Nuclear industry must change the way it communicates, says Think Atom

15 April 2021

The nuclear industry has for too long taken a passive role in debates that determine how its technology is perceived by the public, but the climate crisis demands active communication about its many benefits, Rauli Partanen, the CEO of Think Atom, said yesterday in his address to delegates at the World Nuclear Fuel Cycle forum. In his keynote speech, Selling the benefits instead of the fear - How to turn the discussion on the future of nuclear into an expansive and progressive one, Partanen said the positive facts about nuclear are lost to poor messaging.

Rauli Partanen, the CEO of Think Atom

Referring to a special report published in October 2018 by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which showed that a large increase in the use of nuclear power would help keep global warming to below 1.5 degrees, Partanen said it ought to be clear that the net-zero by 2050 target "calls for everything and everyone on board". That's especially so, given that the last 30 years of climate action has seen emissions continually increase. "We're going in the wrong direction and maybe even at an accelerated pace," he said.

According to the IPCC average of the four main scenarios, nuclear energy capacity needs to increase four to five times from its current level.

"I'd even say that is too little because half of the scenarios are expecting that energy consumption globally will decrease even though we will have three billion more people and the economy is supposed to be growing to get people out of poverty," Partanen said. "There is also a lot of biomass use that is already facing pressure from biodiversity and ecosystem fragmentation, so I think we should have even more nuclear than that. But if we stick with what the IPCC said, even then I'm not sure the nuclear industry or the policymakers or the public at large have realised the significance of what needs to happen with nuclear growth, and that's after we have grown renewable energy as much as we can."

Discourse not data

The fact that nuclear is clean energy is already "out there" and so the issue is not a lack of information, he said, but rather of believing that information and then acting on those beliefs. For that to happen, data and reports proving the science are not enough. There also needs to be emotion and an alignment of values, he said, which will turn the information into something that has value.

"Why do people dislike nuclear? Forty years ago, the nuclear industry left the public discussion to those who opposed nuclear. These people, groups and organisations said that nuclear is dangerous and irresponsible, and what did the nuclear industry do? It said it is improving safety and improving acting responsibly. If you think about it, that only reinforces people's original thought that it is not safe because it constantly needs to be made safer."

There has therefore been no progress in having a vision for the nuclear industry and instead it has focused on fighting against the premature closure of reactors or on decommissioning.

"That's not very inspiring. How many young people are going to go into a field that's focused on getting rid of itself? Not many. It gives the public the image that the nuclear industry doesn’t really want to participate in the climate fight."

Mission to expand

The nuclear industry needs to start talking publicly about a "mission of expansion", he said, so that nuclear does not merely continue to decarbonise the electricity sector, but also heating and industrial processes. This includes producing the millions of tonnes of synthetic fuels and clean hydrogen required to decarbonise heavy transportation and aviation.

The message that nuclear can speed the reduction in emissions, including in the hard-to-abate sectors, needs to be broadcast widely, and the nuclear industry should demand support from policymakers and legislators to create a fair market in clean energy, "where everyone pays for their external costs and everyone is allowed to participate". For example, environmental, social and governance funding should be technology neutral, enabling the nuclear industry to enjoy access to low-cost finance the way that other clean energy technologies already do.

The high rate of nuclear power plant construction seen in the 1970s and 1980s should be repeated over the next 40 years because "even when we get to net zero, we need to get into negative emissions, and that is not going to happen by itself, it will need a lot of energy", he said.

"The key point is that, if the nuclear industry doesn't have a big vision on its role, potential and importance in stopping climate change, how can it expect the rest of us to have that vision for them?"

The IPCC report's various scenarios for an increase in nuclear energy is echoed by World Nuclear Association's Harmony goal - the addition of 1000 GWe of new nuclear capacity and a 25% share in the global electricity mix, by 2050.

"I have mixed feelings about Harmony," Partanen said. "It is progressive and ambitious for the industry, especially in the context it has been in of non-expansion, especially in the West. But I'm not yet seeing this ambition communicated by the utilities themselves. It needs to spread out from World Nuclear Association onto the slide presentations of utilities, with statements like; 'We're looking forward to doubling our fleet'."

