It’s a realization coming home to the nuclear industry itself. Last week I had the privilege of attending the Canadian Nuclear Association’s annual industry conference. The need for nuclear players to use communication more effectively was a constant refrain.
Here's a sector that supplies carbon-free nuclear energy that is cheap to operate once constructed, unsurpassingly reliable, managed with unparalleled safety, with an extremely small environmental footprint relative to other energy sources. Yet it remains linked in many people’s minds to three accidents over sixty years—only one with direct fatalities—and to the nuclear weaponry crises that traumatized a generation.
It's become evident better information about nuclear benefits and risks will not on its own combat the prejudice many feel against nuclear. As risk researchers Paul Slovic and Dan Kahan have shown, many risk beliefs are so cemented in adaptive instincts and cultural affiliations they’ll never be shaken loose with information.
So what, outside of simply providing information, can the industry do to shift people's thoughts and feelings about nuclear?
A number of communicative tacks were floated at the CNA conference. One was better dialogue with communities, given the reasonable need communities have to feel control over their destinies. PhD Student David Torre, who compares national nuclear energy policies, pointed out to me that Finland, where community consultation is traditionally initiated during the design stage, is one of the only OECD countries where new reactors are being built.
Another option is to accelerate technological improvements. Famed climate scientist and nuclear supporter James Hansen told me that to accept nuclear power more broadly “the public needs to see things becoming safer.”
To improve nuclear’s safety case, representatives of North America's Transatomic Power and Terrestrial Energy talked about how their Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) designs make meltdowns impossible while vastly diminishing waste by recycling spent fuel. The brilliant young nuclear engineer Leslie Dewan spoke of how recycling global stores of spent fuel in reactors like hers would supply the world’s total power needs for 72 years. Safer designs are also expected to lead to far lower costs for reactor construction and operation.
But these MSRs are still at the design stage, and the public will have to wait until the next decade to see them commercialized.
In the meantime, there was a sense at the conference that the nuclear industry should be developing communication strategies to nudge a cultural shift amongst the public along at least one of two lines.
The first line is towards greater public pragmatism. Matthew Nisbet, Professor of Communication and Public Policy at Northeastern University, talked about his research showing that when climate change is framed as a public health issue, the cultural resistance that dogs it becomes diffused. That the public health benefits of nuclear power ought similarly to be foregrounded was an idea that percolated throughout the conference.
As James Hansen pointed out in his talk, outdoor air pollution, largely associated with coal, kills approximately 10,000 people daily through respiratory and other illnesses. The public health benefit of nuclear power—as one of the only forms of CO2-free power that needs no backup and can so cut the legs out of coal—might be self-evident to publics more in touch with their own— and others’—practical, day-to-day needs.
The second line is towards greater public optimism. Leslie Dewan testified that the spirit of the “Atoms for Peace” era—the exciting early days of atomic energy—is currently being rekindled among young nuclear engineers. How to rekindle that excitement about human ingenuity and transformative technology broadly across society is the most difficult question for nuclear communication.
The Breakthrough Institute founders have written about how Western culture, once expansive and enterprising, has become inhibited since the 1960s into a culture focused narrowly on the risks of human enterprise.
We’ve gotten to the point where the only publicly acceptable response of affluent societies to a serious problem like climate change is to “do less,” not to “do better.” In Matthew Nisbet’s words, climate policy is falling short in part because policy-makers are mired in “soft energy path” solutions and averse to “hard energy path” solutions that would make a bigger dent.
The executive in charge of Ontario’s electricity supply said nuclear energy remains—after all these year—“a technology of the future.” Nuclear power is unlikely to be widely embraced by a society that shrinks away from its most powerful capabilities, afraid of its collective shadow. It's more likely to be embraced by a society that has relearned to trust itself and its best discoveries for meeting the challenges of the future.
How to engender a shift from a societal focus on risk to one on resilience and courage is perhaps the ultimate question for nuclear communication.