Thursday, April 28, 2011

Fukushima Daiichi – A Teachable Moment for Nuclear Energy Communicators

Earlier this month, I conducted a workshop at the American Nuclear Society Annual Student Conference in Atlanta on how to speak with the public about nuclear energy. In the wake of the events at the Fukushima Daiichi, I presented information on recent trends in public opinion (hat tip to Ann Bisconti of Bisconti Research, Inc.) along with trends after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents.

After TMI, public support for new nuclear energy plants rose for three years. Why? We needed the energy, and the Iranian revolution a few months later brought that message clearly to the public. After a brief initial dip after Chernobyl, public support for new nuclear energy rose to 52% a month later. Another common thread – each of these events presented the nuclear energy industry with a teachable moment, and the industry stepped up.

But the events at Fukushima Daiichi present a real challenge. Although it withstood one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded, along with a 70-foot wall of water, it has experienced explosions and radioactive emissions that have contaminated the area around the plant. We can’t say, as we did with Chernobyl, “our light water reactor technology will contain any radiation,” because it didn’t.

The workshop generated a lot of passionate discussion among the participants. And we came to a few conclusions. First, our independent regulator, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, gives nuclear power plant operations in the U.S. a high level of credibility. We need to cite the NRC’s rigorous oversight. Second, our near-term messaging must focus on safety – what we’re learning from Fukushima Daiichi, our operating record, and the steps each nuclear power plant operator is taking (or has taken) to make sure that its plant(s) operate safely regardless of the severity of any external events. Third, we need to focus on the benefits of nuclear energy – clean air energy that can be generated here in the U.S., adding to our nation’s energy security.

Two hours after it began, participants left the workshop ready to step up to the teachable moment that Fukushima Daiichi presents. They recognized that it is their moment to make a positive difference in the conversation about nuclear energy in the U.S., and are now armed with the information to make it so.

For those who are interested in a post about the entire conference, don’t miss Rod Adams’ terrific piece in his Atomic Insights blog. Many thanks to Rod for permission to use his photo of conference participants. http://atomicinsights.com/2011/04/ans-student-members-express-excitement-about-nuclear-technologies.html

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