What it means to be pro-nuclear (part 2)

Honestly, I still struggle to call myself pro-nuclear in public. I often deflect the question of my work at social occasions, knowing full well that to admit it in unsympathetic company means steeling myself to defend and justify the actions around the world of an industry I’ve not been in long and don’t fully understand. ‘Pro-nuclear’, with all its misconceptions and baggage, can be a big label to take on.

What it means to be pro-nuclear (part 1)

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On Sunday 21st September 2014 I was one of tens of thousands walking down Embankment, Whitehall, Parliament Square in the People’s Climate March in London. I was pretty excited about it too; for me, this cause gives the most meaning to my work at the World Nuclear Association. At the same time, despite being called the People’s Climate March, I think no-one will be surprised to hear that I was even more hesitant than usual to take on the pro-nuclear label.

“Groups” – that was an optimistic moment. I’m not sure when I felt the most unwelcome: when a complete stranger took it upon himself to educate me on the number of people killed by radiation in Fukushima, or at the closing rally when an invited speaker declared, “We don’t need nuclear!” to cheers and applause. Or maybe it was right at the start, when I spent 10 minutes staring at an empty placard, pen in hand, trying to figure out a slogan with subtle pro-nuclear sentiment but no risk of negative attention. I felt like an undercover agent… at a demonstration for a cause I strongly believe in. Isn’t that sad?

This, too, is what it can mean to be pro-nuclear. To march in solidarity with people who view your work as toxic, to pretend their words on ‘clean energy’ and ‘zero carbon’ include nuclear energy until someone says something that makes it impossible to pretend any longer. It is sad, but not unexpected. To decide you support nuclear energy is only half of what it means to be pro-nuclear; the other half is in deciding how to handle anti-nuclear sentiment you encounter.

And make no mistake, this sentiment is everywhere. It’s easy to find angry anti-nuclear tweets, comments and YouTube videos, but even in the news, for example, it is constant. More subtle, perhaps, but just consider articles about the energy policy of nuclear countries that don’t once use the word nuclear, or that shoehorn imaginary “safety worries” into a headline when the content mentions nothing of the sort, or that are ostensibly about renewable energy but spend most of their word count positioning renewables against nuclear without even mentioning the prospect of working together.

Please note that these stories are all from a three-day period of uncontroversial news. Nuclear aversion is an embedded attitude, and you will see it demonstrated or accommodated not just by journalists but by politicians, celebrities, business leaders, even some in the nuclear industry!

The most popular way for pro-nuclear folks to respond to this is to do our best to get the facts out there. That way, we reason, everyone can increase their awareness and take an informed position. We point out the inaccuracies, engage with people in comments and post rebuttals or clarifications in an effort to give our opponents ample evidence and information to promote the acceptability of nuclear energy. This is the intuitive way to defuse and eliminate harmful anti-nuclear sentiment. It’s certainly what I’ve been trying my hardest to do with what limited knowledge I have.

Unfortunately it’s often ineffective or even counterproductive.

“People become entrenched in their world views, and if you present information that opposes their world view they’ll actually strengthen their existing world view. So it’s not only wrong, but it’s also potentially harmful.”

– Suzy Hobbs Baker (Nuclear Literacy Project), International Youth Nuclear Congress 2014

The whole video is worth watching for those interested in nuclear communications, but in the two minutes from 09:20 Suzy covers several key points:

  1. People are not automatically receptive to challenging new information
  2. By challenging someone’s views you risk strengthening them
  3. By being unaware of 1 and 2, the nuclear industry tends to use and support communication methods that work against its own interests and goals

From 24:30-27:00 Suzy covers one more vital point: the two factors most important to people in determining whether we like or trust somebody are 1) warmth and 2) competence. Scientists come across as highly competent, but not warm. The value scientists place on neutrality can come across as cold, untrustworthy and dangerous. Suzy’s conclusion: “We need to think about ways to maintain our neutrality as a scientific community but to increase our warmth in terms of our personalities.”

So, fellow pro-nuclearites, it seems we have a choice. Do you want most to be right or to be effective?

To be clear, I am not criticising anyone who uses social media in the way I described above, to directly challenge and correct anti-nuclear sentiment. No doubt there will be times when I use this blog for that purpose too, and I can’t count the number of Facebook conversations friends have started since March 2011 that I have jumped into with a most unwelcome “Well, ACTUALLY… (#notALLnuclearplants #notALLradiation)”. To be pro-nuclear is to face slow progress, sensationalised reporting, political obstacles, public anger, even personal insults. You have every right to use social media as a vent for these frustrations and to correct misinformation where you see it. I’m not going to No True Scotsman you; there are many ways to be pro-nuclear.

