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23 Comments

  1. Very good podcast. When you first blogged about Dr. Sandman’s work several weeks ago, I thought he would be a good person to interview for The Atomic Show. The engineers in the nuclear industry obviously do a much better job managing hazard rather than outrage. Managing outrage requires using a set of social skills that technical types often lack. Sandman’s work should be required reading (or listening. His lectures are more effective if watched or listened to, in my opinion.) for any nuclear plant manager.

    I have some other comments, and perhaps a few suggestions for discussion on the followup show. Will post later…

  2. Rod – thanks for this show, and I’m so pleased that you’ve had Dr. Sandman on the show. I liked the conversation at the end, as well. There are many many comments I could make, but I’ll just make a couple.

    I haven’t been aware of much really active promotion of nuclear fission by industry related groups. I just visited the NEI site, found a reference to one 6 minute video, and then found that the page http://www.nei.org/resourcesandstats/documentlibrary/safetyandsecurity/video/nuclearpowerplantsecurityvideo/ didn’t contain the video. It’s possible that I could view it if I logged in – but it sure seems to me that the NEI isn’t working very hard or very effectively to actually promote nuclear power. My impression is that they think that the facts will convince people – and as Dr. Sandman notes, that’s not going to happen. Where’s the leadership? Not just for the USA – but for the world? The NEI need Dr. Sandman’s insights as well. Does anyone speak for nuclear power as a global need?

    It seems to me that a clearly articulated vision is needed, one that includes all types of reactors and fuels, and encompasses the world. At about the 1:27:20 mark in the conversation Dr. Sandman discusses how to approach communicating that vision, and I really like his ideas.

    I’m looking forward to the next installment of the conversation. Thanks again! For the Atomic Insights community – listen to the podcast and share it around!

    1. I just read the article. Thank you.

      I wonder if Dr. Sandman’s Acknowledge and Improve strategy makes sense in this situation. It seems to me that it’s only useful when you have an “honest” opponent driving the controversy. In this case, the opponent will continue to drive the controversy no matter what, because it is fundamentally opposed to nuclear power. No amount of improvement will cause the opponent to go away.

      If my assessment is correct, then it seems to me like the only rational course of action for SCE is to counterattack.

      1. You would be right, I think, if the key players already knew what side they were on.

        But in most controversies, the decisive opinions are those of people who are paying attention but haven’t yet made up their minds … in this case, people who mistrust the nuclear industry and feel some discomfort about nuclear power plants, but wouldn’t want to shut down a functioning nuclear plant unless they were convinced there was a good reason to do so.

        It’s these interested-but-undecided people whose opinions are likely to have the most influence on regulators.

        When a company under attack acknowledges its mistakes and promises to improve (and actually does improve), this audience tends to want to give it a second chance.

        And when critics can’t seem to notice and keep pressing their case as if the company hadn’t responded appropriately, this audience tends to lose patience … with the critics, not the company.

        Smart companies pray for their critics to overplay their hands. Smart companies hope, for example, that their most unreasonably, discourteously antagonistic opponent will come to every public meeting. Such an opponent — I’ll call her “Susan” — turns off more moderate critics and skeptics, who become even more moderate in order to demonstrate that they’re not like Susan. If the company is taking Susan’s criticisms to heart and Susan is ignoring the company’s responsiveness, most people end up rolling their eyes at Susan and beginning to sympathize with the company. They may even end up critical of the company for being unduly tolerant of Susan’s nonsense!

        1. Interesting food for thought. Thank you.

          I can imagine another factor which may be at work.

          With time, the perceived center position on any issue can move. The anti-nuclear forces have been heard so loud and strong, that I think they have moved the center of the issue in the public’s mind/awareness/feelings. If that’s the case, the public may not notice that the opponents are unreasonably strident.

          Or, alternatively, continuing silence by the nuclear industry may allow the opponents to move the center of the issue to more unreasonable territory.

          I think acknowledge and Improve can be a great strategy. I just want to consider possible special cases at work in the SONGS situation before making up my mind — not that my decision has an effect, but it’s an interesting mental exercise.

