Climate change

May 17, 2010

An informed public is key to acceptance of nuclear energy

Guest post by DV82XLHe is a Canadian chemist and materials scientist.

Governments are coming to recognize nuclear power as an attractive option because of its near absence of carbon dioxide emissions and the widespread availability of uranium which serves as fuel. Furthermore, the major uranium producers – Canada and Australia – are noted for their long-term stability and good governance. Outside of a technical debate over benefits, trade-offs, and risks, at issue is the perception that public opinion rules out any serious new investment in the technology. The difficulty, of course, is that concerns over the safety and security of nuclear power often make it unpopular among the public. Hence, whether governments propose to introduce nuclear power for the first time, to simply replace existing ageing plant or to expand generating capacity, public acceptability questions must be faced.

The frames used to argue against nuclear energy remain familiar, paralleling the interpretations first introduced in the mid-1970s. Groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists push a public accountability interpretation, demanding that nuclear plants be tightly regulated, saying: “We continue to find and expose safety problems at individual plants, in industry standards, and in the failure of regulators to take effective action“. Other groups like Public Citizen, the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace emphasize in their opposition not only the potential runaway dangers, but also the absence of cost-effectiveness. They advocate instead soft-path alternatives like increased energy efficiency and the development of solar, wind, and hydro energy production. They use the tagline that nuclear power is “not safe, not cost effective, and not needed.”

As is common in policy debates, advocates on both sides claim that the public backs their preferred policy options. Framing will be the central device by which both advocates and opponents of nuclear energy attempt to manage broad public opinion. However, if and when the decision is made to build a new nuclear power plant in a specific area, mobilized minorities of local citizens can prove decisive. Who shows up to protest, vote, or speak out at the local level will have a stronger impact on the future of nuclear energy than the current struggle to shape national opinion. We will return to this below.

One could suppose that people living in countries with nuclear power plants are more supportive of this form of energy because they are more familiar with it, better informed about it and more aware of its benefits. The hypothesis that better and increased communication leads to an increase in support is backed up by a poll (the Eurobarometer survey carried out for the European Commission’s directorate-general for energy and transport), in which Europeans were questioned about the degree to which they felt themselves to be informed about nuclear safety, and then looked at the impact of this on their views. What was found is that those who feel informed about nuclear safety tend to perceive the risks as lower than those who feel uninformed.

A similar link can be demonstrated between lower perceptions of risk and those having personal experience of nuclear power, even when the personal experience amounts to no more than living less than 50 km from a nuclear plant or knowing someone who works in the industry. Again, people in countries without nuclear power plants feel less informed and more likely to say that the risks outweigh the advantages. More evidence of the effect of knowledge and information on public acceptability of nuclear power comes from polls in which an opinion is sought before and after explaining some key fact. For instance, when it was explained that nuclear power could help to protect the world’s climate from global warming, the number of people supporting an expansion of nuclear power increased by an additional 10%, and more than a third of those who originally said that no more nuclear plants should be built subsequently changed their minds. Another, similar poll showed that knowledge about improvements in energy security also increased the proportion of people who were willing to accept nuclear power.

The importance of considering public opinion on policies relating to science and technology has been well highlighted in recent years, for example by the public backlash against GM crops demonstrated the need to engage with and respond to society’s views about this technology, it is no different with nuclear. When searching for the reasons motivating public attitudes to nuclear power, the first thing to be acknowledged is that, on a day-to-day basis, most people are much more concerned about issues such as unemployment, crime and healthcare than they are about energy issues, let alone nuclear energy. Even when people are asked “When you think about energy issues, what is the first thing that comes into your mind?”, the most frequent response is “price”. This suggests that most people have not given much in-depth attention to the question of energy policy, so that, more often than not, they will respond from a position that is not very well informed. However the public does demonstrate a very high level of awareness of the connection between fossil fuel sources of energy and environmental problems such as climate change, demonstrating that they can be made aware if the information is presented to them.

The inescapable conclusion is that more and better public information campaigns are needed in those countries where supporters want to advance the cause of nuclear power. This is the heart of the challenge for advocates for nuclear energy. It is not enough just to say we never met a reactor we didn’t like. We need to get the public up to speed, because when they know the truth it does look like they can make an informed decision and back nuclear. Antinuclear forces have held the public in high contempt for decades so much so that they lie almost reflexively now, and that makes them very vulnerable. The time to take this out into the streets is now, and it may not be as hard as it looks. The numbers of active committed supporters doesn’t need to be that high for this type of movement to make an impact. A new spirit of pragmatism has made the public more receptive than for decades to the irrefutable social, economic and environmental arguments in favour of nuclear energy. Without the support of a majority of citizens no lasting and meaningful political change can be achieved, and political change is what is needed if nuclear energy is to meet its potential, and climate change, if not avoided, survived.

