It has been observed many times that nuclear scientists and engineers do not necessarily connect well with the public in conveying facts about nuclear power. From time to time, we are told that more emotion is needed, not less. More passion, not passivity.
While I am personally more persuaded by facts than by flashy presentations, I can understand the point. The average person who hears someone like me who carefully qualifies all her statements to make sure they are absolutely correct may come away hearing the caveats and not the conviction. They want to hear “safe” or “unsafe,” not “safe enough.” Not “safe if built and operated properly.” Not “safe compared to coal.”
The concern about how nuclear power is viewed was raised again at the recent World Nuclear Association annual symposium by Alain Michel, who has had a distinguished career in Belgonucleaire. He has raised the idea that a TV series with a nuclear power plant as a backdrop might make nuclear power seem more familiar to everyone. He draws an analogy to currently the popular Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) series on crime solving. Another similar area might be those series focused on solving medical problems.
While the idea seems intriguing, there is a fundamental difference between these series and anything I could envision that would involve nuclear power plants. In crime series investigations, the protagonists are solving an incident that happened outside their community. In medical series, the protagonists are fighting a disease, also something from the outside. Occasionally, a segment will show the protagonists fighting to fix a mistake made by one of their own—a cop gone bad, or a doctor or nurse who inadvertently helps spread a disease. But that is the exception to the rule. The policemen and the doctors are usually the knights in shining armor saving members of the public, or at least getting them justice.
It is hard for me to see a series with nuclear as the backdrop operating the same way. True, scientists and engineers could be the knights in shining armor that save the day when there is a problem. However, wouldn’t the setting for the show have to have a serious incident every week to fuel the drama? If so, what would that do to the perception of nuclear safety? And since many, if not most, incidents and accidents have a human element as part of the causal chain, would we simply have nuclear engineers who are villains (wittingly or unwittingly) versus nuclear engineers who wear white hats? So wouldn’t half the engineers and scientists look like bad guys?
It should not be forgotten that most of the dramatic presentations that have used a nuclear power plant as a backdrop—or as the main element—have showed nuclear power in a bad light. “The China Syndrome” is the most famous example. “The Simpsons” may not have made nuclear power into evil incarnate, but they certainly portrayed nuclear power plant employees as bumbling idiots.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to see a series portraying nuclear power in a positive way. I know lots of people in the industry who I think are knights in shining armor, who bring the world advances in nuclear medicine, nuclear power, and other applications. But their work seldom involves high drama. You don’t really have a child dying in a hospital bed while nuclear scientists develop and deliver a new radioisotope on the spot. Even if you manage to make one episode based on that premise (I must confess that, with most of the world’s radioisotope production shut down, you could possibly have one episode along those lines), it would not be something that could be repeated weekly. In nuclear power plants, it seems to me that the dramatic possibilities are even more limited.
I’d be happy to learn that I’m missing something, and that there could be a dramatic series based in a nuclear facility that did not scare the public more than it educated them. I’d be interested in any thoughts on how Alain Michel’s goals could be accomplished.
Dr. Gail H. Marcus is an independent consultant on nuclear power technology and policy. She previously worked as Deputy Director-General of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) in Paris; Principal Deputy Director of the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology; in various positions at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC); and as Assistant Chief of the Science Policy Research Division at the Congressional Research Service (1980-1985). Dr. Marcus spent a year in Japan as Visiting Professor in the Research Laboratory for Nuclear Reactors, Tokyo Institute of Technology, and five months at Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry. Dr. Marcus has served as President of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) and as Chair of the Engineering Section of AAAS. She also served on the National Research Council Committee on the Future Needs of Nuclear Engineering Education. She is a Fellow of the ANS and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Dr. Marcus has an S.B. and S.M. in Physics, and an Sc.D. in Nuclear Engineering from MIT. She is the first woman to earn a doctorate in nuclear engineering in the United States.