The power of nuclear Article icon

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The anti-nuclear lobby gained support after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that destabilised the power plant at Fukushima, but the industry is taking steps to rebuild its reputation

Take a look at archive pictures from the 1970s and early 1980s of young, environmentally-aware protesters marching to oppose nuclear power. Now glance at some snaps of exactly the same sort of people on climate change rallies some 30 years later. Spot the differences. Or can you? Fashion aside, there aren't many. Incredibly, the same sorts of people who opposed nuclear power so vehemently then have been supporting it until very recently, spurred on by the fear of a greater perceived evil. Driven in large part by the concerns about the role of carbon from fossil fuels in producing climate change, it's a remarkable outcome that could not possibly have been foreseen a generation ago. After last month's earthquake, tsunami and destabilisation of the nuclear power plant at Fukushima, however, all these efforts to reposition the UK nuclear industry may have to go back to square one.

In Germany, the anti-nuclear backlash after Fukushima was so vigorous that Chancellor Angela Merkel's pro-nuclear Christian Democrats lost Baden-Wurttemberg in a vital election that saw the state fall out of her party's hands for the first time since 1953.

In Italy, which has no nuclear power stations and has had policies preventing the construction of any since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the events in Japan have stirred up opposition to government plans to begin building nuclear power plants by 2013.

And in Britain, where one fifth of the energy needs are derived from nuclear power and the last government gave the go-ahead for construction of new nuclear power stations to replace 19 nuclear reactors at nine locations by 2035, there's already doubts about whether the programme will now go ahead.

Tim Luckett, head of crisis management for Europe, the Middle East and Africa for public relations and public affairs consultancy Hill & Knowlton, warns: 'There's no doubt that now the nuclear lobby faces a new challenge of re-establishing confidence in the safety of the industry.

'All the research shows that air travel is just about the safest travel that there is, but every time there's an air crash, there's an enormous amount of concern about safety and it's even more pronounced here because nuclear power is such a sensitive issue.'

Safety concerns

No new nuclear power station has been built in the UK since Sizewell B, which was constructed between 1988 and 1995.

The percentage of UK electricity supplied by UK nuclear power peaked at 27 per cent in 1995 and until recently the political will to build more seemed to have been lost.

Nuclear was seen as a sunset industry that did not have much of a future, but from 2005, with increasing attention being paid to carbon emissions and climate change, there began a turnaround which culminated in cross-party support being achieved for new UK nuclear power stations three years later.

The reason is that most strategists agree that ending Britain's current reliance on coal and gas to produce 70 per cent of the nation's electricity is the only way that the UK can meet its commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

Energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne has requested a report on the implications of the Fukushima accident for the British nuclear plan and the lessons to be learned from the tragedy and has said it is too early to determine the continued willingness of the private sector to invest in new nuclear power plants.

However, Luckett, for one, sees the fallout from the Japanese incident as potentially damaging in the long-term to nuclear power's new and carefully-constructed image and worries that the UK nuclear industry may not be able to recover.

Luckett says: 'There's an enormous challenge to rebuild credibility. This is one of the most volatile sectors of the UK economy in public relations terms.

'It's very sensitive because a lot of people have grown up always fearing a nuclear incident. The fear of radiation from nuclear power is the hardest thing to manage because of its invisibility. There's not an industry like it in this sense.'

Some other communicators are more positive, however, believing that the situation calls for classic crisis communications skills.

Chris Salt, partner at strategic communications consultancy HeadLand, says: 'It will be a brave government minister who will now sign off the siting of a new nuclear reactor build. But the starting point has to be: is it still safe?

'You need to establish a period of calm investigation, review and reflection. You need the public to understand that, whether as an industry or as a government, you are taking their fears seriously.'

The review process should do just that, he argues, giving the government time to re-present the issue when it is not so 'prone to histrionics'.

Moreover, Salt believes that the key to communicating the report's eventual findings will be to pinpoint the unique characteristics of the Japanese incident and its unlikelihood of being repeated in the UK.

'You have to highlight the very different context, circumstances and fundamentals involved in the rest of the industry,' he says.

'Then, essentially assess and isolate the problem and then reassure about the majority activities of the UK industry.'

There are some obvious points that can already be made in this regard. The earthquake that shook Japan's eastern coast on 11 March was the most powerful ever to have hit the country, with a magnitude of 9.0, and one of the five most powerful in the world since modern record-keeping began in 1900.

Secondly, there's evidence emerging that the Fukushima plant actually withstood the earthquake very well but was damaged instead by flood water from the resulting tsunami, an even rarer occurrence in the UK.

'It's a one-in-every-15,000-years occurrence,' says Peter Downey, director of Leeds-based public relations firm Source Marketing Communications.

'You've got to get that message across and then you've got to learn from the mistakes made in Japan and incorporate much more flood protection into designs of new-build nuclear plants in the UK. But I do believe that the situation is absolutely rescue-able in PR terms.'

