Viewpoint: Mind your (nuclear) language

13 March 2020

The nuclear industry cannot assume that the words and phrases it commonly understands as scientific or engineering terms have positive connotations for the public, writes Neil Alexander, principal consultant at Bucephalus Consulting.

Neil Alexander, principal consultant at Bucephalus Consulting

"We have all heard that a picture paints a thousand words. This should not be surprising because our mind was always designed to handle images, the face of our mother, the outline of a lion in the savannah, the route from our cave to the berry bush. Images have always been essential to our survival and are bound to be powerful.

Less appreciated is the power of words to create mental pictures and how that affects perceptions of nuclear power. The power of words should not be a surprise either as language was developed so that we could describe things to each other in the absence of an image and then further developed to describe things, such as emotions or complex principles, by creating virtual images.

Linguists talk about words having two meanings, denotative and connotative. Denotative is the dictionary definition and connotative the image that the word creates. Scientists and engineers are taught to write denotatively, conveying information, while poets and journalists typically work with connotation, painting pictures for the mind. While denotative meanings may be correct, it is the images that hold the authority. They can even  make the words more powerful than swords.

And here lies one of the nuclear industry's challenges, unfortunate imagery. Another, implied discrimination, is linked. We will come to that later.

For now, let's study some very real examples of the language/image issues.

Used fuel is described by many outside the industry, and too many within it, as waste. Look waste up in the dictionary and you will find one meaning is 'an unusable or unwanted substance'. Presently, used fuel is unwanted and so it can denotatively be called waste. But the image created by the word waste is not one of carefully engineered racks of shiny fuel assemblies; it is of the waste we see in our everyday lives: trash. That isn't a good image.

Meanwhile, allowing it to be described as waste implicitly allows a place where it is stored to be described as a dump because a dump is 'a place where people are allowed to leave their waste'. However, the use of the word, regardless of its legitimacy, creates a very unfortunate image. There is no meaning of the word 'dump' that is nice. Quarterbacks get dumped, unwanted products get dumped, toxic materials get dumped and places that are so nasty that you don’t want to visit them are described as dumps. Dumps are disorderly, unpleasant, smelly and visually, whether in the mind or in reality, unattractive.

Take a fear of radiation and stir it up with an image of trash randomly strewn around on the ground and it shouldn't be a surprise that people get upset when a 'nuclear waste dump' is going to be built near where they live. All an anti-nuclear campaigner has to do is to use those words, to create that image, and their work is all but done. I wouldn’t want a nuclear waste dump near me. I wouldn’t want one anywhere on earth.

I wouldn't mind a used fuel repository though.

And it's not just on waste where choosing the right word to use has been a problem. Nuclear operators aspire to making something go critical but for the general population that word brings up an image of something going disastrously wrong, likely a relative or friend about to die. While the nuclear industry knows that radioactive decay is a good thing, what image does the word decay create? It's not a good one. It certainly doesn't connote a process so precisely predictable that we set our watches by it.

Unfortunately, the nuclear industry seems to have not only allowed unhelpful words to creep into its lexicon but to have done its best to pick scary words whenever the opportunity arose. While the intention was likely to aid people in their understanding by alluding to something they already understood, often it was without consideration of the consequences. Fuel burn-up for example. Did no one consider what image associating highly radioactive materials with a fire might create?

These word images are a field day for anti-nuclear groups, enabling deployment of their second weapon, implied discrimination. Implied discrimination, as we are increasingly aware, is pervasive and persuasive. Simply by constantly referring to leaders of organisations using the male pronoun, leaders of organisations remained male because everyone continued to assume they should be. It works because it's insidious. It isn't questioned and by repetition it becomes accepted.

Clever anti-nuclear authors will insert the words 'long-lived' whenever they legitimately can. This simple phrase, differentiates nuclear materials from anything else mankind handles and makes it seem uniquely dangerous. Those same authors don’t feel obliged to use the word 'everlasting' when referring to other toxic materials.

And then there is artistic licence. This licence, gifted to people so that they might entertain, is often used to mislead. Pickering's nuclear power generators were recently described as 'aging radioactive cauldrons brewing electric power'. I have a hunch that the phrase wasn’t chosen in an attempt to make them seem appealing. Artistic licence creates a tilted field as scientists and engineers and for that matter doctors and lawyers are, thankfully, not granted a similar freedom. They are required to be accurate.

The nuclear industry is inclined to throw its hands in the air and say, 'It is now and has ever been thus', but today we stand on the precipice of a new era where evidence-based decision making must replace ideology and dogmatism if the problems created by a burgeoning population are to be solved. For that we need implied discrimination to be eradicated, words to be used in contexts that are both denotatively and connotatively correct and artistic licence used to convey truth and not to mislead.

Can we make this happen? We can certainly try and it's important that we do. Implied discrimination, connotatively incorrect words and artistic licence are like magic tricks; they only amaze when the audience cannot see what is happening. Point out the rabbit hiding in the hat and the magician becomes a charlatan. If we point out the linguistic tricks whenever we seem them being used, they will progressively lose their power. And when the industry has the opportunity to coin new words or phrases it should think about them in the context of how they may be perceived by the public. Small Modular Reactor, for example. I know what it means to me, but I wonder what image the public forms. Did anyone check?

Perhaps the industry could even start learning some tricks from the persuasion trade by adopting words with positive images. I have always wanted to adopt the automotive industry's approach to dealing with the stigma of 'used' cars, and rebrand used fuel as 'previously loved fuel'. At least this phrase is both denotatively and connotatively correct, unlike 'nuclear waste'. Am I joking? I may be, but hopefully it makes the point. At the very least we should call it used and not spent or waste."