Categories: Crisis management / Energy issues

17 March 2011

9 comments

Reset for nuclear PR

The media says Fukushima is awful because it is worse than Three Mile Island (TMI), even if it’s nowhere near as bad as Chernobyl. But the case for nuclear power survived TMI and Chernobyl, so it can easily survive Fukushima. In fact, even with its accidents, nuclear energy is still worth the cost and it remains the safest of all the major energy sources. Here are some PR messages we need to get out…

I know that the worst case “media-generated scenario” for Fukushima goes on getting worse every day, nevertheless, we ought to be bold. Indeed, dammit, I’ll risk being cocky. Nuclear PR professionals – but also disinterested intelligent bystanders – need to communicate in a relaxed, mature and non-defensive tone:

  • Fabulous new-improved nuclear plant will suffer calamity of some sort at some point.
  • Media fallout is the biggest nuclear hazard.
  • People work hard to increase their risk of cancer.
  • Nuclear has been pretty safe so far, and better than the greenest source.
  • We can have it all – nukes, coal, oil, hydro, wind, wave, solar and every other alternative energy source you can envisage.

See talk tracks, proof points and soundbites below…

“Fabulous new-improved nuclear plant will suffer calamity of some sort at some point.”

There’s no reason why nuclear spokespeople should say otherwise. They can even add that whilst science, engineering and risk analysis suggests it is extremely unlikely, the extremely unlikely will as likely as not turn into some kind of reality. But so what? Particle physics meets sod’s law, like everything else.

The point that nuclear PRs need to repeat is this: we will go on getting better at developing nuclear technology. We shall go on getting better at creating nuclear plant suited for the environment in which they are located. Fukushima is the same age of technology as Chernobyl and TMI and they provide us with lessons for the future.

“Media fallout is the biggest nuclear hazard.”

For a few days or weeks some population (like today’s Tokyo) will face some uncertainty. The media will make it as bad as possible. Maybe that’s the point. Almost all the media have talked nonsense about Three Mile Island and Chernobyl since they happened. As the media’s eclipse of Japan’s earthquake and Tsunami victims in preference for speculation over Fukushima reveals, it’s like a disease with these people.

“People work hard to increase their risk of cancer.”

Maybe things will go wrong and they’ll face an actual higher cancer risk from nulcear power as well as today’s “merely” feared one. But the most concerned type of citizen already works hard to create increased cancer risk: they diet and jog and meditate so as to live longer. After all, longevity is their biggest cancer risk (and almost everyone else’s too), and, in the nuclear age, we are living longer lives than ever, thanks to nuclear medicine and obsessive lifestyle anxiety.

“Nuclear has been pretty safe so far, and better than the greenest source.”

Regardless of Windscale, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now (with luck) Fukushima, nuclear energy has an unsurpassed safety record among the major electricity-generating sources. For instance, there have been 0.006 fatalities per GWe year of nuclear electricity produced compared to 15 times as many fatalities per GWe year for natural gas; and 1000 times as many fatalities per GWe year for coal, oil and hydropower.

Here’s a few examples for hydropower. In China around 170,000 people died when Banqiao and Shimantan burst in 1974; almost 30,000 immediately and the rest because of latent effects. A decade earlier Europe also had its fair share of similar accidents. In 1959, 400 people died in France when the Fréjus reservoir ruptured; and in 1963, 2000 died in Italy because of crumbling ground at the Vajont reservoir.

We shouldn’t forget the explosion on the Piper Alpha oil platform killed 167 people in 1988. BPs recent problems must be fresh in all our minds, too.

If the scale of a potential accident rules out an industry’s right to exist, then what are we to make of Bhopal, India, in 1984? A Union Carbide chemical plant there killed three thousand people when 40 tons of toxic methyl isocyanate gas leaked and contaminated the surrounding environment. But we all know that the chemical and pharmaceutical industries benefits many more people than they harm.

I’m not trying to spread fear here about other energy and industrial sources. All energy is bottled force. The entire energy industry has mostly handled its controlled release responsibly. But the evidence suggests that nuclear technology is low risk. Windscale killed nobody. Three Mile Island killed nobody and left no measurable long-term carcinogenic risks in its wake.

Meanwhile, we should remind the world that the Chernobyl accident killed around 50 people in 1986. Most of its exclusion zone is now being dismantled and being re-settled and farmed again safely. Though as many as 9, 000 people (4, 000 of those among the 6 million most affected population) might die a slightly premature death from Chernobyl-related cancers. However not only is that worst-case outcome unlikely, we shall never know because that statistic cannot be measured among the many millions of people it encompasses.

The biggest risk from nuclear energy is people’s fear of it. In the aftermath of Chernobyl, unfounded fear and anxiety was the most damaging consequence of the accident investigators could discover (see here for a full interrogation of Chernobyl’s death toll). But that fear is something the media helps generate.

Hence, the media also must learn from its past mistakes. It, too, must face up to its responsibility to protect the public. A little less hype and scaremongering over Fukushima would make a most welcome start. The next step would be to have an honest debate about risk and energy policy. That’s something nuclear PR can help facilitate.

“We can have it all.”