          I guess I”m cautious because it seems like the nuclear industry has been doing Acknowledge and Improve for 25 years, and the public hasn’t lost patience with the anti-nuclear lobby yet. Perhaps these concepts must be applied in much more specific instances, such as the SONGS case.

          1. Re: “Or, alternatively, continuing silence by the nuclear industry may allow the opponents to move the center of the issue to more unreasonable territory”

            The unreal scream of crickets of the nuclear “industry”/nuclear energy community as a whole is a eternal shameful bewilderment to me. I don’t know whether it’s PR department ineptness or a fatal cockiness that anti-nukers will “blow over” or an overt damning complacency relying on nuclear blogs and productions as “Pandora’s Promise” to haul all the PR/education water for them, but to me there ought be a full quick flush of all nuclear PR and Ad departments and replaced by the likes of these wonderful young nuclear engineer groups. It’s insanely crazy that Indian Point is under siege here but there’s squat Ads by Entergy to educate citizens or even defend the plants. Ditto Vermont Yankee further north. The Tylenol incident showed that a company can royally bounce back from a deadly image and the same can work for nukes — if the powers that be really gave a damn if they had the wits to even do it. No, I can’t begrudge the anti’s for sticking their spears in, no more than I can blame vultures for raiding a carcass. That’s their nature. It’s not nature to just stand there and let the wolves tear you apart without raising a finger much less a fist.

            My ideal “Atomic Show”: A roundtable of the honchos of the PR and Ad departments of as many nuclear plant companies/professional organizations as can be corralled up for a call-in grilling.

            James Greenidge
            Queens NY

  3. I’m really enjoying this! I met Peter in Australia several years ago, I was working under a couple of the main Australian exponents of his methods, and was fortunate to observe some of his seminars for our clients. These last few years I have realised how much sank in and what value it had.

    It helped me write this piece.Reading back over it having refreshed myself on Sandman it’s a good piece, but he might disagree with how I ordered events in my final paragraph. I did like his assertion that “vultures only eat dead meat” and perhaps I should have additionally emphasised something I believe strongly: to place nuclear plants next to populations, but permit those populations to remain completely ignorant with regard to radiation so that effective crisis communication is practically impossible, is negligent and stupid.

    http://decarbonisesa.com/2012/03/12/fukushimas-long-lived-outrage-is-no-nuclear-accident/

  4. Thorium LFTR was developed at ORNL in the 60s, due to the cold war’s need for nuclear weapons and a false start in Fast Breeders, this technology was shelved. It creates creates 1/25,000 of the waste steam of the LWR. Molten Salt Reactors can’t blow up or melt down and burn 99% of its fuel versus the 1% of LWR. Because it is high heat and low pressure and its design is passive control and gravity draining it is walk away safe. More at http://www.energyfromthorium.com

  5. Dr. Sandman’s approach of minimal confrontation sounded interestingly ‘Ghandiesque’. I do remember when Comanche Peak was able to lift many of the opposition-based delays when they instituted a citizen panel that included antis.

    1. ” I do remember when Comanche Peak was able to lift many of the opposition-based delays when they instituted a citizen panel that included antis.”

      How would that work? Seems to me a “citizen panel” with antis would just say “no” to everything and completely halt all progress on the plant? I guess that’s not how it actually happened, though, so I’d be interested to learn more.

  6. If I were to sum up Dr. Sandman’s recommendations for the nuclear industry in one word, that word would be “humility”. He seems to think we have something to be apologetic for. I would agree that the industry has not been very effective at communication with the public, but I am not sure we have all that much to be humble for technically. In fact, admitting technical errors when there isn’t any merely gives the anti- side a club to hit us with. But, as he says, outrage has little to do with the facts.

    If and when there is a follow-up podcast, I would like to hear Dr. Sandman’s opinions on TEPCO’s effectiveness at outrage management, post Fukushima. It might be difficult for a westerner to judge the internal politics of an isolated society such as Japan, but Sandman might still have an opinion. Has the level of outrage gone down over time? From what I read in the admittedly slanted media, I would have to say no. If anything, the outrage level seems to be staying pegged off scale high.