From the climate perspective, even more ambition is needed.

"While 25% of electricity is a good Harmony goal, I'd say we also need Harmony goals for heating and synthetic fuels," he said, "given that nuclear reactors, especially advanced nuclear reactors, are very well-suited to making hydrogen and industrial process heat compared to, for example, renewable energy sources that are variable and only produce electricity, which needs then to be turned into heat and other stuff." As for a Harmony goal for those sectors, heat and synthetic fuels, the nuclear target share should be increased to 50% or even 75%, he added.

Change starts within

Asked what needs to be done internally for the industry to improve how it communicates externally, he said: "The industry has a phenomenal internal safety culture, but the key word is internal. What they have been doing so far with their communications has been to push and externalise that safety culture of ongoing improvement to the rest of society. The rest of society doesn’t care and doesn’t want to hear that."

This has been the industry's approach for decades and it isn't working.

"Hire communications people instead of engineers to think about what the key messages are and how to communicate them. It needs to be a conscious effort at the top management level to change their external communications culture, and then plan how that change can happen," he said. That change of culture should include nuclear industry personnel taking pride in their role in producing clean energy when they speak to people outside work.

The way to do it

To achieve those targets, the industry needs to reverse the habit it got into with its messaging, he said.

"What I and my colleagues do is be publicly pro-nuclear in the context of wanting effective climate action. Not being only 'pro-nuclear' but pro-effective climate policy, which includes nuclear. When more and more people come out with this message, other people hear it, especially when influencers do it. Their leading by example can be valuable."

Asked about Bill Gates as a pro-nuclear influencer, Partanen referred to the Microsoft founder's new book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.

"I've seen some criticism that mostly focuses on the fact that he's a very wealthy white man and therefore some people find it hypocritical that he's talking about how we should decarbonise when he's flying around doing stuff. And that's something that he addresses right at the start of his book. So I don’t think these critics have read the book and they just have their general position.

"He is certainly an influencer and thought leader in some circles, but we also need others - rock stars, famous politicians, climate scientists. The issue is you cannot have one single message for everyone. Know your audience."

The message however needs to make clear that being 'anti-nuclear' effectively means being against a proven way to mitigate climate change.

"That's not a perspective that's defensible for an environmentalist," he said. "The problem is that, for decades, it has been the environmental movement that says it cares about the environment but so far it has been opposing nuclear. So, everyone has this weird idea that environmentalists should know what they're talking about, that if they oppose nuclear, then it must be bad. We need to start challenging the position that if Germany wants to close down its nuclear power plants, then that is its right to do so, but it means that it's not taking climate change seriously; it's prioritising something else."

Political union

Asked how attitudes towards nuclear energy could be changed at the political level, he said this was difficult, but "when change starts it can happen pretty fast".

In his native Finland, public debate on nuclear energy has "shifted tremendously and in a positive direction" over the last five years.

"One of the catalysts for this has been advanced nuclear reactors and small modular reactors, which is a new way of thinking about nuclear. It can give people a second chance to rethink nuclear, which maybe helps them rethink the current nuclear fleet with a new perspective," he said.

A majority of EU Member States are pro-nuclear - they have nuclear plants, want to build more of them, or want to build their first nuclear units - and there are only a few that are against it.

These pro-nuclear countries need to shift their communication in Brussels away from the passive - 'We have nuclear and we are not opposed to it and we hope no one will ban nuclear for us' - to 'We are relying on nuclear to decarbonise a lot of our energy system and it needs to be treated fairly in policymaking.'

"The anti-nuclear countries, like Austria, Germany and Luxembourg, are constantly joining up and bullying other nations that want to have nuclear. It should be that the pro-nuclear countries in Europe join and start planning how to harmonise their regulations and how to prevent anti-nuclear countries from making it more difficult to build or operate nuclear. Making it harder to build nuclear is anti-climate change mitigation. We want to make it easier and cheaper and faster, right?"