Rebuilding nuclear's reputation

The nuclear industry and its advisors are stepping up to this challenge. Ken Cronin, managing partner for global strategic communications partnership Kreab Gavin Anderson in the UK, worked for British Energy in investor relations and as an executive assistant to chairman Robin Jeffrey for five years and more recently advised on the new nuclear strategy under the last government.

He says that the UK nuclear industry's image change over the past ten to 15 years has been achieved by focusing on its good safety record in the UK, the security of supply that nuclear energy provides compared to the volatile supply situation for fossil fuels and its much lower carbon footprint.

With many hearts and minds already won over on at least the last two and no fundamental change in the UK safety case either, he believes the communications task for the UK nuclear industry is about isolating the specific causes of the Japanese disaster and learning from both the safety lessons and the mistakes that Fukushima made in communicating the tragedy.

'The nuclear industry has its issues,' he adds, 'but so do all energy businesses. Rebuilding the reputation of nuclear energy is not something that isn't possible. Japan is still going to have nuclear power. Britain is still going to need it. It is not something that should be derailed.'

Indeed, in the wake of the Fukushima crisis, the UK nuclear power industry received the kind of public relations boost that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago when noted environmentalist George Monbiot wrote a column in The Guardian headed: 'Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power.'

Declaring that because of the disaster, he was no longer nuclear-neutral but now supported the technology, he wrote: 'A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami.

'The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and meltdown. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting, yet, as far as we know, no-one has received lethal dose of radiation.'

That provoked three cheers for Monbiot in the nuclear industry for probably the first time. 'This is the kind of issue and questioning we need to deal with,' hails Dan Meredith, public relations manager for RWE npower, the German-owned UK power generator planning to build between four and six nuclear reactors next to existing nuclear sites in Wylfa, Anglesey and Oldbury, Gloucestershire, through its Horizon Nuclear Power joint venture with Powergen owner E.On. 'George Monbiot is a perfect case study of a classic environmental activist who is now very much in favour of nuclear power.'

Winning over the public

At Horizon itself, Leon Flexman, head of communications, says Fukushima is 'obviously a setback in terms of public perception' but stresses: 'The need to secure energy supplies as a result of the planned closure of existing UK nuclear power stations hasn't changed and the need to tackle climate change hasn't changed.

'Nuclear is a fundamental part of responding to those needs and I think people do understand that because for every voice that says nuclear is not a good idea we have had 20 people saying, Please go ahead because of the benefits.'

Andrew Brown, brand sustainability and external communications director at EDF Energy, which owns the former UK nuclear power stations of British Energy and is also planning new UK nuclear stations, has a similar message.

'It's important to reassure, listen and to engage on the vital role that secure, affordable low carbon nuclear energy has in the UK,' he says. 'Polling over recent years has shown a majority of people support nuclear power as part of the energy mix.'

John McNamara, head of media and public relations at the UK Nuclear Industry Association, adds: 'Nuclear communications is a big job anyway because nuclear has a certain connotation to certain people. But in the past, there was a taboo about the N-word. Now we have an open debate about it and that has to continue.

'Remember that 50 per cent of Japan's nuclear power stations have kept operating through this situation and that in the UK public opinion does understand the fragility of the UK's energy resources and the importance of the climate change issue. 'We're not at all arrogant or complacent but I think we can be confident about the continued case for nuclear power and keep communicating the benefits. More than 80 per cent of Britain's low-carbon electricity comes from nuclear energy and 30 per cent of the nation's electricity generating capacity will be gone in five years' time. Nuclear remains the right thing to do in the UK and we've got to get the message out.'

Some independent communicators agree. Rod Clayton, head of issues and crises in Europe, the Middle East and Africa for public relations group Weber Shandwick, argues that myths often overtake the facts in the short-term in catastrophe communications so it is vital for public relations practitioners to re-establish what is true and what is not.

'Over the last 30 years, the UK nuclear industry has been providing factual information, which has turned the situation around,' he surmises. 'Generally speaking it has a good safety record, while many people now see it as having environmental benefits.

'Some people have scepticism but my view is that the proposition of the facts led to a positive image for the industry last time. And I really don't see why it can't do that again.'

It promises to be a lot harder after Fukushima and some other tools in communicators' armouries may also be needed. One strategy, of course, is to remind people that matters can always get much, much worse.

'The bigger issue,' maintains Neil Bennett, chief executive of financial public relations group The Maitland Consultancy, 'is a debate that we have not had yet. There's a debate about what sort of energy we should have but imagine what sort of debate there would be if there was no energy at all.'

Britain's nuclear power

  • Supplies 20 per cent of Britain's electricity
  • Employs 40,000 people directly
  • Employs 40,000 people indirectly
  • First power station opened at Calder Hall, Cumbria in 1957
  • There are now 23 reactors at nine different sites
  • There are three different types of reactors: Advanced GasnCooled; Magnox (gas cooled with magnesium alloyed cladding); Pressurised Water