Challenging the single story of nuclear

Lego Maggie Simpson holding a teddy bear and pointing a gun at Lego Mr. Burns, who is holding Blinky the fish and a carbon rod

Who shot Mr Burns, by Trev Grant on Flickr [slightly cropped]

“A climate solution is only as good as the story that surrounds it.”

These words sum up the biggest obstacle for nuclear energy communications. Nuclear is widely acknowledged to be an essential ingredient in any effective recipe for climate change aversion, and has been embraced by high-emissions countries such as India and China. As things stand though, its strong association with sickness, destruction and death has built up a dominant story that blocks it from being an effective climate solution.

And yet, nuclear is full of positive and compelling stories that go unshared. This was addressed at the American Nuclear Society’s recent conference, held in Disneyland:

Disneyland and nuclear energy are in many ways not so different. Nearly sixty years ago, Mr. Walt Disney told a story he believed to be one of the most important to our future. Called Our Friend the Atom, this animated lesson examines the history of nuclear energy and the promise it holds for the future. As mentioned in the Opening Plenary, Walt Disney believed that his role as a storyteller was to educate the public about this energy form that is difficult to understand. Even today, with public mistrust of nuclear energy widespread and misinformation rampant online, the nuclear energy society needs to learn to tell its story.

Have you heard Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk on “The Danger of a Single Story“? I highly recommend it. She is gently humorous and insightful, detailing the impact of dominant stories such asĀ  ‘Africans are poor’ on her life. The single story creates stereotypes,” says Adichie, “And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” The single story of nuclear is straightforward: nuclear is dirty and dangerous. It is often juxtaposed with another single story: renewables are clean and safe. The problem with these statements is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete, and placing them in opposition to one another is misleading and harmful.

Adichie notes that “it is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power.” She is right. I must state explicitly that the struggle for public acceptance of nuclear is not even a remotely appropriate comparison to the struggles against systemic oppression to which Adichie refers. I have no intention of portraying nuclear as an underdog; that is just a different single story, no more useful or complete than the one that already exists. We need to talk instead about soft power, i.e. the power of popularity and the influence that brings, which renewable energy has in spades and nuclear does not.

The nuclear industry does not often succeed in communicating the story of nuclear it really wants people to hear, in part because the single story – ‘nuclear is dirty and dangerous’ – is so accepted that challenging or even avoiding it is considered morally repugnant. To write a wholly positive piece on nuclear makes you a shill, an apologist, heartless. Renewable energy, by contrast, has amassed so much soft power that its writers are not held to such standards. Those writing positively on hydro power are not accused of being denalists if they choose not to mention Banqiao Dam, for example. In order to become an effective climate solution this is the level of soft power the nuclear industry needs to build up. It can start by working to develop a “balance of stories“.

In TV series Mad Men, one character gives this advice: “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” I spent some time thinking about the nuclear stories that have caught my interest recently. There are stories of anti-nuclear environmentalists turned pro-nuclear; nuclear workers explaining the correct use of protective equipment in an ebola outbreak; a government agency’s struggle to keep exploring deep space; a play on the woman who shattered the glass ceiling before anyone knew to give it a name; young graduates determined to shake up the industry with old technology made new… I repeat: nuclear is full of positive and compelling stories.

This is a call to smartphones and keyboards for Generation Y in particular: tell your story. Start a blog, podcast, Instagram, Twitter account, YouTube channel, Vine, whatever you enjoy, and get your personal, unique thoughts and experiences of nuclear energy on the internet, where others can find it. If you work in a nuclear-related company, show the world that mines and power plants are a living part of real communities. If you run such a company, enable or even incentivise your workers to make this contribution. Stories matter. They yield real consequences, and the nuclear industry must place a higher value on developing multiple nuclear stories to balance out the single story. If you believe, as I do, that nuclear is essential for us to be able to effectively combat climate change, these stories could literally help save the world.

I leave the World Nuclear Association next week, where I have now worked for just over two years as executive assistant to the Director General, Agneta Rising. I cannot tell you how influential this time has been for my life and career, and it is without question thanks to the patience and enthusiasm of my colleagues that I am writing any of this today. Special thanks must go to Jeremy Gordon, Jonathan Cobb and in particular David Hess, who was not only the first to tell me I should become an advocate but has offered proofreading, information and encouragement every step of the way. It will be hard to go without the easy access to distilled information and unconditional support that I have enjoyed at WNA.

I will not be working in an energy company but I will continue to advocate, and I intend to practise what I preach. As we come up to my last day on Christmas Eve and a fresh start in 2015, I am making New Year’s resolutions for Nuclear Layperson. They are all informed by the same intention I had when I started this blog: to make nuclear energy as accessible and exciting to others outside the nuclear industry as my WNA colleagues did for me. In order to accomplish this it is essential to challenge the single story of nuclear, and the more people take on that challenge the easier it will be for all of us to make a real impact on public attitudes. I have big plans for my own small corner of nuclear communications in 2015, and I hope those of you reading this do too.


2 responses to “Challenging the single story of nuclear

  1. Closely related to the false story that nuclear is “dirty and dangerous” is that it is inherently linked to The Bomb and that nothing good could ever come from such a terrible weapon.

    My story is that the Bomb came before useful power only by a strange historical accident. If Fermi and his skilled team had recognized that they had produced fission fragments, not transuranic elements in 1934 there would have been enough time to develop reliable power concepts before jumping to the far more technically and economically difficult task of isolating U-235 and producing Pu-239 in order to create a deliverable explosive device.

    In contrast, the story about fossil fuels is that they are a cheap source of power without any special dangers. The reality that most people in the world have known is that fossil fuels are only “cheap” in comparison to other available fuels and that many people struggle mightily to be able to afford even a modest quantity of them. They are also inherently dirty and dangerous enough so that people have to be very cautious in their use.

    Because of the limitations of fossil fuels, the physicists that were pursuing energy from inside the atom, especially those with commercial application and engineering experience, were not seeking explosives, they were seeking useful power to serve human needs. That is most especially true of Leo Szilard, who actually conceived and patented the chain reaction before Hahn, Meitner, Frisch and Straussman recognized uranium fission. He also patented a power reactor before beginning work on The Bomb.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Here’s a different story that I’ve been focused on for the past couple of years:

    Radiation is not harmful.

    It sounds insane, and the opposite of everything we’ve been told about radiation, but my in-depth research in this area informs me that the dose of ionizing radiation that one would have to receive to be harmful is so high, it is almost being the mind’s capacity to imagine. Here is a nice position paper from, guess who, the WNA, on Chernobyl:

    In it, you will read how radiation fears have been grossly hyperbolized, and how LNT is tantamount to a hoax that has been played on the human population.


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