Categories: Energy issues / Political spin / Trust and reputations / UK nuclear future

1 December 2009


A reality check for nuclear PR

The Nuclear Industry Association has just made a daft case about its future. Here’s a bolder, franker reality check PR pitch which might work better.

Following years at the sharp end of nuclear industry PR (in London and Chernobyl), I am alarmed that the industry seems headed in the wrong direction with its strategy and messaging.

No credit to my own efforts, I suppose, but nuclear more than most industries has a poor record on the communications front, particularly when it comes to arrogance and not being straight with the public. It seems old habits die hard.

In a nutshell, here’s what’s currently wrong.

The industry is boastful and immature. Its trade association promises “unequivocally” to be able to build the next nuclear reactor, the first to be built in the UK in a long time, on time, on budget, without any state support and at “no cost to the public”, in time to cook the Christmas turkey in 2017 (from Hinkley Point, according to EDF).

That’s not credible or politically helpful and here’s why:
(1) it sucks the air out of political attempts to sell the necessity for sufficient state support, support which the industry needs to get going again successfully;
(2) it trivializes discussion on energy matters and sets the industry up for ridicule and humiliation whilst making it all the harder for serious politicians to associate themselves with its reputation.

For instance, one does not need much expertise to discredit the claims. The on-time, on-budget (with no public support) claim is a hostage to fortune (and dishonest) for several reasons.

Such promises have been made before and not kept (see this Newsnight report). Contrary to what the industry asserts, learning from recent experience of new nuclear build overseas is only partially relevant to the UK. That’s because contractors vary, and every national regulatory system is different, and because of politics and other unpredictable factors (inevitable mistakes, events, accidents even) involved in introducing a new design to any country. (I’ve argued elsewhere how this issue should be positioned.)

Now let’s consider the claim about needing no public support (they mean public money and subsidy, not public opinion here). This is not honest. The truth about the entire sector (gas, oil, renewables etc.) is that there’s no energy without cost to the public and without the government rigging the market in some form and at some taxpayer or consumer cost.

As Dieter Helm pointed out in his op-ed in The Times recently:

“Governments want large-scale, long-term, capital-intensive power stations. Investors have to know that there is a good chance customers will pay. They need commitment, and creating long-term contracts is the obvious way forward. To do this, the energy markets must be reformed so that they deliver security of supply, not just short-term energy. What is needed is a longer-term market in energy contracts — in effect a market in the capacity to produce the energy when needed. Markets are means to ends: government must specify the ends.”

In short, without a guaranteed return on investment that long-term contracts provide the nuclear industry cannot expect to raise the finance it needs to fund its dreams. Moreover, today’s market is much more risk-adverse than when the nuclear industry embarked on the dodgy strategy of announcing its renaissance in 2001. And here comes why it felt confident to do so.

The industry’s major pitch suggests that when carbon is charged at its proper environmental (global warming) price, nuclear power will romp in as the technology the market loves to invest in and buy (but meanwhile it knows, and so do its opponents, that its economics are not competitive).

Actually, AGW is a double-edged sword for nuclear energy. On the one hand the industry is a low carbon producer. On the other it makes the safety case more problematic with worries over coastal erosion, rising seas, warming cooling water and storms etc.

But my main objection is that the industry needs and does not have a stated rationale which is proof against the likely real future: one in which carbon is taxed at a gesture rate rather than a behaviour-changing one and in which nuclear remains a creature of government.

So here’s the pitch in a nutshell:
Nuclear is a great, reasonably-priced, tolerably safe base-load supplier for a world hungry for electricity and a bit nervous of carbon emissions but even more scared of energy insecurity.

The pitch in some detail:
Carbon will probably never be made very expensive, at least not to the degree that nuclear will look cheap in comparison in the near to medium term. But (to take an example) the UK government has agreed to new coal plant and to subsidise retro-fitted carbon capture sequestration technology by 2025, assuming, of course, it works. (My sense is that our masters don’t much care whether it ever does provided the power stations get ordered and built. The rest will be someone else’s headache.)

It may be that there should and will be a mandate that using coal should be a bit more expensive (in clean-up costs or fines for failing to clean-up).

Oil and gas may not only be insecure (the countries which own it are either unstable now or their ownership of oil will make them so) but a bit more expensive or unattractive in future because of scarcity and carbon taxes.

Renewables may be expensive, unreliable and feeble for a very long time yet. Moreover, wind has a subsidy and a must-buy legislated market protection (it is also more expensive than nuclear).

Conservation may be unattractive after a certain point reached sooner than we think.

These factors might combine to make nuclear a goodish bet, but it won’t be an economic or political walkover. Crucially, it will be operating in a market entirely fixed by government, and dependent on government mandate, as it always has.

The simple AGW argument (and the effect of high carbon taxes to produce a “market” advantage for nukes) is as dependent on government policy (and actually on improbable government policy) as is a better and more sustainable rationale for nuclear which is far more multi-factoral.

In short: the UK and EU are going to need shedloads of electricity and the present non-nuclear sources are likely to get more expensive and unattractive as (variously) a result of insecurity, scarcity, AGW policy (even if it’s feeble) and unreliability.

Moreover, if AGW went away (unlikely), we’d still need nuke and still need government involvement to mandate and guarantee it.

Nuclear looks pretty good as a part of the solution to several (rather than one or two) of those problems. It may even work out really well as a get-out-of-gaol card.

Safety as a deliberate killer:
Nuclear’s enemies use safety to keep nukes off the books. The waste “problem” has remained a problem almost solely because of the perfectionism demanded by the greens and accepted by governments. The greens’ plan is that meeting safety demands should kill nuclear directly or price it out of the market.

If hydro, gas, wind and coal had to meet the same level of safety as nukes, none would get built.

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.

I agree that telling the truth on this is a PR nightmare. Straight arguments may work better than anythng else, though.

Concluding remarks
Yes, from my bolt-hole on Zurich lakeside I can freely lambaste the UK nuclear industry. I particularly find it embarrassing when it creeps to the current government’s strategy every time the industry says “we don’t need more support other than with planning applications”. Actually, such subservience just reveals how in awe of their real masters the nuclear PRs are. They needn’t and shouldn’t be so timid if they want to be taken seriously.

In future, then, if the nuclear industry wants to win support, it must conduct an adult debate with the public and with the new political administration we all expect to be in power next year.

Yes, a massive nuclear build programme could well be achievable, but not unless the industry learns to be respectful, honest, modest, authentic, serious and trusted. Am I alone in thinking like this? Or do others share my passion and criticism?

2 responses to “A reality check for nuclear PR”

  1. Ruth Seeley says:

    I was lucky enough, before I went to work for a nuclear generator, to have the opportunity to ask all the questions I wanted about the industry. I’m saddened by the fact that the general public still doesn’t seem to know what went wrong (when it did go wrong) and why; that there’s no clear comparison of waste storage practices on a country-by-country basis (I’m absolutely in favour of on-site storage, but of course Canada has a lot more room than the UK), or even of reactor types that clearly illustrates the pros and cons of various technologies. These are all things the industry association should be tackling.

    But I also think the issue of ‘peak uranium’ has to be dealt with before any new reactors are commissioned. 🙂

  2. […] why I’ve argued here and here for a new strategy that has more chance of success. In short there’s a great case […]