Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Bicycles and Nuclear Power

Saturday, I fixed my ten-year-old’s bicycle. Or so I thought.

His handlebars were giving him difficulty, he said. I tried to understand what was going on. He sometimes has difficulty expressing himself, but through our talks I thought I’d identified the problem. I tightened a few bolts meant to keep the handlebars from rising or falling into the shaft and thought things were good.

Not so.

Yesterday, I fixed them again. This time, I tightened the bolt that keeps the handlebars from being pushed forward as he rides, not the bolt that keeps them at the requisite height.

I fixed the problem. But to fix the problem, I had to make sure I was speaking the same language as he was. To me, “The handlebars fell forward” meant they’d dropped in height. But no, they’d literally drooped forward.

It’s the same thing we’ve got to do when we want to promote nuclear energy. We’ve got to make sure we’re on the same page.

Matthew Wald, writing at the New York Times’ Business of Green blog, puts it this way:
Underlying public attitudes about nuclear power is, if not fear, at least lingering anxiety. This is the industry that gave American English the all-purpose term for disaster, from the financial markets to a toddler’s tantrum: meltdown. The recent deaths of 29 coal miners in West Virginia, of six construction workers at a natural gas plant in Connecticut in February and of five maintenance workers at a hydroelectric plant in Colorado in October 2007 have not shaken the popular conception that it is nuclear power that is dangerous. This seems to be true even as the meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, before many Americans living today were born, fades into memory.

“The nuclear industry is just so far removed from people’s lives, they don’t have much feeling for it,” said Baruch Fischhoff, a professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “They don’t really trust it. Although it hasn’t done anything recently to lose the general public’s trust, it hasn’t done anything to gain people’s trust.”

Lately, he said, the industry has “fewer enemies, but no friends.”
No friends, you may think. What about me? What about the 62 percent -- an all-time high, Wald says -- of those who support nuclear power? What about President Obama, giving $8 billion in loan guarantees to help build two new nuclear plants in Georgia? Those are friends, right?

Yeah. But when the enemies have symbols like C. Montgomery Burns and Chernobyl to wave in peoples' faces, these kinds of friends aren't enough. It's easy to understand Monty Burns. It's easy to understand Chernobyl. They instantly conjure up images of the evil of nuclear power. We need to find symbols that conjure up the good.

Dan Yurman, writing at Idaho Samizdat, is urging a re-think in how nuclear power advocates present their message. We’ve seen that presenting nuclear as carbon emission-free isn’t winning many advocates among the rank and file who think of nuclear power only in the terms of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. He suggests a retooling to emphasize energy security and safe plant operation:
I’m not arguing for some huge pro-nuclear public relations push. What I do feel is necessary is a complete re-thinking of how the industry presents its case. The industry’s toughest critics are willing to look at nuclear industry in light of the threat of global warming. Is that enough?

What would their view be if we didn’t have this threat? Where would the industry be today? The benefits of nuclear energy cannot be presented merely as “carbon emission free.”

Maybe some scenario thinking in terms of “what if” might surface some ideas. The issues of energy security and safe operation of plants are closely linked in the public’s mind. I think that’s a starting block for where the rethinking of message points needs to take place.
We have strong evidence that nuclear plants can be operated safely. The US nuclear Navy, for example, has operated nuclear-powered vessels for more than 50 years without a single radiation-related fatality. Nuclear power plants worldwide – with the exception of Chernobyl –have operated without fatalities in that same period of time. Yes, we confront Chernobyl, as a cautionary tale on poor reactor design and personality conflict. Yes, we confront the difficulty of storing the wastes that come from nuclear power production, framing that argument in the same light as how to handle wastes that come from power production from coal and natural gas. Brushing these difficulties and accidents under the rug does little to support our advocacy.

I'm a big advocate on learning how the other guy thinks in order to better understand how to pry into that thinking -- and, yes, you do have to pry -- to insert new ideas, be they the 'truth" of climate change or the possibility that nuclear power could be a good thing. Understanding their nuclear bugaboos can help us understand how to better explain our advocacy in ways that answers the questions they have. This, of course, doesn't work for everyone, because as narrow-minded as some can be on climate change, there are just as many as narrow-minded on nuclear power. But it does help get the bicycle fixed if we know what parts are giving the trouble in the first place.

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