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Facing Nuclear Fear

Renewing public support after Fukushima Daiichi.

Fortnightly Magazine - October 2011

with programs at vocational schools and a nearby junior college. PSE&G donated its exhibit designs to NEI, toward an effort to make visitor centers more standardized and affordable throughout the industry.

Interviews with sources at Duke Energy and Southern Nuclear Co. about their visitor centers are also revealing. Both companies have made significant commitments to public education through their centers, with different approaches and different outcomes. Duke’s visitor center in North Carolina sees about 30,000 visitors per year. Southern Nuclear, with 3,000 visitors a year at its centers, also has developed a comprehensive and informative media package to support its overall outreach efforts.

In addition to visitor centers, nuclear operators can improve public perception through media relations and direct communications efforts, including advertising. In the 1980s, the Atomic Industrial Forum (AIF) invested $20 million in a national ad campaign to educate the public about nuclear power when members realized that media coverage of the TMI nuclear accident was heightening public fears. Initially the advertising campaign was opposed by the major networks, which refused to accept the advertising. Eventually, two networks were convinced the message was acceptable and non-biased, and ran the ads.

Mark Mills, who led AIF’s communications efforts at the time, recalls that the ads were effective in reaching the public. Then, in the mid-1990s, several Frontline programs on nuclear power brought out the facts about safety and risk, and confronted critics like Ralph Nader with positive evidence from the industry. It seemed like a major turnaround in the media.

Today, after Fukushima, the media is focused on public fears again, but the global energy context is different today from what it was in the 1980s. Concerns about energy independence have peaked in the wake of the Arab Spring, and in the midst of global economic turmoil. Additionally, concerns about climate change remain potent despite retrenchment on federal legislative efforts. Drought-stricken Texas is literally on fire, after the hottest summer on record. The Atlantic coast has been battered and flooded in the most active hurricane season in recent times. And Midwestern floods, tornadoes and generally changing weather patterns have Americans on edge across the country’s breadbasket.

In this context, leaders of the environmental movement have become supporters of nuclear power as an important and essential power option for reducing GHG emissions. They include Stewart Brand, publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog ; Stephen Tindale and Patrick Moore, formerly of Greenpeace; Mike Childs, of Friends of the Earth in England; and Steve Cochran, vice president of climate and air for the Environmental Defense Fund.

These trends create a strong foundation for the industry’s communications and outreach efforts (see “Nuclear Outreach Checklist”) .

Restarting the Renaissance

Whether nuclear power is seen as a bridge to alternative green energy technologies, or as a permanent participant in the mix of energy sources, it’s here to stay for the foreseeable future. The anticipated nuclear renaissance is on hold at the moment for a variety of reasons—from the new availability of an abundant supply of natural gas, to a renewed sense of fear in the aftermath of