Friday, 31 October 2014
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Government should keep its distance from energy lobbies

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.

Is the government taking the nuclear debate seriously enough? Join the conversation about the fallout from Fukushima by adding your comments on our new forums site.


Readers' comments (6)

  • The federal government either protects the free market or promotes government interference
    depending on the ideology that establishes its agenda.
    Global warming, nuclear power, the incandescent light bulb, ad infinitum, are examples of government using taxpayer money to compete with private business by promoting
    bias.
    Private enterprise, its PR and facts about their products and services are diminished
    under the shadow of government interference.

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  • The PR machine will be used by both sides in this, and many other issues, and the Government should stick to the facts. Many people have pre-conceived ideas of nuclear energy, many based on ignorance and older systems. The nuclear industry as a whole has moved on considerably over the decades, something people need making aware of.

    If we look at many lobbying groups we see many are supported with people, groups, and organisations with agendas. It is these agendas which need exposing, especially the commercial interests of companies supporting a lobbying group. If we look at this in detail it comes down to financial gain for a company/companies investing in alternative solutions.

    Here lies the conundrum, do people want a British based energy supplier, or are they willing to stay with the current system. Foreign imports of electricity and gas, imported oil, or do they want something more reliable, British based solutions.
    Imported gas has numerous problems, mainly the potential for any country along the supply route to stop this. Terrorist attacks of pipelines, or simply a dispute between two countries in which this will be used as a bargaining tool.

    Unfortunately, my opinion is the apathetic British public will sit on their backsides until the lights go out, their cookers go off, then they will demand something is done. Unfortunately the public are part of the problem, but will not become a part of the solution.

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  • Nuclear energy is far too dangerous to be in the hands of human beings. The Fukushima and other events clearly demonstates the human failings. Like tobacco smoking, the damage is not just confined to the user. The fallout of subsequent mishaps will impact on the rest of the world. We must find another or safer energy source and be prepared to pay for it. Costs incurred will be infinitely lower to the human race than the ongoing costs of nuclear disasters.

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  • I could not agree more with S. Martin. Energy is one of the most important issues for the oppressed British people

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  • The sooner the procrastination stops the better. Only people without a grasp on reality believe that we can 'get by' on 'Renewables'.

    The time to brown-outs gets ever closer and we are still singing the praises of the renewables without understanding that generally solar is inefficient, wind power is variable and unreliable, geo-thermal good, but expensive or proven and not large scale enough and still needs further extensive research.

    We need to learn from the accidents and implement safely, not sit around arguing about the lack of oil and gas, where to site these whirling monsters and fooling with feed in tarrifs. They all cloud the real issue (pun intended) - get on with it now!

    Germany's mass migration from Nuclear is clearly a big mistake, politically motivated and ill advised. As a result Germany will become a net importer of electrical energy. Could there be an export market there for the UK energy authorities?

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  • It is evident that the previous masters of the, not that long ago privatised, nuclear industry in the UK are still running the show at the energy and business department.

    I am not against nuclear, it should be part of the mix, but these guys have tried to kill off renewable energy at every turn in the past few decades - and they have the ear of the minister directly.

    I found a copy of the Engineer from 1980's recently - front page 'Tidal power the next big thing? '
    Funnily enough we have yet to see any full scale projects.

    The latest victory being quashing large scale solar in the UK.

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