However, we can have nearly everything: nuclear (with the odd calamity); oil and gas (with more frequent calamities; bought from dictators and religious fundamentalists); solar (might become seriously lovable and economic quite soon); wind (not always, and not where you’d like it); hydro (big hazards; plenty of enemies); conservation (if we can be bothered to live like cavemen). It’s all possible, and all has real risk or drawback, including (variously) fear, guilt, patience, or tedium. Which do we prefer? Which most solves the global warming problem?

Well, clearly nuclear energy has fewer greenhouses gases than coal, oil and gas. Green alternative energy sources provide far from proven technological solutions, at greater cost than nuclear energy. Moreover they have to yet to show that they are adequate to the task of replacing coal, oil, gas and nuclear energy. The least risky route of all would be if our governments hedged their bets and adopted a mixed bag of solutions (read all of the above).

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9 responses to “Reset for nuclear PR”

  1. Heather Yaxley says:

    Paul,

    I appreciate your advocacy for nuclear energy – but the bottom line here is risk communications and the lack of the media, public and financial markets to be honest about what risk is acceptable.

    When it comes to complex and serious issues, neither of these parties is really willing to recognise that life is risky – indeed, the media, the public and financial markets actually seek out and thrive on risk.

    The question that each asks in terms of whether one can say that something will never happen, will never cost lives, will never be a risk has to be answered honestly by saying that yes, bad things may happen, people may die and there may be consequences. But doing so leads to negative media coverage, public fear and drops in financial confidence.

    Much easier to be on the other side(s). So raise the fears or deny the issues. Everyone wants a risk free world – except when they like to do something risky themselves.

  2. Paul Seaman says:

    Heather, you are saying stuff I agree with, up to a point. I think that the major problem in society is risk adverseness. Anti-risk sentiment is what motivates anti-nuclear sentiment – never mind that perception has nothing to do with reality. I say progress is a risky business and worth the effort….a risk adverse entrepreneur is a contradiction in terms, and so is innovation “without” risk etc.

    However of all the major risks in the energy sector, nuclear is at the bottom of the pile. That’s not the same thing as saying there is no risk.

  3. Gavino says:

    Re. Media Fallout. As you have pointed out many times, journalism is basically advocacy these days (and perhaps it always was). Some journalists can write prose but I haven’t observed any – any – who can really understand and convey to readers the realities when tragedies like Fukusima and Deepwater Horizon occur. It is simply ridiculous to assume that BP, TEPCO or whoever, is deliberately misleading the public and can’t be trusted because they can’t give a one hundred per cent accurate account for the precise status of the facility in the middle of a recovery operation. It is just a rascal’s excuse to jump into worst case speculation and innuendo. TEPCO has issued over 80 status updates – in English no less – and on the internet for worldwide information – at an average of one every two hours. And this in the middle of an earthquake and tsunami-devastated area while dealing with a level 5 accident recovery operation. Absolutely amazing! You are right to label it media fallout.

  4. Heather Yaxley says:

    I honestly believe that risk communications is one of the key issues for PR practitioners going forwards. The tendency to use fear raising tactics when getting an issue on the table has been counter-productive as the result has been lack of perspective and recognition of the benefits of risk as you indicate.

    The lack of a reality check over nuclear risks is very noticeable in current coverage. Everyone keeps drawing on the high profile incidents – without pointing out that by virtue of being memorable, they are rare and each time, safety improvements have been made.

    In contrast, we have oil industry deaths going totally unnoticed (except last year’s BP off coast of US) and similarly little attention paid to the issues in the mining sector.

  5. Paul Seaman says:

    I have to back Gavino’s comment and that of Heather Yaxley. There has been no nuclear conspiracy (not even misinformation) in Japan. Moreover, as Heather says, the reputation of risk needs to be rehabilitated and PRs need to reassess how they discuss this issue.

  6. susyc says:

    And, Heather, there is no doubt that we have unlimited room on the planet for spent fuel and that storage is so easy. Thank goodness for that.

  7. Dilip Burde says:

    Hi Paul,

    I came across your site from a link in your comment on this blog http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/makingwaves/the-milk-of-chernobyl/blog/33675

    This makes it clear that I follow Greenpeace’s work.

    I have a simple test for you to see if you’re a lying PR bastard or if what you’re saying is a true counter to what Greenpeace says. As of now I believe Greenpeace, but I am open to another viewpoint.

    I want to see a video of you with a geiger counter go to the same village that the Greenpeace blogger was talking about (would be good if you could get someone from Greenpeace to accompany you even, so that you can prove them wrong on camera).

    I want to see you test milk for radiation and see if the numbers that the Greenpeace blog has put up is accurate.

    I want to see you drink a few glasses of milk. Perhaps you can do it over a few days. Do you have kids? I’d like to see you give them some as well.

    Or are you just a lying PR bastard?

  8. Dilip Burde says:

    No quick response to that?

  9. Paul Seaman says:

    Dilip Burde, nuclear energy remains the safest of all the major energy sources. As for my credentials: I once worked and lived at Chernobyl for around eight months in total. I entered the sarcophagus on a weekly basis, sometimes daily. That makes me one of the liquidators (mostly of the fear) of the world’s worst nuclear accident. Today, only distance and cost stops me going to Fukushima right now to report from the scene. But I don’t have to go there to recognize that the dangers are being massively over-hyped.