Sunday, April 11, 2010

Nuclear Energy and the Public:

How to Cast the Message

One of the perennial problems we face in the nuclear industry is how to discuss this complicated technology with the public. Many people advise us to simplify. They have a point. You obviously can't use complicated equations that took most of us years to learn, or show them schematics with symbols that only a practitioner would understand.

On the other hand, it has worried me more and more that we sometimes tend to err in the other direction. We state facts without supporting them and expect people to believe us. Or, we select the facts that support our case, rather than acknowledging the potential difficulties and risks.
In part, I think we have fallen into that mode in order to avoid "giving aid to the enemy."

We know there are others who will jump onto the negatives and distort them. We know that some members of the public will hear only the problems, and not the low probabilities of a problem or the robust preventive measures in place.

Still, I think we all know from our personal experiences that we quickly lose trust in people who we feel don't tell us the whole truth. I was therefore very interested in a recent article in the Vancouver Sun
discussing the importance of admitting nuclear risks. I think it offers a message worth heeding.

I would add a few other bits of advice to this one:

1. Don't select only the facts that suit your case.

Explain the facts that don't support your case as well. Are they less important? Can they be overcome in some way?

2. Don't attack the individuals who challenge nuclear technology.

Address the "facts" they use.
It is not really important that the challenger is a "well-known anti-nuke." What is important is what is right or wrong about the arguments raised.

3. Simplify, but don't oversimplify.

Most people know when they are being patronized or spoken down to. You can't avoid the fact that some of the story is not simple or straightforward.

4. Don't just state your position as though it is fact.

Explain why you believe as you do. "Nuclear power is safe" may be a fact to you, but it is the underlying reasons that will convince others, not simply your say-so.

5. Keep in mind that people fear what they don't understand.
Acknowledge that it is reasonable to be concerned, given the mis-truths and half-truths that have been in the news. Help them understand the facts. Explain the safety measures. Put the risks in context.

6. Play fair when you compare nuclear power to other energy technologies.

It is easy to show how nuclear is better than coal in some respects, and better than solar or wind in other respects. When you make such comparisons, be sure to present the whole picture.


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