Malcolm Grimston, a senior research fellow at Imperial College in the UK, gave a fascinating talk to the Canadian Nuclear Association’s February 2016 meeting. His message includes powerful suggestions for people who are excited about the prospects of using nuclear energy to solve some of humanity’s most wicked problems. It’s also a critical message for the professionals that believe the only reason the public fears radiation is that they don’t know enough about it.
Please take the time to watch the below video if you are in either of those categories.
For the people reading this post that are simply interested in learning and have a lot of other things to do with the half hour it will take to watch the video, here is a synopsis of Grimston’s message along with a bit of commentary from someone who’s been writing and talking about the amazing capabilities of atomic fission for more than 25 years.
Though there are many nuclear professionals that express the notion that the public has an irrational fear of radiation — and I plead guilty to having made that very statement on occasion — Grimston lays out an excellent case for his theory that the public is responding to nuclear industry communications in a perfectly rational fashion. It is not just responding to the carefully crafted messages provided at public meetings and in literature designed to “communicate to the public,” it is also responding to the messages communicated by actions.
As any parent, teacher, coach or manager should know, people pay more attention to actions than they do to words. A parent smoking a cigarette is ineffective at discouraging his children from taking up the habit; an obese coach isn’t very inspirational as a fitness mentor; and a teacher who is obviously unprepared to answer any questions outside of the words in the textbook is not going to encourage broad interest in the topic under discussion no matter how many times he admonishes students that apparently did not complete their reading assignments.
Grimston points out that power companies that lead with a message of “Safety is our number 1 priority,” capture the attention of people who naturally want something to worry about. That message immediately makes them wonder – you mean efficiently generating electricity isn’t at the top of your list? Making money by being the most cost effective supplier isn’t a high priority? Generating electricity with ever lower quantities of pollution and carbon dioxide isn’t as important to you as it is to me?
If all you care about is safety, here’s a great way to be more safe – stop whatever actions you are doing that pose the risk you are worried about.
If being safe is your highest priority — even above getting from point A to point B — stay out of automobiles. If being safe is your highest priority — even above teaching your children to swim, helping them gain confidence, improving their fitness and having a great time laughing and playing with them — stay away from swimming pools, lakes, rivers and oceans and for goodness sakes, don’t buy a house with one of those deadly bodies of water in the backyard.
If you are a power company that operates nuclear plants and the primary thing you care about is keeping them safe, why don’t you just shut them all down?
Grimston points to the reactions to Fukushima and the extremely destructive nature of the response, with its forced relocation of perhaps 100,000 citizens, and tells the audience that the public has a logical basis for being afraid of radiation and right to be distrustful of whatever the government is telling them about it. There are not too many ways for someone to interpret the current message being delivered by the Japanese government’s response.
Either radiation is really dangerous, even at levels well below those voluntarily accepted at historically popular health spas with radium laced water emanating radon gas, or natural radiation has a different effect on human health than radiation released from nuclear power plants, or the decision makers are completely nuts by imposing enormous costs and destroying thousands of lives by forcing people to leave their homes, communities, and businesses.
Grimston concludes by pointing to the fact that public opinion about nuclear energy in Great Britain has rather steadily increased since 2000 when the government dramatically reduced its spending on educating the public about radiation and instead began making plans to allow investors to build new nuclear power stations as part of the effort to create a prosperous economy that produces less carbon dioxide.
Now, instead of messages aiming at educating the public about the hazards of radon in their basement, the public gets advertising from EDF with the simple message that it is generating reliable, low-carbon electricity with nuclear power.
Grimston’s message is important and thought-provoking.
As a professional writer and speaker, I understand the frustration that can come when someone criticizes a work by pointing out what wasn’t said. So, just in case Malcolm Grimston comes across this piece, my additional commentary is not a criticism of his talk.
It is worthwhile reminding readers that the the “nuclear industry” is fairly small and that many of the players included in what many people call “the nuclear industry” are actually part of the much larger energy industry. They are not specifically interested in making nuclear successful; they are interested in maximizing their individual or corporate returns from the energy business.
If the computed way to maximize returns is to build and operate nuclear power sources in a cost-effective manner, companies will follow a path that will continuously improve their ability to do that. If that includes ads that excite the public and attract investors, you’ll start to see more of those on a screen, billboard, magazine or newspaper near you.
If companies determine that selling hydrocarbons at the highest price the market will bear maximizes their profits, the path followed will be entirely different. It may involve efforts to drive the cost of nuclear energy so high as to halt investor interest or to temporarily drive fuel and electricity prices low enough to force out enough competitors to push the supply/demand balance into “bullish” territory.
If someone’s job is to protect people from low doses of radiation, they are unlikely to spend much time determining a threshold below which radiation is harmless or sharing that knowledge if they already have it.
Looking back to my days as a privileged and well-compensated nuclear trained submarine officer, I can also testify that there are at least some participants in the nuclear enterprise that feel it is worthwhile to pretend that radiation is a scary thing that requires a special kind of individual to use it safely.
After all, who would keep approving generous bonus packages if there were a flood of high quality, enthusiastic applicants for nuclear power training? I suspect that there is a similar motivation in the nuclear industry.
Based on my experience as a member of the chamber of commerce in a small town, there is not universal support for new enterprises that bring high paying jobs to an area. Service providers, restauranteurs, and merchants will applaud the project, but large, well-established factories, resorts, or farms that take advantage of an available low wage work force are often led by powerful local citizens that won’t appreciate the upward pressure on wages, the competition for their most productive workers, or the threat to their leading role in community affairs.
It might be their spouses, relatives, managers or friends that show up at the public meeting to oppose the development and insert as many delays and additional costs as possible, but the underlying motive will be protecting established interests.
My point is that you might think you are working in the nuclear industry and cannot understand why your corporate messaging is so adamant about doing exactly what Grimston warns against. The answer might be that you need to look for a different job because you are working for a company that has no real interest in prioritizing the use of nuclear energy to solve large problems.
Thank you Andre. Your very first comment on Atomic Insights led me to Grimston’s valuable talk.