In the public eye: nuclear energy and society

03 December 2015

Today, the UK nuclear industry publishes its Concordat on Public Engagement. Andrew Sherry, who has led the work as part of the Nuclear Industry Council, explains why.

The UK is set to embark on a new nuclear build program that is expected to see around 16 GWe added to the electricity grid over the next 10 to 15 years, effectively replacing the ageing fleet of advanced gas-cooled reactors. At the same time, the UK is delivering a program of decommissioning and waste management that will ultimately see a new geological repository built to house the legacy of higher-level nuclear waste. These large infrastructure projects provide around 40,000 direct jobs in a sector that reaches to all corners of the country. However, as with all infrastructure projects, society has a voice and the successful delivery of both new power stations and the waste repository will be dependent upon broad acceptance from the public.

Currently around 40% of the UK general public expressly support the continuing use of nuclear energy to generate electricity, with around 20% opposed and the remainder undecided or uninterested. However, support can be fragile and susceptible to fluctuations depending upon media concerns and world events - for example public support for nuclear energy dropped in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident. However, in the UK public support 'bounced back' within six months largely due to the unceasing commitment of academic experts to engage with the media and provide open and honest commentary, often facilitated via the Science Media Centre. As someone who was at the time one of those academic experts, frequently appearing on the media, I know first-hand how much the media valued the opportunity to hear a range of informed and credible viewpoints on the industry's challenges and plans.

As a partnership between government and industry intended to provide high-level strategic direction to the UK's nuclear industry, the Nuclear Industry Council has therefore placed a high priority on establishing a sector-wide strategy to enhance public understanding of nuclear energy and to engage more effectively with society. The resulting strategy published in 2014, set out three priorities: First, a small, senior Steering Group of communication professionals from Council membership should develop and deliver a more detailed public engagement and communications strategy on nuclear energy. Then the Steering Group should develop a best practice 'Charter' on public engagement principles to be signed by CEOs across the industry. Lastly, research should be undertaken to inform the development and delivery of more effective public engagement.

Today, the 'Charter' is published in its final form as the Concordat on Public Engagement with Nuclear Energy. Endorsed by all members of the Nuclear Industry Council as well as other stakeholders, the Concordat has been developed to demonstrate the sector's commitment to engaging with society on nuclear matters. It sets out the following four key principles:

Principle 1 is Leadership Commitment. It recognises the importance of society's attitudes to nuclear energy and places high priority on public engagement within organisations. It aims to embed public engagement into organisations' strategies and to provide the leadership and resources to be effective.

Principle 2 is Best Practice and recognises the importance of characterising public engagement by:
• Dialogue: valuing two-way communication and listening to the public voice.
• Trust: seeking to build public trust by showing respect and being open and transparent about the challenges industry faces and the actions being taken to address them.
• Clarity: ensuring that public engagement is characterised by clear, consistent and concise information written or spoken in plain language.
• Consultation: listening to communities and actively consulting with them, particularly when the sector’s activities impact on daily life.

Principle 3 promotes Effective Communicators, recognising that the entire nuclear workforce are potential ambassadors for the sector and that independent experts, such as those in academia, as well as industry leaders have an important role to play in public communications.

Principle 4, Making a Difference, recognises the importance of public attitudes to nuclear energy and the need to regularly assess the sector's progress in fostering engagement with society.

The aim is that by formally endorsing these four principles and working them out in practical terms the UK nuclear industry will become increasingly effective in engaging with the public and - importantly - that the UK's nuclear workforce will feel better equipped to talk about the important role they play in helping to deliver low carbon electricity to the country.

Following the publication of the UK nuclear sector's Concordat, the Communications Steering Group will be publishing a series of guidance documents aimed at providing practical advice to the nuclear workforce and others on how they can get involved in a formal and informal way so that effective public engagement becomes a normal and critically important part of the UK nuclear sector's daily activities.

I believe that this work represent an important step in the UK nuclear industry recognising the need firstly to become more open about the work which we do and secondly to work harder to engage and inform the public about activities and opportunities all across the sector.

Andrew Sherry

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Andrew Sherry is chief scientist at the UK's National Nuclear Laboratory and chair of the Public Understanding of Nuclear Energy workstream of the NIC.