Is public acceptance a business risk for the nuclear industry?

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Having spent a day at the World Nuclear Association’s (WNA) annual Symposium in London, this reporter came away with the view that the nuclear sector’s key focus at present centres on two issues: security of fuel supply and public acceptance of nuclear power.  

Neither issue is exactly breaking news; both have been longstanding concerns for the industry – the latter, of course, especially since Fukushima. But there are several interesting observations one can draw from the presentations I saw and the discussions around them.

Fuel supply in itself is not an issue for the nuclear sector. As Helmut Engelbrecht, Urenco CEO, put it, “the industry is more concerned about security of supply than availability of fuel because there always has and will be plenty. We can build our facilities faster than you can build new reactors. We will always be able to serve [our customers’] needs provided we get reasonable return on our investments.”  

But security of supply is another matter. The established global fuel cycle supply chain is watching with a degree of concern to see whether fuel cycle facility projects being undertaken or considered by security-conscious established and emerging nuclear countries will eat into their profit margins. As panel moderator Geoff Varley of NAC asked, “Will sovereign fuel cycle facility projects be added to an industry already oversupplied in all sectors? Opportunity or just a threat?”

The sector, of course, is cautious about change. Yoichi Maeda, Senior Advisor at Mitsubishi, said: “I don’t deny that if a country wants to have a domestic facility for security reasons, that is ok. But you have to think about economics, and existing reliable suppliers are already in place.” Varley added: “There is very strong due diligence that would have to be done before we see new fuel cycle suppliers.”  

And while emerging markets bring opportunities, they also bring uncertainty. Lyudmila Zalimskaya, General Director of Tenex, said international suppliers’ access to new markets can be easier “because new countries do not have their own supply infrastructure, but from the other side, these countries’ environments involve a different package of services. This pushes international suppliers to a higher level of their abilities.”

Still, the speakers were uniformly positive about the sector’s future prospects in emerging markets, citing India especially as having great market potential.  

The discussions around public acceptance ranged from nervous to heated. Marv Fertel, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, gave a presentation that, halfway through, I began to term the “We don’t get no respect” speech. Nuclear power is “not necessarily treated the way it should be in liberalized competitive markets”, he said, and governments fail to “recognize all of the valuable attributes [nuclear] brings to a market”. Nuclear plants “provide grid stability and voltage support but get almost zero value for what they do on that”, while the “other two values not appreciated in a monetary way” are nuclear plants’ contributions to local economies and its potential to step up when, as happened in Fertel’s US home town last winter, “gas prices went up due to the polar vortex and nuclear plants performed exceptionally well because they have fuel in the core.”

But aside from this one reference to policy issues, the discussion around public acceptance focused on how to communicate to the public that nuclear power is safe. After a number of presentations on this topic, I began to wonder whether a lack of public acceptance should be categorized as a business risk, and insured against as policy change and geopolitical factors now are.

From an observer’s point of view it seems that the industry as a whole has exerted tremendous, ongoing efforts in this area with no statistically observable positive result, although I did see one invited speaker, Stephen Tindale, an environmentalist, former head of Greenpeace UK and former anti-nuclear campaigner, who now embraces nuclear as part of a low-carbon energy mix and said that “Opposing nuclear power and being an environmentalist are completely inconsistent”.

Again, safety itself doesn’t really seem to be the problem since pretty much all potential safety issues in nuclear power seem to have been analyzed, strategized and had fixes undertaken where necessary since Fukushima – but, as Tindale put it, “the issue of trust in nuclear is more to do with the industry’s past behaviour than with the technology’s safety.”

This past behaviour has given rise to a negative image in media and popular culture, said Jason Cameron, vice-president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s Regulatory Affairs branch. “Popular culture reinforces a risk bias” where “the stigma around nuclear power creates questions regarding safety for the average person.” It’s “science versus the 24/7 media cycle”, and it is “difficult for the average person to find out basic information and whose advice [they should] follow,” he said.  This has led, in some cases, to people wanting what he termed the “BANANA approach: Build Almost Nothing Anywhere Next to Anyone”.

“Making a big deal of safety actually focuses attention on the risk and makes consequences seem unthinkable, makes things worse,” tweeted Jeremy Gordon of the WNA. But unfortunately, despite all of the work done so far, the nuclear industry still needs to address the public’s deep-seated fears: it must make up for our long memories of Fukushima (and Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island) by showing that it has addressed past issues. And it needs to do this while making the case for nuclear power as a vital part of a transition to a low-carbon future.  

Phumzile Tshelane, Necsa CEO, perhaps put it best: “We [in the nuclear industry] can’t always pretend to be talking in flow charts, using equations, when we talk to our friends or family, or our neighbours. We sound like we’re hiding something,” he said.

“We are the public. The safety of nuclear power is as important to the operator sitting inside the plant as it is to the person sitting outside the fence,” he expained. “We need to be talking to the public in a way that is accessible, and does not hide the facts in gobbledegook. We need to be thinking of ourselves as the consumers of what we’re producing, and don’t seek to be defensive. When there’s an incident there’s the potential for a large segment of the population to be affected: you know it’s true, so say yes. But look at the track record and the history and say, should I not be using a nuclear plant because of that?

“When we talk about public acceptance,” he continued, “we look at the public and say ‘Do you accept?’. We should rather look at it from the perspective of what is of benefit to the public, and what key issues would members of public like to know about the technology? The industry should talk about its proud history of safety, without any excuse,” he concluded.

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