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Facing Nuclear Fear

Renewing public support after Fukushima Daiichi.

Fortnightly Magazine - October 2011

France recycles its spent nuclear fuel.

To support the country’s nuclear power strategy, the French government and power utilities work systematically to educate citizens about nuclear power, and to provide familiarity with the technology through a policy of transparency. In an interview, Laurent Pernot, the director of communications for Areva in the U.S. and former head of the visitor center at Areva’s La Hague reprocessing facility in France, described the mandated program requiring transparency in communications with the French public. French nuclear operating firms publish environmental and safety reports on their websites, especially if an incident occurs. Operators of French power plants meet monthly with local information committees to share everything that has happened, including corrective actions. France’s nuclear power operations are located in easy view of nearby residents, not hidden away in remote locations. Many local residents work at the plants, and each plant has a visitor center that provides education to the public about nuclear power, radiation and plant operations.

Pernot explained that before the September 11, 2011, terrorist attacks, about 10,000 people visited Areva’s nuclear facilities each year. After 9/11, Areva changed its security policies and its plants now receive about 6,000 invited visitors and officials each year. Nevertheless, visitor centers at Areva’s nuclear plants are open to the public, and continue to be well-visited by students, officials and tourists.

Similarly, EDF’s visitor centers had 200,000 visitors last year, while the Gravelines power plant, where President Sarkozy visited in May, welcomed 7,000 visitors.

France’s visitor centers are now shifting their focus from adults to schoolchildren in grades 7 through 12. Visitor centers are equipped with training simulators, providing a hands-on understanding of how reactors are operated.

In the French model, transparency, necessity, familiarity, local involvement and employment opportunities all contribute to strong political support for nuclear power.

The Japan Scenario

In contrast to France, Japan’s nuclear industry has a history of secrecy and interconnectedness with the government agencies that both promote and regulate nuclear power. The Fukushima Daiichi incident has revealed this opaque culture, and seems to be driving a major change toward more openness, sharing of data, and a more rapid response to protecting public health with bans on occupancy in contamination zones—unlike the Soviet response to Chernobyl, where policy makers were slow to relocate residents away from the area.

Specifically, Japanese regulators have gained greater independence and authority to require information-sharing from nuclear operators.

Despite being a terrible accident, the Fukushima Daiichi disaster killed only two workers. At this writing, no deaths due to radiation exposure have been documented. 8 Nevertheless, each day brings new information about the plant failures and continuing uncertainty about control of problems, such as spent fuel rod storage, and the short- and long-term impacts of radiation. And turmoil in Japan’s government has exacerbated the problem; as this issue was going to press, Japan’s Energy Minister Yoshio Hachiro resigned after just eight days on the job, after coming under fire for referring to the no-go zone around the Fukushima Daiichi plant site as a “town of death.” 9 Perception of the absence of