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