Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Why public support is thin for nuclear energy

The New York Times points out it’s visibility is cloaked by the faults of a few plants

trustHere’s a startling and trenchant thought that advocates for nuclear energy need to take to heart. It appeared in the New York Times April 21st.

“The nuclear industry is just so far removed from people’s lives, they don’t have much feeling for it,” said Baruch Fischhoff, a professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “They don’t really trust it. Although it hasn’t done anything recently to lose the general public’s trust, it hasn’t done anything to gain people’s trust.”

This is the heart of the challenge for advocates for nuclear energy. It is not enough to say we never met a reactor we didn’t like. Like any industry, it has the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Interestingly, the NYT points out the Vermont State Senate voted against a certificate of public good for the Vermont Yankee reactor despite the fact it has operated for 500 days without a shutdown.

Combined with the reactor’s public gaffes, such as the collapse of the cooling structure and a failure to communicate over buried pipes, and what you get are all three in one place. It becomes the poster child in the public mind for perceptions of what’s wrong, or what could go wrong, with a nuclear reactor, even a new one.

Two strikes you’re out

The newspaper also points out that closer to home Indian Point has been the subject of regulatory ire by not one but two agencies of the State of New York. The environmental agency slammed the plant with a requirement for cooling towers saying that water intakes for the reactor’s once through cooling system kill too many fish. The public utilities commission wrote that a planned spin off of six reactors, including Indian Point, was “not in the public interest” due to excessive levels of debt.

The average man in the street isn’t going to get any further beyond these headlines than he does about riots in Thailand. Both reports are equally distant in terms of impact on his daily life and both are received as messages about the world’s troubles that are beyond his control.

Relative risk is not a cousin you never met

riskOur proverbial man-in-the-street doesn’t think in terms of relative risk. The NYT notes . . .

“The recent deaths of 29 coal miners in West Virginia, of six construction workers at a natural gas plant in Connecticut in February and of five maintenance workers at a hydroelectric plant in Colorado in October 2007 have not shaken the popular conception that it is nuclear power that is dangerous.”

At the heart of American angst over nuclear energy is the issue of radiation risk. The mantra we know of time, distance, and shielding, which has kept workers safe at commercial plants and on U.S. Navy ships and submarines, is simply not in the lexicon of dialog in the public mind.

Americans still think of all radiation as colorless, odorless, and dangerous. Yet, they are happy to put carbon monoxide alarms in their homes to protect them from a deadly gas from their furnaces which has exactly the same characteristics. Why is radiation viewed differently by the public? Answer that question and you'll be on your way to making the case for nuclear energy.

New lamps for old

I’m not arguing for some huge pro-nuclear public relations push. What I do feel is necessary is a complete re-thinking of how the industry presents its case. The industry’s toughest critics are willing to look at nuclear industry in light of the threat of global warming. Is that enough?

What would their view be if we didn’t have this threat? Where would the industry be today? The benefits of nuclear energy cannot be presented merely as “carbon emission free.”

Maybe some scenario thinking in terms of “what if” might surface some ideas. The issues of energy security and safe operation of plants are closely linked in the public’s mind. I think that’s a starting block for where the rethinking of message points needs to take place.

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Mister Fweem said...

Dan, thanks for a thoughtful post on a very helpful story for nuclear power advocates. The best way we can help others understand why we're pro-nuclear is to see where their knowledge gaps lie and see what we can help to do to fill in those gaps.

donb said...

What is happening here with nuclear energy is yet another example of the triumph and tragedy to modern life -- electricity comes from the wall socket and milk comes from the jug in the refrigerator. They (seemingly) happen as naturally as the wind, rain and sunshine. The ease of obtaining the energy and the drink are the triumph, allowing the consumers not to give them much thought as they pursue their other goals. But this then breeds the tragedy where many fail to marvel that we should have such things at all, not recognizing that these goods are the hard-won results of the labor of many. The irony is that the better the triumph of supply (the process becoming essentially invisible), the deeper the tragedy of the corollary that then follows: If there is something the least bit undesirable about the sources of the goods, it seems to many that those sources can simply be banned with little consequence.
The tragedy continues. Since these goods come about with such seeming ease, few bother to think about them deeply. Doing so involves too much hard study or "dirty work". Those who would make their living in these fields will get dirt under their fingernails, whether metaphorically or literally, and so are thought not to have much to contribute to the "higher decisions" (i.e., bans), beyond their self-interest.

Nathan said...


I think a marketing campaign is exactly what the industry needs. The NYT quote regarding deaths and safety concerns in other industries is striking. Wow, can you imagine the reaction if an event of the same magnitude occurred at a nuclear facility? How about a burning sinking off shore oil rig?

The marketing campaign cannot be an obvious sales message from those who would profit from more reactors. It has to come from the scientific, engineering, environmental, pro USA, etc. groups demanding to know why nuclear is subjected to a special set of criteria or prejudice.

Clearly we and those groups previously mentioned need to support Southern company in its quest for a successful project with Vogtle 3/4 new construction.