Same old questions

Opponents of nuclear energy rely on stoking the public's fear of accidents and radiation, he said. The nuclear industry not only spends too much of its time responding to questions about the perceived danger of radiation, from nuclear power plants and nuclear waste, it actively focuses on this in its own messaging, he said.

"If you've only been talking about safety and accidents and how it will never happen again, then that's the only thing people will ask you about. The other question will be about the waste because it is discussed all the time.

"You need to have answers to those questions, but don’t lead with them in your communications. That's how I do my presentations to the public and non-nuclear industries. I lead with the benefits and then somebody will ask about these issues after my presentation because I didn’t talk about them, and then I answer. On the off-chance that there is someone in the room who didn’t have that 'What about the waste?' question in their mind before my presentation, I don’t want to be the one who puts it there on the first page of my presentation."

The answers to those questions must be in a context the audience can understand, he said. For example, "the worst-case scenario" of radiation leaking from the Onkolo final repository would be a tiny number of millisieverts per year.

"Nobody will understand that. You need to put it in context: 'The worst case scenario is a similar dose that you get from eating a bag of chips or a couple of bananas.' And use emotion: 'But that's ridiculous! Yes, but it's true!' This context gives you an image of something. It's easier than 'many zeros of millisieverts', which means nothing to the non-nuclear engineer."

Political support in Finland and Sweden for geological repositories for the disposal of used nuclear fuel is perhaps the result of pragmatism, he said.

"The nuclear waste issue is not a technological issue, it's not a cost issue, it's not a public health issue. It's a political issue. It's something politicians need to decide what to do with and in Finland, they did. They told the industry to look for a solution, the industry found one, tested it, modeled it and then came up with the Onkolo project. Then the politicians said, 'Let's do it'.

"The hard part is the politics of the matter. My theory is that, in most countries, politicians have nothing to gain by being pro-nuclear or even talking about nuclear, but they actually have a lot to lose because they get attacked by anti-nuclear organisations if they say anything positive about it. So the only incentive politically is to say something bad about it because that's seen as somehow the responsible thing to do.

"The unique thing about Sweden and Finland is that we live so far north that we have to be pragmatic or we would have frozen to death a long time ago! We are a pragmatic nation that sees a problem, decides to solve it and then solves it."

Nuclear applications

The use of nuclear energy in medicine, water desalination, agriculture and space exploration is an "underused angle" in public discourse, he said.

"The isotopes used in medicine are many of the same isotopes present in nuclear power, they just do different things, and you can produce those isotopes with a nuclear reactor. They allow the diagnosis and treatment of diseases; wonderful life-saving stuff. The problem for a utility that produces electricity it that's it's not part of their business, so why would they talk about medical isotopes? Well, they could give a presentation in general about nuclear technology and include its other applications."

This is one way in which emotions and values can break "the wall of text and numbers".

As for new nuclear technologies, such as small modular reactors, he said, "I don’t think that too many people are anti-nuclear because they think the sector lacks innovation. It's more for ideological, personal, historical, emotional and values based reasons. I don’t know if we can fix that by adding more technology because it's not a technology problem; it's a problem of what people want to believe and what those beliefs represent to them. If someone is afraid of a nuclear repository leaking, I don’t think they would be less afraid if somebody said we will add more concrete on top. It's a technological fix to a non-technological problem."

But nuclear innovations can give some people a way "to rethink nuclear", he said.

"That's what happened to me. I read Tom Blees' book, Prescription for the Planet, where he talks about Gen IV reactors. Then I got interested and realised that reactors are cool. If I were an investor, then innovation would interest me, especially if it's disruptive. If I were a student engineer, I'd be interested in innovation. So I guess they are a way to attract both investment and talented, intelligent people into the sector.

"In the last five to 10 years there has been genuine interest. When this starts to happen, these young thought leaders get excited about nuclear, they communicate that excitement, and others get excited because the message is coming from a different place."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News