But recognise it for what it is, and for what it is not. It is valuable for you as a pro-nuclear individual who is part of a pro-nuclear community; it is not effective advocacy for the nuclear industry.

As pro-nuclear people, we pride ourselves on doing on our own research, trusting evidence, weighing up risk and coming to our own informed conclusions. Based on the evidence Suzy provided, my own research around the topic and the risk I perceive in ignoring this information, here’s my conclusion: we should have been visible at the People’s Climate March, showing that pro-nuclear marchers are on the same side as anti-nuclear activists against the enormous and complex issue of climate change. Rather than trying to convert anyone to our way of thinking or be drawn into combative discussions with no winner, we should have expressed genuine empathy and support for the concerns we have in common. We should have focused on building relationships with the people around us and putting a human face on an industry perceived as too cold to trust.

The day of the climate march I wanted simply to attend, observe, take notes and paint a picture for pro-nuclear friends. That is no longer enough. The next time I attend a climate demonstration it will be as a pro-nuclear advocate, fighting not to clear the name of the nuclear industry but for the people around me to recognise me as an ally. In my current situation and at my present level of knowledge, this is what it means for me to be pro-nuclear.

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6 responses to “What it means to be pro-nuclear (part 2)

  1. Well spoken and I applaud you on taking the step to be more public. You can think of it as being fun too – you are in the minority but you have science guarding your back!

    Remember too, we are all beings that can easily fall prey to the bias of, “I’m right, even if the facts say I am not.” Let’s be patient and also realize that we can be shown new light ourselves which may lead to a change in opinion. Last week I was in an exchange on a comment thread with very bright people who wanted to make solar/wind the only true option for all the world’s carbon-free energy needs. I would love for those options to be the solution but science dictates that their general expense and less-than-optimum performance will keep them out in the cold for quite some time to come. I like the idea of both options, I just don’t like the reality of where we stand with regards to current energy needs.

    But being nicer and more “soft” can only help the cause of promoting a better energy solution. Thank you for posting!

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  2. I for one feel that it is enormously important to present atomic energy not from the position of “it’s not as bad as you think, & here’s why”, but in a genuine positive light. This has led me to propose the use of slogans or messages such as “Atomic Power to the People”, and “No Blood for Oil — Atoms for Peace”. These, crucially, are messages which diverge somewhat from the “industrial communications” line, being oriented towards the human experience.

    We must emphasize that it is a high-energy society which promises a decent forward path for humanity, & that this requires a large increase in total global primary energy production, nett of all conservation measures. If that is not an integral part of our message, the fact that fission can provide it in a way no other currently-available energy source (fossil or otherwise) promises doesn’t make much of a difference. The antinuclear movement from its very beginnings was driven by believers in the low-energy society, and they continue to set the tone for Western “greens” even today — even though most people who align with environmentalism do not in fact agree with the premise, if they once have it brought to their attention.

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  3. Amelia, thank you for this piece and the invaluable insights. It is, in it’s own right, an outstanding piece of advocacy.

    Thank you also for sharing Suzy’s words and highlighting her work. I have known her for some time from afar but we only recently got to work together in Spain. She’s outstanding, a real champion of this cause who comes from a base of evidence, research, and applied experience.

    There are many in the nuclear fraternity who need to ask themselves some searching questions about what it is they actually know and are good at. If the answer does not include “advocacy and communication” then they need to speak less and listen more to the many people they can learn from. That’s if they want to be effective of course. If they want to be right, to vent and slam people, well, carry on. That will ensure pro-nuclear remains an exclusive clique instead of a popular movement.

    It’s no surprise to me that the best person I know in this field is Suzy, and you have written some great pieces, two in a row: two females showing how it is done. These are standard feminine attributes we are talking about (warmth in particular). That doesn’t mean men can’t do it, but they may need to try harder and learn. It doesn’t mean that a man who does it is not masculine. It just mean’s he’s effective and choosing to have tools other than a hammer at the ready. Men like Robert Stone in his Q&A sessions, or my mate The Actinide Age on his blog, they communicate in a way that is warm and it works. Men need to stop being scared of femininity and start applying it.

    “I found myself liking Robert Stone , for his enthusiasm, and sincere concern about climate change.”. That, from one of Australia’s most hardened anti-nuclear bloggers. Just imagine what the rest of the audience felt about him. http://antinuclear.net/2013/10/09/

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    • Thank you, thank you for all of the kind words!! It’s amazing to see folks discovering ways to utilize social science & support one another in our education and outreach efforts. Definitely agree that there is an underlying gender issue that needs more exploration/consideration – and that elevating the voices of women who support nuclear is one of the more powerful things we can do to shed the industry’s “cold” persona. Good stuff all around!

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  4. Pingback: Pride and prejudice and pro-nuclear advocacy | Nuclear Layperson·

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