Government should keep its distance from energy lobbies

Senior reporter

The news that the government approached the nuclear industry to launch a positive PR campaign in the wake of the Fukushima incident really shouldn’t come as that much of a shock.

The business and energy departments are pro-nuclear in their policy, despite the official Lib Dem stance against it and the “no direct subsidy” rule. They might have anxieties about safety (don’t we all on some level?) and are aware of the cost, public opposition and the big issue of nuclear waste. But as the confirmation last week of the sites for eight new power stations across the UK shows, the Coalition are fully committed to keeping nuclear power as a part of the future low-carbon energy mix.

Hardly surprising, then, that part of David Cameron’s well-oiled PR machine should kick into gear as soon as a major event threatens to create more opposition to an already difficult policy. And getting businesses that support government strategy to cooperate on public relations campaigns happens all the time.

Nor is it fair to call this a cover-up or a conspiracy. No doubt some will tritely dub this affair “Fukushima-gate”, but the government wasn’t trying to hide information from the public.

The initial email from a business department official on 13 March – obtained by The Guardian through a freedom of information request – said: ‘We need to quash any stories trying to compare this to Chernobyl.’

What The Guardian didn’t report was that this sentence was immediately followed with the line: ‘by using the facts to discredit.’

A later email sent on 7 April said the public relations strategy should be ‘based on factual and scientific evidence; accessible and understandable to the public; transparent’.

However, what the whole situation does highlight is the failure of governments – not just our own – to act as neutral parties when it comes to the energy debate. The business department’s rush to mount a coordinated PR campaign before the events of Fukushima had fully unfolded reminds us that officials can be selective with the facts they choose to listen to and repeat.

Fukushima wasn’t another Chernobyl – thankfully nobody has died as a result of an explosion or radiation leaking into the environment. But the initial assessment that the two events weren’t at all comparable was invalidated when Japanese officials upped the security level from an initial four to the maximum seven, putting the Japanese disaster in at least some ways on a part with the Ukrainian one.

Of course most of the media don’t act neutrally either and, in the age of 24-hour online news, governments have to react quickly to get their line out on breaking stories, or they risk appearing not to have a grasp of the situation and having their voices drowned out by numerous other commentators.

But what’s more important is carefully assessing the full situation, encouraging and listening to reasoned debate from both sides of the argument, and drawing a conclusion based on the full facts.

A government can’t do this if it immediately begins working with one side of the debate to defend its established policies or ideology. The nuclear industry is perfectly capable of handling its own PR; the state should focus on gathering evidence.

Many foreign governments are also guilty of failing to follow this idea, and we’ve seen knee-jerk reactions to Fukushima in the opposite direction as countries including Germany, Italy and Thailand have quickly moved to cancel plans for new nuclear reactors.

A government’s primary purpose is to promote the wellbeing and safety of its people, even if it has effectively become a stakeholder in a particular strategy or industry. The climate change threat is too severe to ignore nuclear power, but the many risks it involves mean we can’t pursue it blindly either.

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