    1. I think the problems for TEPCO began with the fact that they had populations living near plants for decades, yet had seemingly failed to craft any level of general knowledge in those populations about radiation. That made good crisis communication, and it was, in the early stages, a crisis, just so much harder than it should have been.

      I too would like to hear more perspectives on the risk communication on show from TEPCO post the acute crisis. From my friends in Japan, I believe it was all to typical of their corporate and governance culture: Lie/deny, lie/deny, lie/deny…apologise.

    2. I don’t agree that Sandman is suggesting apology for anything that is technically not true. I think his point would be that if anything is technically true, it is not the nuclear operators who get to decide whether it is important or trivial, and deserving of acknowledgement or not. Even more important, if the behaviour of the operator has been inadequate, acknowledge it. If they are smart, the operators will transparently acknowledge technical errors or and or behavioural shortcomings and sometimes apologise.

      This dis-arms the antis, because they only win by stirring up a larger group. If the larger group sees honestly, transparency, humility on display, they pretty quickly get bored and want to talk about something else, like a reasonable outcome, exactly what the anti’s don’t want to see happen! If the larger group sees standoffishness, they will dig in behind the antis until the only outcome that will satisfy is entirely unreasonable.

  7. I have a followup question for Dr. Sandman – he made a comment to the effect of “outrage can’t be manufactured, just exploited” (perhaps not his exact words, but the general gist of one of his statements).

    But, what about outright lies and propaganda? Can’t that “manufacture” outrage so long as people believe those lies? When anti’s release junk-science “studies” showing bogus cancer clusters, deaths, miscarriages, and birth defects which they blame on nuclear plants, doesn’t that manufacture outrage?

    1. But, what about outright lies and propaganda? Can’t that “manufacture” outrage so long as people believe those lies?

      Jeff – That’s just exploiting what’s already there. There has to be an underlying bias and willingness to believe for any lie or trick to work, just ask any good grifter.

      Think of it this way: do you think you could come up with any outright lies and propaganda that could make people hate/fear puppies?

      1. Brian Mays wrote: “Think of it this way: do you think you could come up with any outright lies and propaganda that could make people hate/fear puppies?”

        Puppy mills are very poor sources of electricity, and you really shouldn’t buy your dog from them either. They often have behavior problems (being separated from their mothers too early), living quarters are poor and cramped (leading to injuries of paw and legs, sores, dental abscesses, mange, and other adverse health conditions). Licensing and lax enforcement (low regulatory burden) are also a problem, according to USDA Inspector General Report. So yes, in general, don’t get your electricity from puppy mills. There are also better places to get a dog.

  8. It’s true that a dishonest activist can sometimes arouse outrage against a company, industry, or technology.

    But getting unconcerned people outraged is extremely hard work. And it’s chancy; it usually fails. Mobilizing and exacerbating preexisting outrage is much easier and much safer. And just as most companies have more investment opportunities than investment capital, most activists have more targets to campaign against than campaigners to allocate. So they almost always go for the easy targets.

    Activists don’t usually sit around asking themselves, “What company is behaving well and treating its stakeholders decently that we can lie about and get people to hate?” They’re likelier to ask, “What company is already misbehaving, mistreating its stakeholders, and widely hated that we can organize against to make progress on our issue?”

    Of course activists often exaggerate and sometimes lie, just as companies do. The dishonesty is symmetrical, I believe. Both sides pick their facts carefully to tell half-truths. And both sides see their own half-truths as fundamentally honest because they’re (mis)leading people in the “right” direction, while they see their opponents’ half-truths as fundamentally dishonest because they’re (mis)leading people in the “wrong” direction.

    Although the dishonesty is symmetrical, its results aren’t. Activist half-truths are much more successful than corporate half-truths — for two reasons.

    First, when people are already outraged at a company, they’re predisposed to believe the bad things they hear about that company and disbelieve the good things. So the activists’ half-truths sink in while the company’s half-truths ring false.

    Second, people are more tolerant of over-alarming half-truths than of over-reassuring half-truths. This is a kind of conservativeness. If a smoke alarm goes off when there’s no fire, that’s a minor problem, but if a smoke alarm fails to alert us to a fire, that’s a major problem. We calibrate smoke alarms to go off too much, so they won’t miss a fire. We similarly calibrate activists to go off too much.

