The nuclear industry's biggest challenge: PR

Nuclear energy is safe, clean and long lasting, according to its proponents. But many people associa

A year ago, I was like most people when it came to nuclear power. I had the same concerns, the same fears, the same lack of knowledge, which ran roughly as follows:

"Nuclear power is unsafe and dangerous."

"If attacked by terrorists, nuclear power plants can explode and kill millions."

"Radiation is the most dangerous thing on the planet."

"Chernobyl could happen here."

Unlike a huge percentage of the population, however, I don't fear science. I don't believe that scientists are all trying to poison, brainwash or otherwise incapacitate the human race. Consequently, I have been able to take in information produced by scientists and not put any kind of internal anti-science/anti-progress spin on it. It wasn't very easy for me, but I have forced myself to look at all of the issues in a way I never have before.

I learned a number of things:

The nuclear industry is not as dangerous as I had been led to believe. The UN and the World Health Organisation have concluded that the nuclear industry is responsible for fewer than 60 deaths worldwide in its entire history, compared to the 6,000-plus deaths in China every year in the coal industry. The thriving, modern cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki show you the truth of post-nuclear disaster. You get more radiation on a two week holiday in Cornwall than you do living for a whole year next to Sellafield.

Nuclear power will last longer than I was led to believe. Apart from the fact that we only have to use nuclear as a bridge between fossil fuel burning and fusion reactors, it is estimated that there is enough uranium in the seas to power the Earth using current nuclear technology for longer than the sun will shine.

It is cleaner than I was led to believe. Properly stored nuclear waste is nothing to fear at all. Alpha radiation can be stopped by a piece of paper, beta radiation can be stopped by a few millimetres of aluminium, while gamma radiation can be stopped by a few inches of steel; and once stored, it cannot seep out.

Learning all of this and coming to support nuclear power has made me feel... well, dirty. But I made myself accept the facts. Nuclear power must be our future. Modern nuclear reactors are, quite simply, the cleanest way of replacing our crumbling base load power plants, both coal and nuclear. Solar power, wind farms and hydro-electric power will not provide enough steady power no matter how much faith people place in them.

The biggest question I am left with, however, is: why has the pro-nuclear side been so terrible at getting its point across?

Like many intelligent, rational and logical people, the proponents of nuclear power have been let down by their insistence that "the truth will set you free". They think that if people are given the facts and figures they will be able to see clearly that nuclear power is the best option. Unfortunately, the pro-nuclear side doesn't seem to understand that most people operate on a level in which factual information has no sway whatsoever and belief is all-powerful.

The anti-nuclear lobby historically has been very good at making everyone terrified of the word nuclear - and when we were on the edge of blowing each other up, that was a good thing. But if you have been led to believe that nuclear power is evil by the anti-nuclear camp's appeals to your emotions rather than your intellect, then you will eschew any factual statement that goes against that belief.

First and foremost, the pro-nuclear lobby needs to learn that facts alone are not enough. That is why it doesn't sink in when you repeatedly tell people that on one flight to Spain you get half the radiation dose of the nuclear, phosphate, oil and gas industries, consumer products, and fallout from nuclear testing combined. People believe that "nuclear" is the most dangerous thing on the planet - so it is. A lot of people will need to go through a great personal struggle in order to grow out of their "no nukes" belief structure.

The other problem the nuclear industry has is the language it uses. Fast breeder reactor sounds like some kind of self-replicating radioactive mobile power plant which will take over the world and turn us into mutants within days. Magnox sounds like the name of the 1950s B movie leader of a robot army that plans to invade and conquer the earth. That has got to go.

Pebble bed reactor, however, is a rather lovely name. It sounds like a treatment that I would get in some posh spa that would get rid of my cellulite and take a couple inches off my waist. Keep that name. Women will go for it.

Speaking of women, I would suggest that the nuclear industry and pro-nuclear campaigners start gathering together knowledgeable women to put forward for media interviews. People trust women more. Just make sure they are not that severe female-politician-in-powersuit-and-high-heels type. Those are scarier than fast breeder reactors.

The nuclear industry has a big problem with its image generally. Its promotional materials are filled with images of smiling middle managers wearing hard hats and high-visibility jackets looking at reactor plans. To whom, exactly, are they trying to appeal? They should be trying to garner the interest of people like me - middle-class parents who care about cleaning up the planet for their children, yet who still want to be able to drive them to school every morning without feeling guilty. My advice would be to get rid of the fat blokes in hard hats. I want families, nature, blue skies and sunshine. And if you really need a man in a hard hat make sure he is fit, like one of those guys in the Diet Coke commercials. Sexy sells.

Reactor stacks. They are ugly and scary-looking. Make them pretty. Paint them sky blue in order to associate them with clean skies. It will make a huge difference. Seriously, nothing "evil" was ever sky blue. Trust me on this.

There is so much the pro-nuclear side could do to start changing people's minds. Ultimately, however, it is going to be difficult. Unless it is handled very delicately, any attempt at modernising the pro-nuclear image could come across as slightly embarrassing. But it will be possible. You just need to fire your PR company and find a new one.

Gia Milinovich is a broadcaster on science and technology, and also a web producer. Recently, she was one of three writers commissioned to debate on the Institute of Physics' Potential Energy blog

Nuclear technology poses a risk that needs to be brought under control

"In my political life," wrote Tony Benn in his collection of essays, Arguments for Socialism, "I have never known such a well-organised scientific, industrial and technical lobby as the nuclear power lobby." Benn, a former Secretary of State for Energy, was writing in 1979. Today, the comment above certainly strikes the reader as counter-intuitive. What has changed the terms of debate so thoroughly since then? The French, for instance, have recently confirmed the launch of the next generation of nuclear power plants, which generate four fifths of their electricity; in Britain the comparable figure is only one fifth.

The answer could be summed up by the views expressed in a letter from a group of MPs published in the Guardian in May: "We should not be panicked into accepting a technology that poses a continuing risk in terms of weapons proliferation and terrorism, produces a toxic waste for which no management solution is agreed, benefits from hidden subsidies, and tends to undermine both the prospects of renewable energy and efforts to increase energy efficiency."

The worries about nuclear weapons and nuclear have grown since the time Benn was writing. The names of Sellafield, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island still resonate strongly, as do fears about the nuclear capability of Iran, North Korea and other states hostile to the West.

Moreover, a recent report by Greenpeace, The Economics of Nuclear Power, estimated that the average nuclear power station overshoots its budget three times and runs four years behind schedule. So much for either cleanliness or efficiency.

Benn concluded his essay with the statement: "There is no issue more urgent than the democratic control of nuclear power". The fact that these words have not dated in the way his earlier comments have shows the extent of the challenge faced by proponents of nuclear power.

by Sholto Byrnes

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins