Outreach effort ramping up from impulse power to warp drive
Note to public relations consultants to major nuclear reactor vendors, Areva, the world’s largest integrated firm across the entire nuclear fuel cycle, thinks the blogsphere is worth its time in terms of dialog. The French nuclear giant has an initiative underway in which company officials hold monthly conference calls with nuclear energy bloggers.
During the hour-long call, bloggers get to ask some tough questions. For their part, Areva is working to emerge from a traditional corporate communications strategy of walking softly and not saying very much to the press, much less to bloggers.
Wide ranging topics for discussion
In the conference call held this past Friday, May 8, the fifth in the series, the firm fielded questions about the facts behind a hostile article published in the Economist May 7, the status of the MOX fuel plant under construction in South Carolina, and next steps at Calvert Cliffs III which was short-listed for federal loan guarantees and got a green light this week from the Maryland PUC. The project to build the first 1,600 MW EPR reactor in the US is scheduled to break ground in 2011 and enter revenue service in 2015.
The Economist article discussed political intrigues within the French government and how or whether Areva will be able to raise 11-12 billion euros for its capital requirements over the next three years. In a critique, Areva told the bloggers the firm is not interested in selling its Transmission and Distribution business unit to Alstom nor anyone else. According to Areva, the the firm’s CEO Anne Lauvergeon (right) sees it as a key component of the firm’s vertical integration to supply total solutions to customers.
In response to questions about the MOX project, Areva said that the issues raised by the DOE Inspector General's office has previously been reviewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and resolved by Areva and its contractors.
Areva is partnering with the Shaw Group construct the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina. This facility will convert former weapons-grade material into MOX fuel for U.S. electric utilities. Construction began in August 2007 and the facility is now approximately 30 percent complete.
Worldwide 35 commercial civilian nuclear reactors burn MOX fuel. Areva has a quick briefing on MOX fuel on its U.S. blog. See also "Fuel for Thought: Will the U.S. Move Toward a Sustainable Fuel Cycle?' An editorial column by Jacques Besnainou, President, AREVA Inc.
Reprocessing spent fuel
A key initiative which is coming to light is Areva’s planned push for reprocessing of spend nuclear fuel in the US. The firm shared with bloggers its conceptual thinking about a 800 ton/year plant which it says is the answer to apparent end of the Yucca Mountain repository project.
The firm did not put a time frame on when such a plant could be built nor would it say where. However, one blogger pointed out that with the Department of Energy consolidating its surplus plutonium at the Savannah River site (SRS), co-located with the MOX fuel plant already under construction there, South Carolina looked like a reasonable bet.
Jacques Besnainou, President of AREVA Inc., (left) has made a series of speeches to raise public awareness on the issue. And there is support for his views within the US nuclear industry. TVA Executive Vice President Jack Bailey has stated US utilities are eager to recycle their spent nuclear fuel, but the expense of a recycling facility probably will require federal financial assistance.
Dialog to overcome a blind spot
The initiative to talk to bloggers got started last year when Areva’s corporate communications team, based in Bethesda, MD, realized the firm had a self-described “blind spot” when it came to what nuclear bloggers, including this one, were saying about the firm. In particular, this blog tenaciously covered Areva’s public quest to select a site for its $2.4 billion uranium enrichment plant.
The state-owned nuclear energy firm is not used to that kind of attention either from the mainstream news media nor from independent nuclear bloggers. Indeed, more recent blog coverage of the firm’s efforts to secure federal loan guarantees took the low profile company out of its comfort zone.
It’s not that the firm isn’t paying attention. One company executive recently told me that he not only remembers the coverage, which he agreed was a neutral analysis, but he also recalled also the tag lines and graphics from some of the articles.
Being in the public eye means sometimes losing some control over message
My response in the conference call to Areva is that it is in the public eye. In fact, it was a ripe opportunity to use a metaphor from the movie Jurrasic Park in the famous scene where our heroes are being chased by a hungry dinosaur. The tag line in the rear-view mirror tells us “images are closer than they appear.”
The point is that bloggers have readers, just like newspapers. Areva deserves credit for realizing that growing role of Internet sources of information are competing with traditional mainstream news media. It also means control of the corporate message is a lot messier now with all these bloggers around.
Of course even pro-nuclear bloggers are also sometimes seen by the industry as a bunch of noisy “know-it-alls” who don’t appear to understand, or ignore, corporate culture and freely speculate about firms’ global business objectives. One executive asked how people could write and publish blogs about nuclear energy if they aren’t nuclear engineers.
It is a reasonable question, but then most nuclear bloggers are targeting general audiences who don’t care that much about the technical ins-and-outs of reactor operations. At the same time, this group of bloggers who write about the nuclear industry tries to be fair. It is clear both the company and the bloggers are still learning to overcome a bit of wariness over the exercise.
CEO owns the brand not public affairs
As part of its efforts to learn how to have dialog with bloggers, Areva hired Tim Chambers (right) from the Dewey Square group to provide advice how to talk to bloggers. This was terra incognita for Areva since it didn’t even have a good list of who the nuclear bloggers were and how to contact them.
The first conference call held with about a dozen participants produced a wide range of expectations and a clear signal to Areva that “dialog,” and not the traditional “push” model of broadcasting the corporate message, was the strategy that would have credibility. So Areva launched its own blog.
Company officials have recognized their role in the new corporate blogging effort. Jacques Besnainou, President of AREVA Inc., posted a welcome message last March during the first week the Areva blog was up. He wrote . . .
Though we are joining a diverse and exciting energy blog community, AREVA is the first nuclear energy company, and one the first energy companies of any kind to maintain a blog. This is very much in keeping with our policy of openness with our stakeholders, a policy spearheaded by our CEO Anne Lauvergeon and supported by the rest of the AREVA team.
Areva has told the blogger group that it expects to receive comments on its blog and will post comments on other blogs when its activities are covered by them. And it has done so.
As part of its outreach effort, Areva also launched a US web site that describes its entry into the nation’s nuclear energy market with its EPR reactor design and its selection of a site in Idaho for the uranium enrichment plant.
Some of the other blogs in the mix include Rod Adams Atomic Insights, Charles Barton Nuclear Green, Stephen Packard Depleted Cranium, Steve Aplin Canadian Energy Issues, Cheryl Rofer Whirled View, and Neurovore's Nuclear News Network.
Note to other bloggers with an interest in nuclear energy, if you are not on distribution for these conference calls, drop an email to Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org
Areva is planning to host an hour-long conference call between the nuclear bloggers and Areva President Jacques Besnainou in June. It will be an unscripted Q&A session. Also, an interview is in the works with Patrick Bourdet, the President of a new Areva company in the US which is developing nuclear isotopes to treat specific types of aggressive and deadly cancers. I’ll be posting the outcomes of these planned “on-the-record” conversations on this blog.
It is the nature of blogs to step out on the edge of the known universe and peer over the other side. Whether there be dragons or the golden fleece will always be a surprise, but exploration of unknown territory is what makes it worth doing.
Areva is still learning to trust itself and the bloggers in this dialog. The same executive who recalled my coverage and the tag lines also told me that he sees bloggers as “writing a lot of speculation on stuff that isn’t decided yet.”
He’s right about that. It is what bloggers do. As bloggers we don't’ expect the company to talk about multi-billion projects before its ready. At the same time, there is no way you can hide one of them under your hat.