    If you ask most people whether anti-nuclear activists overstate the dangers of nuclear power, they’ll say yes. But if you ask them whether that’s a problem, they’ll say, “Not really. It’s their job to get us off our backsides by exaggerating the risk a bit.”

    Then ask whether nuclear utilities overstate the safety of nuclear power. Again they’ll say yes. Is that a problem? “Absolutely! They should throw those bastards in jail!”

    You get to exaggerate when you’re trying to exacerbate people’s outrage — to warn them about something. But when you’re trying to ameliorate people’s outrage — to calm them — you have to stick much more closely to the facts.

    In response to earlier comments, I don’t know as much as I should about Tepco’s recent communications. But when a company’s credibility has been as thoroughly destroyed as Tepco’s was by the way it handled the Fukushima crisis, the only communication posture that can begin the process of redemption is a kind of “radical candor” — and it’s hard to imagine that Tepco has achieved that.

    I also don’t know as much as I should about Tepco’s communications before the tsunami. But I agree that crisis communication is a lot easier if pre-crisis communication has set the scene properly. This is a question I routinely ask my clients in crisis communication trainings: “If X happens someday, what will you want people to already know so they can cope with X intelligently?”

    Some of this is logistical preparedness: emergency procedures and the like. And some of it is context. So, yes, the management of a nuclear plant that may someday leak radiation should try to teach its neighbors enough about radiation that they will be able to assess the seriousness of the leak sensibly.

    For my risk communication commentary on the Fukushima crisis itself, see the following entries in my website Guestbook:
    http://www.psandman.com/gst2011.htm#nukes
    http://www.psandman.com/gst2011.htm#nukes2
    http://www.psandman.com/gst2011.htm#nukes3
    http://www.psandman.com/gst2011.htm#nukes4
    http://www.psandman.com/gst2011.htm#nukes5
    http://www.psandman.com/gst2011.htm#nukes6

  9. We won’t make much progress with the public until we realize how technically arrogant we have been, and fix it. I first realized this when in the early 70s I started an Energy Information Program at my old, beloved company EBASCO SERVICES. I interviewed my company’s executives to round out my perspective (I was only 25 at the time) and I was shocked by their confidence in the technology, a confidence not shared by the public. So I confronted them: “Would they move their family to a home downwind of a genetic engineering facilty?” Silence. Back then the public was afraid of what they didn’t understand. So were my executives. What is different today? Education is the key, but most educators are not fans of nuclear power. We need independent 3rd parties to come out for us. I don’t think we can do much just by ourselves….yet nor can we stop.

  10. You know it’s almost grievously funny. I’m browsing through James Conca’s terrific Pandora’s Promise column on Forbes (http://www.forbes.com/ajax/comment/calledout/2/?contentUri=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.forbes.com%2Fsites%2Fjamesconca%2F2013%2F06%2F09%2Fpandoras-promise-the-sundance-film-festivals-nuclear-expose%2F) and we have reps of every non- boiling water reactor popping up out of the woodwork to further confuse and bewilder the public by hawking that their pet brand of nuke is even better than today’s without understanding that publicly displaying such a seeming schism and uncertainty within the nuclear community is bad-Bad-BAD! Hey, I like molten salt and Thorium and such like the next man, but if folks of all nuclear persuasion aren’t on the same page supporting and espousing the safety records of our current nukes, the doubting public is going to see that these future pet nukes never see light of day! They’re just roses by another name to the public! Imagine a salt-thorium rep facing the likes of a Boxer looking at them crossed-eyed with a smirking saying “A safer nuke? We’ve heard that song before. And you want us to give you a billion to test your pet nuke out while we have a million windmills chugging away? Go take a hike!” Salt/Thor/Fusion guys, fight back the urge to sell what isn’t there (yet) and gather the wagons and support the nukes we have if you ever want to have your day!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  11. Fantastic talk. Mostly lecture not conversation, but was what I’d been wondering about for long time.

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