Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tamar’s Law – Nuclear industry has some explaining to do

Part 2 of the interview with Dale Klein at the NRC

Guest blog post by Tamar Cerafici*

NRC INTERVIEWIn March, Tamar Cerafici had a chance to sit down with out- going NRC Commissioner Dale Klein.

This blog post completes the interview. It focuses on Dr. Klein’s thoughts on the industry’s generally poor record of public communication.

The interview with Dale Klein occurred just after Entergy’s drubbing in the the Vermont Senate. The status of Vermont Yankee and other nuclear plants with license renewal issues were clearly on his mind. This concern was shared by the industry professionals gathered at the NRC’s Regulatory Information Conference where the interview took place.

There was no question that we would discuss it, but I was surprised with the strength of Dr, Klein’s opinion. Klein has some specific observations and advice for the nuclear industry as a whole even as he also noted the public relations gaffes by Entergy’s management team in Vermont.

“Vermont Yankee has done a dismal job of communicating”

donotlaughatnatives_thumb2Klein forcefully emphasized that Entergy’s safety record is stellar. The utility has simply failed to understand the culture of the communities around Vermont Yankee. New Englanders take large corporate snubs very personally. They hate having local concerns minimized. Politics in Vermont is intensely local, and politicians are responsive to the continued barrage of “bad news” coming out of the plant.

Entergy’s failure to meaningfully respond to crises at the plant are a case in point for Klein. As a Commissioner, he winced as Entergy continued to ignore elected officials who had problems with the plant. He cringed as Entergy continued to dig itself deeper by giving bad information under oath. Granted, Entergy has dealt swiftly with the problem, said Klein, but it was a problem that should have never occurred.

“When you find yourself in hole, stop digging”

180pxDig_a_hole2_180_thumb2Klein noted that Entergy does not see “someone with a problem.” Instead, the utility and the industry have a record of talking at communities instead of engaging in crucial conversations. The industry’s efforts in community outreach are spotty at best, he said. In fact, he noted that Vermont Yankee had no effective community outreach program.

He contrasted the industry’s efforts with communication successes at the NRC. During his tenure as Chair and as a Commissioner, innovative changes in the ways the NRC tells its story have led to more cordial public meetings and wider information availability. He suggests that the industry would do well to tell the public what it does, and how it’s done.

“Listening isn’t just not talking”

Once you work out the word salad, you realize Klein has a really good point. The industry clearly is not listening, nor is it responding to concerns expressed by opponents.

turtleI recognize that it’s hard for nuclear industry public relations professionals to refrain from the nearest alcoholic beverage when Alec Baldwin starts talking about the Tooth Fairy project and the latest round of questionable statistics about cancer and nuclear plants. Nor is it easy to sit quietly and hear someone prattle on about how much wind energy the country can exploit, or how the power from nuclear plants can be displaced by energy efficiency.

These positions are the product of the echo chamber created when the industry closed the door to its bunker thirty years ago. The industry has simply lost track of the discourse, and it hasn’t kept up with the way people communicate. The best way to counter this disinformation is with information – built from the grassroots and disseminated by national experts and local people who care about sustainable energy.

“Management isn’t leadership”

leadership starThe nuclear industry has managed itself safely, and has avoided the tragic safety issues that haunt the coal and natural gas industries. Even the relatively benign hydroelectric power hasn’t escaped tragedy.

At the same time, the nuclear industry is still viewed with far more suspicion than it deserves. As recently as last week, the New York Times noted:

Underlying public attitudes about nuclear power is, if not fear, at least lingering anxiety. This is the industry that gave American English the all-purpose term for disaster, from the financial markets to a toddler’s tantrum: meltdown.

And earlier, USA Today tried successfully to show how polarizing a local debate can be – precisely because the industry has failed to lead in the communication of information and risk.

Many observers, such as incoming NRC historian Thomas Wellock, view public support for nuclear power as broad but shallow — "just one accident away from heading south in a hurry," says John Kassel of the Conservation Law Foundation.

20080208N_PeachBottom_thumb5So when does “management” become “leadership?” Klein noted that some plants have been very proactive in leading communities to a greater trust of plant activities. In 2008, after the Peach Bottom plant’s inattentive guard embarrassment, plant managers and the NRC invited public officials from Delaware and Pennsylvania to spend the day at the plant. Klein said these officials got to see the plant run, and felt their concerns had been heard – and even resolved. In other words, opposing parties communicated. That, said Klein, is when management turns into leadership.

It’s time to communicate

The industry needs stop managing the debate through damage control and start communicating.

For the most transparent industry on the planet, it is doing an awfully good job of hiding its greatest assets.

It has neighbors and friends near every existing plant, and a growing cadre of supporters in the wider world. It has dedicated employees who have voiced their opinions, but need a real forum and the tools to effectively communicate.

It’s time to use them, and start leading the debate about this country’s energy future.

* Author ID

Tamar_Cerafici_profileMs. Cerafici (right) is an attorney in private practice with expertise in nuclear licensing and environmental law.

Contact info

Tamar Jergensen Cerafici, tnelaw@gmail.com
349 Shaker Road
Northfield NH 03276
(603) 496-2575 http://gnplegal.com/

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Meredith Angwin said...

As usual, I agree with you, Tamar.

Entergy needed to be more open, give more plant tours, and basically take the local issues more seriously. They sent out two people from the plant to answer all the questions, and they didn't seem to have any system in place for briefing these men.

However, I also think that the extreme behavior of some of the anti-s around here (manure throwing, grabbing the microphone from the moderator, etc.) helped keep Entergy in its bunker mentality.

david lewis said...

Alex Baldwin says opposing nuclear power is the most important work he's ever done. He talks about Sternglas the way hippies talked about gurus from India. Guys like this must have been shot through a wind tunnel backwards while snorting ibogaine. Shovelling manure on them is probably as good a tactic as any.