Nice article and welcome back from your trip.

Jason Ribeiro said...

Dan, thank you for this insightful and thought provoking post. I like it so much, I wish I had written it myself.

For me, public education is the most important topic surrounding nuclear energy. If people fear the product being sold, it won't matter how good it is, it will always have a tough time.

If radiation (or lack of understanding of it) is at the heart some America's fear of nuclear, it's still going to be rough going even if a public education campaign is well funded. Thinking back, another science issue which stirred public fear was HIV/AIDS required millions of dollars and thousands of repeated messages just to convey the fact that it is a virus that cannot be communicated through casual contact. A similar campaign designed to educate people on nuclear and radiation would have to be carefully crafted and tested so as not to add to the existing confusion.

If I pose the "what if" scenario that people do not fear radiation and they are not concerned about GHG emissions, I would argue we need nuclear to maintain and improve our economic, technological, and industrial place in the global economy. We have seen so many industries fade away in America, it would be a shame to see the same happen to nuclear.

DocForesight said...

I agree with donb, the average person has little understanding of any technology - they just know how to use it. Whatever the message, keep it simple without coming across condescending.

My vote would be for: energy security, safety, land-use footprint, and reliability. They can relate to these on a personal level. In marketing, you talk about Features, Advantages and Benefits - but people ultimately by the Benefits as they are the most tangible aspect of the purchase. IMHO.

With public perception of AGW waning, I would not make that a top priority.

Suzanne said...

Maybe it is already known at this point, but I think we need a coherent public art and education campaign backed by the entire industry rather than more marketing. These giant energy companies have always had marketing departments and they have not been successful at connecting with the public, so let's not keep trying the same thing over and over again!

If this is about creating trust we have to meet the "man on the street" on his own terms. Art is a great intermediary for this challenge. People aren't scared of art, they general like it, and often feel a sense of pride when it comes to public art in their community.

Painting colorful murals on reactor housing, cooling towers, even office buildings would create a positive focal point for the public and media. This helps visually connect the industry to the outside world. It says " I have seriously considered the impact of my giant reactor on your environment and I made it beautiful out of respect and consideration for your community- thank you for letting us produce your carbon-free electricity!"

Once we have everyone's interest we can can provide simple, accurate and fun educational materials like the great stuff being produced by the guys at Nuclear Fissionary.

And to directly answer the question "why is radiation so different?" It is probably because people have no control over it. At least you can have a devise that lets you know when you are exposed to carbon monoxide. If we gave everyone a geiger counter for a day I bet we could have complete support for nuclear energy once people understand that is everywhere! Or we could just show people, through art, that nuclear energy is a positive contribution to their community!

kejad said...

The industry isn't helping its case, either. We don't hire from outside; we only hire people who think exactly like us; we fear the rest of the world. Any mention of PR is automatically conflated with massive consumer advertising campaigns, so we make no attempt to even develop a message, much less target it at specific, influential audiences. (Like you said: most of the public doesn't care that much. Broad advertising campaigns ARE a waste of shareholders' money.) I don't think we even attempt to provide knowledgeable employees for interviews. That type of public education and modern internet-based media, provide a very high return on communications spending. (Most of the industry's corporate web sites look like they were done in 1998: junky, hard to navigate, and with no coherent message and no real information.)

P.S. I completely agree with Suzanne, too. Spending a relatively small amount on good design would go a long way with the public. We're already building massive structures; we don't need to bring in Frank Gehry, but we could at least attempt make them appealing to the eyes of non-engineers. Check out the Ironbridge coal plant in the UK: just painting the towers red makes this one of the coolest plants I've ever seen.

P.P.S. We should probably stop referring to "the industry", too. There aren't that many players, so we should just name the main CEOs and board chairmen.

Jack Gamble said...

I've been saying this all along, why doesn't my plant just build a stupid windmill on the property already. We don't have cooling towers, so the windmill will be the dominant feature in the skyline next to our historic lighthouse.

It is simple, stupid, and technically irrelevant but the unfortunate thing about my fellow man is it will work better than any education inforamation or community outreach.

Exxon Mobile gets away with it and now Ford commercials are showing a bunch of windmills spinning in the background as if to forget that big gas guzzling truck they're selling.

How disappointingly effective that single worthless windmill would be next to my plant in improving our image.

Of course, then we would need to do further projectile and seismic analysis and reinforcement of structures for when that accident prone windmill throws a blade or collapses in high winds. Good greif.

david lewis said...

I wasn't one of the industry's toughest critics, although I was a leading figure in Green politics in Canada twenty years ago. My attitude could be described as agnostic. One misconception I had was that I believed the industry needed to eliminate the possibility of a China Syndrome in its designs. I didn't investigate the issue until recently when I discovered this possibility never existed in US reactors. And, I was duped by all the people blowing radiation risk out of all proportion on the waste and safety issues.

