Monday, May 31, 2010

Growth of nuclear energy drives need for better communications skills

Opposition from mainstream political leaders will not go away just because new reactors get built

One way communicationsThe nuclear industry continues to be of two minds when it comes to communicating with the public. On one hand, it’s engineers feel that facts will speak for themselves and that all that has to be done is present them to make the case for nuclear energy. Professional scientific groups also tend to follow this paradigm which is a view that is widely shared across various disciplines.

On the other hand, some working in the industry, and that includes engineers and scientists, feel the climate/energy issues of the day demand advocacy, backed by facts, and that civil dialog and rational public policy are easily manipulated by organizations with agendas detrimental to the growth of nuclear energy.

These differences are unlikely to be resolved any time soon. The rise of social media has extended the dialog on public venues, but participation by official representatives of the nuclear industry is by exception rather than the rule. That said, noted here is a blog post from Gail Marcus, a former president of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), who has some advice to advocates of all stripes about how to "play fair" when being an advocate for nuclear energy.

Communications from nuclear utilities is often one way and sometimes received as a form of shouting rather than an invitation to intelligent dialog. In other cases, the utility sees no upside to being a polite corporate citizen and settles for the minimum legal exchanges with regulatory agencies leaving the public and the press to fend for themselves. The resulting silence allows even small incidents, with little or not safety impacts, to be blown out of proportion.

However, in Europe where the new nuclear build is taking place despite a strong “green” movement with years of anti-nuclear activism under its belt, the need for better communication is becoming more real due to the rapid pace at which plans for new reactors are taking shape.

Here are three reports on how the issue is viewed based on recent developments in Europe. The European Nuclear Society is holding its annual meeting in Spain which paradoxically is playing political games with re-licensing of one of its reactors. The need for better communications skills is highlighted in the conference sessions.

UK Energy Minister Softens Opposition To Nuclear

Chris HuhneDow Jones Newswires reports that U.K. Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne (right) told the Sunday Times in an interview that new nuclear power plants will be built, despite the government's opposition to subsidize the industry.

Huhne, who has a background in finance, said that the cost of fossil fuels will rise over time due to carbon taxes which will make nuclear energy a strong choice for utilities.

"It is very clear from the [U.K.] coalition agreement that there will be a new generation of nuclear power," Huhne said in the interview. New reactors are planned at 11 sites in the country to replace older reactors and to begin the long process of decarbonization of the nation’s energy supply.

However, Huhne has long standing views in opposition to nuclear energy and can be expected to continue to speak out against it. He told the newspaper, "I am simply a skeptical economist about the record of nuclear power on delivering on time and to budget in a way that can make returns for investors."

World Could Have 1,400 Reactors By 2050

Whether Huhne likes it or not the world could have as many as 1,400 nuclear reactor units in commercial operation around the world by 2050, although whether this figure is realized will depend partly on the performance of the nuclear industry itself.

Luis EchávarriLuis Echávarri, (right) director-general of the Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), told the European Nuclear Conference (ENC) in Barcelona, Spain, that the industry has tremendous opportunities, but also tremendous challenges to do things well.

In a keynote speech May 31 he said the NEA foresees a minimum of 600 reactor units in commercial operation by 2050, but 1,400 is “a realistic upper limit”.

He pointed out that in the 1970s and 1980s around 25 units were being built a year, so raising that number to around 55 is within reach.

Other factors that will influence the number of reactors that are built include electricity demand, the cost of oil and gas and the price of CO2.
The three main drivers between what is “a promising future” for nuclear are security of supply, economics and environmental protection, Mr Echávarri said.

One of nuclear energy’s advantages is that it is a highly competitive option for the production of baseload electricity. He highlighted the findings of a recent International Energy Agency and NEA report which showed “nuclear delivers significant amounts of very low-carbon baseload electricity at stable costs over time”.

He said last week there were 57 reactors being planned or under construction around the world, but that number had now risen to 61 because of plans to construct four units in Turkey. He said Vietnam was also close to signing a deal with Russia to start a nuclear energy program.

Nuclear Industry ‘Needs To Improve Its Communications’

nuclear powerIf the planet is going to have 1,400 nuclear reactors built in the next four decades, the nuclear industry needs to improve the quality of its communications if it is to gain the full support of the public. This claim should come as no surprise to readers of this blog.

The latest version of this message comes from Andrea Brentan, CEO of Spanish utility Endesa. On May 31 he told the European Nuclear Conference (ENC) in Barcelona, that one of the problems facing the industry in Spain is that the debate is not “thorough enough.” He said many people do not yet have “a definitive opinion” on nuclear energy and the industry must be transparent about the risks.

He pointed out that the industry has now gathered 13,000 years of reactor operating experience and the lessons learned from this experience must be more widely disseminated from trade unions to students.

Another potential problem for the industry is the lack of a new generation of skilled workers. He said almost all the universities in Spain “seem to have forgotten about nuclear engineering.”

José Gutierrez, ENC 2010 conference chair, told the opening session that “a new paradigm” of environmental protection is driving big changes for the energy sector and the nuclear industry. He added there is a clear need for new human resources.

“In the middle of this global economic crisis the nuclear energy industry is creating jobs."

ENC 2010, organized by the European Nuclear Society in cooperation with the Spanish Nuclear Society, is being held in Barcelona from 31 May-2 June.

NucNet provided content used in these reports.

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Jack Gamble said...

To say the nuclear industry even has a public communications strategy is a stretch. The 'no comment' policy has severely damaged the industry as bogus claims and hysterical rants have gone unanswered. It's time this business stopped playing defense all the time.

Suzy Hobbs said...

I agree- The nuclear industry could learn a thing or two from the anti-nuke community in terms of targeted, well funded public outreach. The facts speak for themselves, but unless the the pro-nuke community puts that info into context and strategically distributes it to the public, we are going to be stuck with fossil fuels and useless renewables for a long time to come. We could be doing SO much more to promote nuclear energy, rather than just defending it.