Nuclear industry faces up to reality of ‘interesting times’

Features editor

These are interesting times to be in the nuclear industry. The Nuclear Industry Association’s annual Energy Choices conference (any choice you like, as long as it’s nuclear), at which I’ve been a regular attendee over the past five years or so, has changed considerably: from a slightly tentative ‘if only they’d listen to us’ affair to bullish confidence as policy moved in nuclear’s direction; sessions now are full of updates on live projects and announcements on new business link-ups.

One constant in the conference is the results of the annual poll of public attitudes towards nuclear, carried out for the NIA for YouGov. The results of this year’s, on the surface at least, seem to be encouraging: the numbers in favour of the industry have stayed constant compared with last year, comfortably outweighing those against. But the discussion around these figures was markedly different. Although the public hasn’t lost the faith that the industry worked so hard to gain after the accidents at Windscale and Three Mile Island, and the Chernobyl catastrophe, it seems that the industry has started to look much more closely at what the public really thinks.

While it’s certainly true that the nuclear industry doesn’t inspire the fear and distrust that it did, the public in general still views it with some suspicion, said Nick Pidgeon, Professor of environmental psychology at the University of Cardiff. ‘There’s what you might call reluctant acceptance,’ he said. ‘People recognise the need for nuclear, because they accept that renewables can’t meet the need for electricity, but they don’t necessarily want it.’

Fukushima seems to have been the catalyst for this new realism. ‘There was a longstanding opposition to nuclear, and the reasons for that were complex. It’s a product of the history of the industry over the past 60 years and we can’t just wish that away.’ The interplay of the historic links of the industry with the military and the Cold War threat of nuclear armageddon, the nuclear accidents of the past, the way that the industry previously engaged in obfuscation and secrecy, all impact on the public mindset in ways that it can’t counter by concentrating on factual scientific information about the industry.

Pidgeon noted that even in areas near nuclear facilities, where acceptance is generally quite high, there are fluctuations in approval which have nothing to do with the industry itself. ‘There’s always disquiet beneath the surface,’ he said. ‘For example, the bombs on the London Underground made people concerned that the nuclear facilities might become a target.’

Steve Kidd, director of strategy and research at the World Nuclear Association, noted that ‘things are much better than they were 20 or 30 years ago, when we employed very arrogant spokespeople,’ but acknowledged that a strictly factual message doesn’t work. ‘We need to engage with people’s emotions more,’ he said.

Pidgeon believes that medicine might have lessons to teach nuclear. ‘Doctors have to empower people to make choices which are evidence-based as well as engaging with their emotions,’ he said. ‘They do it by telling people about risks associated with treatments, but also explaining the paths through which that risk can be avoided or reduced.’

Part of the problem is that the nuclear landscape is so complicated, especially in the UK, with its history as a nuclear pioneer and the legagcy of experiment that has left behind. John Clarke of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, again reflecting the mood of realism, put it in a way which pretty much everyone would understand. ‘It’s like telling children to put their toys away before getting out new ones. Clearing up the mess is a key enabler to new build.’

But it’s relatively easy to put toys away. Nuclear is different. ‘At Sellafield, we’re dealing with structures which were put up in the 1940s in great haste to support military programmes, where the only concern was “is it safe for today”,’ he said. ‘They were never designed to have waste taken out of them, and the waste is poorly categorised — we often don’t really know what it is.’

The situation isn’t much better even at industrial-scale power stations, said Peter Walkden, commercial director of Magnox. ‘It was never going to be easy to decommission a 50 year old plant that was never designed to be decommissioned, under a regime that was designed for operation,’ he said. Decommissioning a Magnox plant takes the best part of a century — three years to defuel, then ten years of preparation for care and maintenance while radioactivity subsides (the stage that current decommissioning projects are in), followed by 85 years of care and maintenance, then about ten years to clear the site. A bit more than just putting the toys away, and something that can’t be done before building new plants. ‘The best way to understand it is to go and see it,’ commented Clarke. ‘But that’s been increasingly difficult to organise since security was tightened post-9/11.’

Steve Kidd thinks that public attitudes to nuclear would soften if a nuclear power station was part of the backdrop to a soap opera. ‘Characters would work there, and the plant would just be there in the background, quietly producing electricity,’ he said. So what about the Simpsons, where Homer, poster-boy for laziness and incompetence, works at Springfield’s chaotic nuclear power station run by the venal capitalist Montgomery Burns? Surely this is bad news for nuclear? ‘Actually, I think that’s done quite a lot for the industry in the US,’ he said. ‘People can see that Homer’s an idiot, an exaggeration and an exception.’

Overslickness is a mistake, Pidgeon agreed. ‘People are not stupid,’ he said. ‘A very slick marketing campaign around a very complex issue can easily backfire. We can see now that public engagement needs to be done in a more sensitive way then we thought even just five years ago.’

My own feeling is that now that nuclear new build is a reality, the industry is understanding that it has to deal with things how they are in the real world, and that includes the opinions and emotions of real people in all their complexity and messiness. Interesting times indeed. But it’s worth remembering that the Chinese saying ‘May you live in interesting times’ is, in fact, a curse.