I thought I was one of the few people in the world who clearly saw the climate problem, as I was calling for stabilizing the composition of the atmosphere as far back as 1988, many years before James Hansen started doing so. But what I couldn't see was the incredible store of carbon free energy that is in the nucleus that fission reactors allow us to use. It took me until I read in one of Hansen's trip reports that he was taking a serious look at nuclear power, before I woke up to investigate the situation for myself.

One thing I felt it was necessary to do when I started seriously rethinking my attitude to nuclear power was to visit an operating nuclear reactor. This wasn't that easy. Tours have been restricted since 9/11. It is expensive for a company that owns a reactor to give tours now. My wife and I were escorted by no less than four highly experienced people for hours when I eventually was able to go on a tour of the Columbia Generating Station in Washington state. I talked about Three Mile Island with an operator while visiting the control room. I stood up above the reactor looking down at the cooling pool. It was incredible to stand there and think about how small the core of the reactor must be that was producing all this power. I made sure I saw the entire amount of high level waste that this reactor had produced since it was built 27 years ago as I asked to be taken out to the back lot where it all sits safely and comfortably in containers. If everyone had an opportunity to go on tours like this, it would bring an element of reality into the debate that is obviously lacking at the moment.

This article is about the situation in Sweden: http://uk.reuters.com/article/idUKNOA93180820071029 The political situation there has been transformed from the time in 1980 when Swedes voted in a referendum to phase out all nuclear power in their country. Polling now shows 80% of Swedes are now comfortable with the continued use of nuclear. One factor is that 1 Swede in 3 has visited a reactor.

Rod Adams, you and others, interviewed Dr. Dale Klein, Commissioner, US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, on The Atomic Show podcast #151. http://atomic.thepodcastnetwork.com/2010/03/22/the-atomic-show-151-dr-dale-klein-commissioner-us-nuclear-regulatory-commission/

The issue of reactor visits came up around minute 52. Klein talked about reducing the cost of tours, and making them happen easily again, in this way:
"I would really like to see these new plants designed with tours built in. When I go to Japan and you go through a plant, you can go through and look down on a control room, you can look down on a turbine generator area, you can see the key parts of a plant that you need to understand how it works, without disrupting the work that is needed to be done. So for these new plants in the US that are being built, I think it is extremely important that we design tours into these plants. What I've told the utilities, is that if you just think about the next 100 years that this plant might be operating, its very likely that somewhere in the world there will be a problem of some kind. And if we don't get the public back into those plants, and make em less mysterious, where the public can really see what's going on, it will be very difficult to maintain public confidence. And so its very important that we get tours back into these plants and its very important that we get Visitor's Centers back in operation."

Greg Molyneux said...

@Jack—it isn't stupid if it works. The mindset cannot be, "why do I need to stoop to the level of my fellow man." Instead the conversation and ultimately decided action has to come from an approach that carefully and comfortably resonates with the common man. If that happens to be a windmill on site than so be it. Sure, it may come across as a dog and pony show to those in the know, but who cares? After all, we are not trying to convince people who already support Nuclear Energy to get on board.

To Suzanne's and kejad's point, dressing up nuclear sites is not a bad idea at all. People respond well to beautification and I while I have always felt that form follows function, it is hard to argue against something that not only performs but also looks nice while doing it.

Dan, this really was a great article that has inspired some excellent discussion and it has my mind running with thoughts.

Brian Mays said...

"I've been saying this all along, why doesn't my plant just build a stupid windmill on the property already."

Well, that idea is not new. France's Cruas nuclear power plant has a couple wind turbines built on the property. They're right next to the four cooling towers. Unfortunately, I cannot find my pictures of this plant and its wind turbines, which I took a couple of years ago. My theory was that the French put the wind turbines there to keep the birds off of the cooling towers (can you say "cuasinart"). ;-)

The best idea that I've ever heard for cooling towers was from a British blogger about four years ago: paint them sky blue. The water towers where I live are painted sky blue and you'd never notice them. Even if you do, they look rather pretty.

Jason Ribeiro said...

I agree that plant tours and other community outreach efforts would be great but I think there is another easier method of reaching and relating with many thousands of people.

I propose that a plant tour be produced for video and put up on youtube. This would have several advantages over a traditional onsite tour - 1. It would be free for everyone. 2. It would be accessible for everyone 3. Camera angles, picture frame, and editing can be controlled in a way that maintains security.

If I were to produce such a video(s) I would have interviews with the workers and include a tour group of regular folks who could ask questions. I wouldn't make it too slick and corporate looking. Something like this could be done for very little money with a small production company.

Videos on youtube get a lot of mileage and people are more likely to watch a series of 5 10-minute videos than they are to research online or go to the library to learn about nuclear.

I know these kinds of ideas get squashed in corporate chain of approvals that would have to happen, but people need more than the 2 minute newsreel tour sometimes produced by local newscasts and someone approved those right?

The internet has really helped to turn the tide in favor of nuclear. I really believe the bloggers and their support network have made a difference in the debate. Millions of dollars don't necessarily need to be spent, a little creativity goes a long way.