I have come to the conclusion, based on observing the field for years, that pronuclear forces can be very effective getting the message out by taking some very simple steps. Although the examples apply specifically to the Canadian playing field, I can’t see how they wouldn’t apply in the U.S., the U.K., or Australia.

First and foremost we have to be a presence in the debate. Too often antinuclear forces have been able to operate without resistance of any kind, and this lack of opposition is itself a kind of force multiplier for them in the media. We have to organize the grassroots in a number of communities to hit the bricks every time there is a public event. They don’t have to be disruptive, hell they don’t even have to engage with the other side; just being there holding signs would be enough to generate media interest and guarantee a shot on TV and a sound bite.

It wouldn’t take many. There was a protest at Darlington, Ontario (out of my sphere of influence, I’m in Quebec) that drew fourteen protesters against the planned refurbishment. A couple of them chained themselves across the gate for an hour until the cops came and cut them down and arrested them. This, of course made the national news, and provided these morons a platform to preach about wind energy, and criticize the provincial energy minister for not being green enough. If there had been twenty pronuclear people there (not connected to the industry) just standing with placards, that would have been the story – they would have gotten the media attention, and they would have been the ones to read a prepared statement on the national news that night.

Other Western media outlets are no different than Canada’s, so this would hold true for them too. This can be done, because the old days when an antinuclear event could count on a mass of people showing up is gone. They didn’t need a lot of committed people then — most of them in the old days were just there for the hell of it anyway — and we don’t need them now. All we need is to have more warm bodies at these events than they do. I can’t overemphasize the importance of this. I was there in the Sixties and Seventies when the Ban-the-Bomb organizations segued into antinuclear power groups, and there wasn’t that dammed many of them then that were really serious about the issues, most of them were there because it was the thing to do. They came to meet people, raise a little hell, and put it to the man. You could tell who the committed were: they had bullhorns.

Second, every single story, in every single media outlet on ‘Green Energy’ has to be answered by having a number of people contact these outlets in writing, or by phone outlining the stupidity of these projects, and comparing them with nuclear energy. Yes, at the beginning we will be blown off, but we have to keep pushing; this is one of the cases where the squeaky wheel will get oiled. To our advantage there is the fact that many in the media, while far from being in full support, are less likely to be dogmatically against nuclear as they were in the past.

Antinuclear forces have been media darlings because they cultivated that status while the nuclear industry circled the wagons and seemed to believe that if they kept their mouths shut this would all blow over or that nobody would notice. Well the threat now IS that nobody will notice nuclear, while we dive headlong into windmills and solar panels that cannot produce a fraction of our energy needs. Many simply have no concept of scale, and in their minds a 50 MW wind farm equals a 1500 MW reactor.

At the same time there seems to be a growing awareness that nuclear energy is not as evil as it has been made out to be — people are beginning to question the standard shibboleths that they have been served up for the last twenty-five years, and I am beginning to see a real desire to understand the issue where in the past it was reflexively negative. Public confidence in the safety of existing nuclear power plants has also reached a record high. This represents a real opportunity for us and we should try and take advantage of it.

Unfortunately, what is needed is more than anything else is flesh-and-blood organization on the ground, so I believe that the major effort at this time should be to recruit people. As I said, it doesn’t need to be many in any given geographical area. Twenty or thirty people can make a huge impact at a meeting, or at a demonstration. Locally I know we can pull together a crew that size if need be, and we will if there is any resistance to the refurbishment at Gentilly 2. I truly believe that if the pronuclear movement could do that anywhere it needed to, we would have a very powerful tool to get our message out.

Where this recruiting has to be done is through high schools, colleges and universities. It is of primary importance that we get young people to engage in this subject, they carry a disproportionate amount of weight in this matter because they are the ones that will have to live with the decisions made now. As well, as a group they are truly feared by politicians because they are known to be fickle with their party support and when motivated can vote in significant numbers. Somehow we have to get leaders in this demographic to get the ball rolling. How we are going to recruit these people is the real problem at hand.

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