Faced by the challenge of energy security, the UK nuclear industry is recognising the need to engage with society on the case for nuclear power. Professor Andrew Sherry explains.
Many areas of science and engineering are difficult to discuss with the public. This is particularly true where views are entrenched and polarised. Nuclear energy is an important case in point.
On the one hand, advocates highlight the reliability of low carbon nuclear energy. On the other, dissenters concentrate on waste and safety. A recent public opinion poll revealed that almost half of those contacted supported the building of new nuclear power stations to replace those being phased out: this was more than twice the number opposing such a move.
But why is public opinion on nuclear energy important and why should the sector engage with society in this debate?
First, public support provides the political mandate for the Government to move forward. The trilema of maintaining secure, affordable and low carbon energy for the UK is likely to require a mix of electricity generation, including renewables, carbon capture and storage…. plus nuclear energy. Public support nationally and locally for nuclear energy is important to enable the political parties to back nuclear as part of the energy mix.
Secondly, there are major benefits from nuclear renewal if public support translates to political action. EDF Energy’s new nuclear build at Hinkley Point is valued at £14bn and will attract new jobs to Somerset and across the UK supply chain in manufacturing, construction, science and engineering. Delivering the wider new nuclear build programme across the UK will generate around 30,000 new jobs. This will have a major socio-economic impact.
Thirdly, public support for nuclear energy is needed to attract new skills into the sector. Over the next decade around half of those working in the nuclear sector today will retire. This, combined with the expansion of the sector through new nuclear build, creates a skills challenge. There is a need to engage with young people to attract them into nuclear apprenticeships and university courses. The National Skills Academy for Nuclear (NSAN) is at the forefront of this agenda.
The Nuclear Industry Council has recognised the importance of public engagement with nuclear energy and developed a policy and a plan to enhance this area. Industry and government have worked together to develop a four-point strategy for better communication: leadership, best practice, nuclear narrative and research.
When the nuclear sector’s public engagement programmes were reviewed it became clear that a lot was happening already. EDF Energy has opened visitor centres at all of its nuclear sites and The Beacon in Whitehaven has recently opened the ‘Sellafield Story’. There are almost 40 organisations and a hundred web pages devoted to communicating with the public on nuclear matters. Whilst most were excellent, this range of content demonstrated that the sector was fragmented in its approach.
To address this, we agreed to establish a senior communications group made up of communication professionals from across the sector. This created the opportunity for the industry to be more joined-up in communications, share best practice and align approaches.
The nuclear sector has, in the past, been perceived as secretive and sometimes unwilling to engage with the public. One of the recommendations following the Fukushima nuclear accident was for the industry to become more open and transparent. To help develop a more open approach to public engagement, the sector is developing a ‘Concordat’ on public engagement, which industry leaders aim to endorse next year. Alongside practical guidance on its implementation for company directors, managers and the workforce, the Concordat sets out the four principles for engagement with society.
1. Leadership Commitment: the sector recognises the importance of public engagement and places a high priority on this, providing the leadership and resources needed to enable those working in the sector to engage with society.
2. Best Practice: the sector’s public engagement will be characterised by:
Dialogue: valuing two-way communication;
Trust: building trust by showing respect and being open and transparent;
Clarity: ensuring clear, consistent and concise communications; and
Consultation: providing mechanisms to listen to communities.
3. Effective Communicators: the sector recognises that its people are ambassadors and that independent experts have an important role to play in public communications.
4. Making a Difference: the sector recognises the importance of public attitudes to nuclear energy and the need to regularly review progress in fostering engagement with society.
Nuclear energy makes an important contribution to providing power to our homes, factories, hospitals, schools, offices, shops and all other places where we live and work. Without it, the UK would struggle to meet the country’s needs, damaging our economy and standard of living, while creating uncertainties for the future. To ensure clarity of this message, the sector is developing an engaging, factually accurate and consistent energy narrative. This will be agreed across the whole industry and highlight the benefits of nuclear power and address public concerns.
The strategy recognises that there is a fundamental requirement for high quality research to underpin the framing of an adaptable energy policy that is responsive to current events. This needs to be the basis of engagement at national, local and individual levels.
Interdisciplinary research that bridges the nuclear community, social sciences and humanities is required to understand public attitudes to nuclear energy, the reasons for these attitudes, how these are shaped by events and the underlying misconceptions that have developed over time.
Research should also address how communications on nuclear matters can become more effective, what the industry can learn from elsewhere and which communication channels and tools can help address current and emerging issues in the public eye in order to increase public acceptance.
These new initiatives will provide fresh impetus to the nuclear industry and assist it to work with government to enhance engagement with the public on nuclear energy. This will help ensure that the UK continues to address the energy trilema, grows a successful and sustainable nuclear industry and develops the next generation of nuclear skills.