Dorothy Seed (left), Head of Communications, Corporate Affairs, BNFL, says that growing public understanding of the impending energy crisis has reduced hostility to nuclear power
It is a memory that still remains with me. As our holiday flight prepared for take-off I heard a loud voice from a few rows behind. “I work for Public Enemy Number One”.
A few seconds pause, as fellow travellers like me assumed the very vocal passenger was about to refer to the Inland Revenue. But no, it turned out he worked for the nuclear industry and was just expressing his own feelings about working in an industry that nobody liked or trusted.
That was back in the 1980s when the UK nuclear industry was going through a very difficult time. Company press officers were inundated on an almost daily basis with negative stories at national and local level and they were permanently on the defensive.
There was also another side to public attitudes, perhaps best summed up by a comment I received from a member of the public visiting a nuclear exhibition stand in North West England. “Nuclear power, that’s a thing of the future isn’t it?” The fact that, even in those days, nuclear energy was contributing more than one fifth of the UK’s electricity supplies was generally not widely known.
However, it is the development in public attitudes towards nuclear energy over the past three years that reveals a fascinating story. That story can be traced by looking at qualitative and quantitative surveys carried out over that time period for BNFL as well as the Nuclear Industry Association. In 2003 and 2004 a series of focus groups with the general public on nuclear energy and nuclear waste produced a range of familiar attitudes and comments.
On the one hand there were no surprises – there was concern, lack of knowledge, anxiety. On the other hand, though, there were some first indications that people were genuinely interested in the topics and were open to discussion, particularly when the groups were reconvened. The “reconvened” approach meant that, following the first session, people were encouraged to research the topics and look at the issues in more detail. That’s when they started to engage.
A key challenge for any communications activity is to make your communication relevant to the audience. If an issue is seen to be real, with potential personal impact, then people will want to know more; in turn they will become more informed and take time to think things through. If issues are too remote then it is easier to borrow attitudes and adopt them, or simply not to form an opinion at all.
That’s exactly what we were seeing on energy issues. Energy in general had been fairly low on the public’s agenda for some time. However, the moment that banner newspaper headlines appeared, using words like “Blackout Thursday” and referring to “a spectre of blackouts and shutdowns…”, that agenda suddenly changed.
Energy had become personally relevant as the London blackout in August 2003 gave people a glimpse of what life would be like without electricity. This marked the beginning of a sea change in attitudes and created a pull for information that had not existed before.
There was genuine surprise at the rising levels of gas we would need to import as our own resources reduced and at how soon our older coal and nuclear power stations would reach the end of their working lifetimes. Added to that, the prospects of climate change and its likely causes and consequences were just beginning to be understood.
We must also look at the broader context in which those focus groups took place. The nuclear industry worldwide had been getting on with the job, nuclear reactor operations had become more efficient, management and control had improved. In summary, there had been nothing to stir public concern. The traditional ping-pong match of the “pros” and the “antis” was stalling.
In the nuclear industry we had become so used to riding down tramlines of negative attitudes that it was easy to forget the wider world. A MORI survey carried out for the Nuclear Industry Association with the general public in November 2005 helped put things in their proper perspective. Nuclear power did not feature in the main issues of concern identified by the public.
Similarly, nuclear waste was way down the scale in terms of environmental issues that are of most concern. In fact what struck us most about the result from this question was the big increase in those expressing concern about global warming and climate change, up nearly 20 percentage points from the previous year.
The bigger picture, then, was a much more constructive context for the debate on nuclear energy. Issues such as security of energy supplies, climate change and the cost of energy, as well as waste and competitive markets, are pieces of a large jigsaw which can be placed together and evaluated rationally, even in their complexity. In fact, nuclear energy comes into each part of the equation in this bigger picture, and this is where the nuclear industry has had a unique platform on which to present information and debate the facts.
Shift in Opinion
At the same time there has been a tremendous demand for information from the public, media, academics, parliamentarians, business organisations and other associated companies. Meeting that demand and ensuring input into the wider debate has utilised the skills of communicators and specialists alike, across the whole of the industry.
Alongside this we were keen to track public opinion over longer periods on a quantitative basis and see whether there were emerging trends. That would also tell us whether the increasing visibility of energy issues and the context given for nuclear energy was having any effect.
It was in winter 2004 that we first saw evidence of a shift in opinion. A MORI survey for the Nuclear Industry Association showed that 35% of the public would support the building of new nuclear power stations in Britain, to replace those that were being phased out. Opponents stood at 30%, whilst the rest had no opinion one way or the other. That survey marked a cross-over point but the real test would come the following year. As it turned out the figures for winter 2005 showed that supporters had increased to 41% and opponents had declined to 28%. In fact, compared with the 2001 survey, support had doubled and opposition had more than halved.
There was a similar pattern amongst Members of Parliament. In summer 2005 supporters of replacement nuclear power stations stood at 45% and opponents numbered 41%. On the face of it that may seem like a small difference but it marked a turning point in attitudes that mirrored what we had seen in the general public.
In view of what we had experienced with those early focus groups we knew that people were moving on from seeing things as simply one energy source versus another. The big picture was beginning to have an impact, together with the realisation that there were no easy answers.
Results of polls commissioned by other organisations bore this out. For example, a survey for Deloitte in November 2005 revealed that 62% of the public would support increased renewables and cautious nuclear newbuild for the future energy mix. Another study by the University of East Anglia/MORI around the same time showed that 54% of people would support new nuclear if it helped to tackle climate change.
The Big Picture
We were seeing headlines such as “Dawning of the new nuclear age” and “Prepare for the nuclear option”. Negative memories from the 1980s were receding into history and, for the first time in a long time, nuclear was being considered as “normal”.
This wasn’t down to advertising campaigns or marketing activities. It revolved around making the facts accessible, being responsive and open to debate. We focused on moving away from issues in isolation, took account of people’s increasing demand for information and concentrated on real, pragmatic responses.
At the same time the Government was taking forward its energy policy review, raising the profile of security of supply, affordable energy and concerns about global warming. That represented a significant opportunity to participate in the policy debate, where nuclear energy was formally under consideration as a future energy option for the UK. The provision of information into this key review was a centrepiece activity for the nuclear industry.
The 2006 energy policy review also enabled the big picture to be assembled and analysed, with general recognition of the fact that there would be no single solution to meet our energy needs in the future. The backdrop has therefore been perfect for nuclear energy, although we know there are no guarantees about what will happen in the future.
However, the very fact that nuclear energy has been under real consideration in the same way as any other energy option is evidence that the nuclear debate has at long last grown up. Nuclear energy is in the big picture and people have engaged in that. Whilst there may still be underlying concerns and uncertainties, the public have become more accepting of nuclear energy as one of the elements in our future energy mix. We have come a long way since the 1980s.
- Dorothy Seed is Head of Communications, Corporate Affairs, BNFL.
For further information on the nuclear industry check out the website of the Nuclear Industry Association: www.niauk.org