Watching the situation at the Fukushima nuclear power station develop is frightening and frustrating for everyone. For understandable reasons, information comes from the plant slowly, and with the ultimate causes of the multiple failures at the plant still uncertain, everyone reporting on the situation is working in the dark.
One thing which has become clear, however, is the startling lack of knowledge about nuclear power in the UK. Misinformation, wrong information and downright hysteria appear daily in newspapers — even non-tabloid ones — and the tone of television news veers wildly from informative to alarmist.
One TV anchorman, normally a bastion of rationality, seems not to understand the difference between the primary containment of the plant’s reactor vessels and the roof of the building. Another reporter confuses milliSieverts per hour with milliSieverts per year. A respected newspaper describes spent fuel rods as ‘dirty bombs’ in a headline. Is it any surprise that The Engineer received a phone call last week from a worried mother in the UK asking if she ought to be buying iodine tablets to protect her children from the cloud of radiation that surely must be heading our way?
The level of ignorance around nuclear energy is surprising. The satire of The Simpsons is one thing, but many people genuinely believe that all it takes for a nuclear emergency to happen is ‘Homer falling asleep at the controls’. In one particularly staggering moment, a broadcaster expressed amazement that all the nuclear reactor actually does is boil water. Many people don’t realise that, as far as the generation of electricity is concerned, we’re still essentially in the steam age.
Let’s face it, it is hardly surprising that there is fear and uncertainty surrounding nuclear power. The world’s first encounter with the energy embedded in the atomic nucleus was when it was used to destroy two cities. The early years of nuclear power were bedevilled with secrecy because of the continuing link with the military. But the continuing ignorance is less understandable.
The nuclear industry is aware that people still don’t trust it, but it is the only body which can dispell the myths and fears surrounding its operations. And to do that, it has to tackle that fear head-on. It’s no use just saying that our reactors are safe, that we don’t have earthquakes or tsunamis here; people don’t believe it, and the mainstream media have no brief to reassure the public. The industry has to explain itself, in terms the public can understand, without being patronising and avoiding any hint of complacency. It has to understand people’s concerns, their level of existing knowledge, and address these directly.
Everyone talks about public engagement, but it seems that nobody really takes it seriously until there’s an emergency or a disaster. If there’s one lesson that the UK nuclear sector can take from Fukushima immediately, it’s that it has much more of a communications struggle on its hands than it might have thought. The stakeholders of nuclear power need to have a major rethink about how they address the public at all levels and in all circumstances, to demystify the operation of nuclear power and quantify the risks. It might have suited the industry once to operate in a fog of complexity. It doesn’t anymore.