A nuclear society: rebuilding perceptions of nuclear energy
The nuclear industry has historically had a fairly tumultuous relationship with wider society. Early perceptions of nuclear energy were generally positive, with it viewed as a beacon of how technology went hand in hand with increasing prosperity. However, a history of highly-publicised leaks, discharges and assorted incidents have created a legacy of societal mistrust of nuclear energy. In this article, Professor Adrian Bull from The University of Manchester examines what measures can be taken by industry and government to re-invigorate the UK’s nuclear sector and its relationship with the public.
Past incidents of management and safety failures sit alongside other legitimate concerns people hold about radiation and nuclear. These include the silence and invisibility of radiation; the lack of control people feel over any nuclear risk; the fact that when things go wrong, they have the potential to go very badly wrong; the intergenerational legacy of nuclear waste and the fact that nuclear security is often perceived as secrecy. Together all this has made the relationship with society increasingly uncomfortable for the UK nuclear sector. Regrettably, it didn’t always respond well. In many cases, it barely responded at all. The approach used for making nuclear safety cases was applied to communications too. Endless time debating and amending, with multiple additions along the way, then repeated levels of senior level signoff before any statement would finally appear – inevitably long after the conversation had moved on. Often any industry statements were predicated on education of readers into reassurance.
Consequentially, there has been long-standing reluctance from some (often vociferous) parts of society to endorse and support the activities of an industry it sees as intruding malevolently into its communities, rather than adding value.
Communications from government and industry clearly need to change in future, but there are perhaps some encouraging signs. Not always driven by a greater support for the nuclear industry, but more by the changing priorities and values of society itself. We can all see the impact of climate change, which heightens society’s desire to avert more damage (or at least to avoid making things worse with more fossil fuel use). Enhanced concerns over energy security have made people value the baseload power we get from stations that produce electricity 24/7, irrespective of the weather. And the consequences of COVID include greater familiarity with the role of science in public policy and greater willingness among the public to challenge those links and dig further behind the data.
Government should ensure that policy making in relation to energy and climate change is evidence-based, open and transparent, and that the science and data behind policy decisions are published along with the decisions themselves. Essentially a “show your working” approach.
In step with the current Energy Awareness campaign, national and devolved UK governments should support local authorities to invite local communities to discuss how they can contribute towards the UK’s Net Zero commitment, including by hosting low carbon infrastructure of all types, and how they might be rewarded for doing so. Local authorities could lead on this to shape and guide place-based responses.
In lockstep with government, the nuclear sector needs to up its game in the future, too. Not just for proposed new power stations, such as the new generation of Small Modular Reactors – which have the potential to be located within communities with no previous experience of nuclear energy – but also for nuclear waste disposal.
For the first time ever, the approval for a key piece of UK infrastructure will sit with society, rather than with Government. The proposed final resting place for the UK’s higher level nuclear waste – a deep underground disposal site, known as the Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) – will only proceed if the community where it is to be hosted explicitly decide that they want to have it. There is a package of community and financial benefit attached too, but it will be a far-reaching decision for a group of 21st century citizens to make an irrevocable choice to host a huge part of Britain’s nuclear waste inventory below their community for all eternity.
There are currently four communities engaged in the process to select a final GDF location and any decision on a final site is well over a decade away. But if the communities are to remain engaged, the industry needs to think and act differently. Instead of the nuclear sector focusing on a conversation about itself (the nature of the waste and packaging, and the design of the planned repository) conversations should start with a focus on the community. What do they consider to be important? What are their values? How do they even come to identify themselves as a “community” in the first place? How do they want to be viewed by their descendants, many generations into the future?
Government can support this approach by encouraging Nuclear Waste Services to frame conversations with potential GDF host communities around the needs and values of the community itself rather than around nuclear waste and repository design.
If Government and industry can rise to the challenge and start listening before speaking, then there is a real chance of turning nuclear’s relationship with wider society into a much more positive one, for all concerned.
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