing over another, but also guides their experience of it and can make them embrace as a luxury something they would otherwise reject out of hand.

What do people mentally simulate when they hear the name EPR2, the French nuclear industry’s forthcoming flagship intended to fix the construction issues of the EPR? Do they get the sense that this source of energy can power a city for the best part of a century? Or that it could be pivotal in Europe’s mission to cut carbon dioxide emissions? Or that it represents hi-tech excellence and comes from a company that proclaims: “We believe our work should be executed flawlessly, to guarantee added value for our customers and ensure unparalleled quality in everything we do”?

If you know anything about EPR, you would know that the E originally stood for European, then it was changed to Evolutionary, and then at some point they stopped saying what it meant altogether. P and R stand for pressurised reactor, which is simply a definition of what it is. And now with EPR2 we have another version of this self-proclaimed generic artefact of nuclear energy.

We use names to signify that something has an identity separate from all other things in the world. The name of a thing defines how it relates to other things in terms of its past, present and future, its origin, or — like food in a supermarket — how it makes you feel. EPR2 is a project that has already consumed many millions in design resources, and when built will consume several billion in construction. Thousands of articles will subject it to intense public scrutiny over the decade until the first unit might operate, and the industry is asking communities to host it for a century. EPR2 is important and therefore deserves a proper name — one that does not sound like the AutoCAD project filename. We should count ourselves lucky it is not called untitled.pwr or EPR2_Final_PRINT_VERSION.pwr

It is possible to blend idealistic themes and user aspiration with high-tech engineering. Consider the aircraft, Concorde. If the nuclear industry had created Concorde, it would have been called the EST-2000 (European Supersonic Transport 2000, after its top speed in kilometres per hour). That would have been okay, and of course as an aircraft it would have been no less impressive. But the name Concorde perfectly complemented its power and grace, as well as its Anglo-French origins, in a way that performance statistics never would. In London, I can confirm, the overall package made people stop and point to the sky — “Look, there goes Concorde” — every single time.

Consider also that France designed its best-ever trains and named them Train à Grande Vitesse, TGV (meaning High-Speed Train). In Japan at around the same time they created a similar network of high-speed trains, called Shinkansen. While this sounds very special to Western ears, the Japanese are unimpressed because it simply means New Trunk Line. But the Shinkansen generates infectious excitement in the West, where it is known as the ‘Bullet Train’.

It would be very unfair for me to single out EPR2 for the nuclear industry’s lack of interest in naming its products. It is only the latest in the trend, although it happens to be extra disappointing considering how important the project is. It is hard to think of any large reactors with real names. Honourable mentions would go to Kerena and Atmea had they not been superseded by EPR2. And Hualong One was doing well before it morphed into HPR-1000, in which, infuriatingly, H stands for Hualong.

My first request for better naming in the nuclear business would be the use of actual words instead of acronyms. If you don’t believe me, just grab a dictionary and pluck out random words until you find one that would do a better job. I have played this little game for years and it never takes more than five tries.

But some consideration still needs to be given to the words. Hualong means Chinese dragon, which is a romantic and very prideful national symbol, like the American eagle or the Russian bear. However, dragon in other contexts would not be so good, given that nuclear energy is seen by so many people as mysterious and dangerously powerful.

We are already stuck with uranium, a reference to Uranos, the ancient Greek deity of the sky, as well as plutonium after Pluto the god of the underworld, and thorium after Thor the god of thunder. We are already stuck with half-lives, decay and breeder reactors. We didn’t need to reinforce this kind of mysterious imagery with names like Phénix for a fast reactor or an underground waste disposal research site called Hades. Is it a good idea to name your nuclear licensed site after hell itself? Please don’t do things like that any more.

Rather than invoking uncanny and frightening images related to supernatural forces, the nuclear industry would do well to pay attention to communication techniques employed by other industries, which is why I pointed out some advances in food marketing earlier on. Most nuclear organisations now recognise they have to base their communication on the benefits that the technology brings — the reasons why we are using this technology in the first place — and only bring out messages and facts on issues like waste and safety when specifically asked about them.

On the surface, that directs us to frame nuclear energy in terms of its low-carbon credentials, its energy security and its reliability. They are crucial advantages relevant to other sources and highly relevant in debate, but I’d say it is even better is to frame the conversation around the abundance nuclear offers and the human benefits it gives, rather than the system ones. It empowers society, liberates it from health issues and political dependency, and advances science and technology across the economy. Nuclear power is a hi-tech aspirational product. Why not confirm that and reduce the mythology with simple word choices like, ‘Our power plant uses Australian uranium enriched in the Netherlands.’

The incoming small reactor sector has recognised the need for better a public image and naming’s role in that. A commendation has to go to Oklo and its Aurora concept, which is designed to be a point of pride for the community it will power. The goal of the company is to ‘to build a nuclear reactor people want.’

One might say that the nuclear industry’s products have no public profile, that they are only marketed to other businesses, and therefore there is need to make any effort on this. In that case why re-use the acronym for emergency preparedness and response? Anyway, the nuclear industry is made of human workers, for example the 20,000 people of the MEH Alliance working on the UK’s Hinkley Point.

After investing so much money and respecting expert input at every stage, isn’t failing to apply minimum care to the image of the end product — or worse, deciding that it’s not worth any effort at all — an open declaration that you couldn’t care less how people feel about it?

About the author: Jeremy Gordon is an independent communication consultant with 15 years of experience in the international energy industry. His company Fluent in Energy supports partners of all kinds to communicate matters of clean energy and sustainable development.

Cartoon by Alexey Koveynev: “What idiot comes up with these names?”