There is a time and a place for everything, and in the nuclear industry’s case, worrying about PR right now, is a bad, bad idea. Well, let’s put it simply: it is extremely bad PR. In a time when they should be worrying about putting an end to the disaster in Japan, and saving the lives whose ruin they caused in the first place, some nuclear power industry experts are more worried about winning the PR war.
Tim Probert, Deputy Editor of Power Engineering International magazine, editor for Power Engineering International and conference director for Nuclear Power Europe, is the public face of the industry in many ways, and his latest editorial Fukushima: The nuclear power industry must win the PR war is indicative of what is wrong with this industry to begin with.
The current situation in Japan is far worse than we are served via various news outlets – as a PR professional I guarantee that there are some industry lobbyists engaged in the cover-up right now. There are two main reasons why: one, to prevent national panic in Japan, and two, for the very same reason Mr. Probert runs his mouth over PR strategies that would support the development of the nuclear industry further.
The same expert attempts to put the blame on the media, who has focused more attention on the Fukushima crisis, than on the death and destruction caused by the tsunami. He says:
Nuclear power stakeholders I spoke to immediately after the event were pretty angry that media coverage of Japan’s largest on-record earthquake initially focused on the Fukushima crisis and not the far greater death and devastation caused by the tsunami.
You must walk a mile in those people’s shoes, and imagine what’s at stake for them if the media buzz is strong enough to influence public opinion up to the point of a major upset in the industry. They might lose billions of dollars, for them of greater value than the lives of the 200 plus workers who are now fighting against a reactor meltdown. These people, known as the Fukushima 50, whose story touched the world, who risk dyeing a horrible death even if they do survive this time, are none of the nuclear power industry stakeholders’ concern. In fact, the author almost succeeds in his discourse to convince us that there are worse things in life than nuclear radiation:
Nuclear physics is complex. Radiation is invisible. Sensational headlines about ‘meltdowns’ and ‘fallout’ play to the layman’s deep, almost irrational fears about nuclear plants going south. Coal plants, for example, throw far more radiation into the air than nuclear reactors, and coal mining kills and injures thousands every year. The 1984 explosion of the Union Carbide chemical works in Bhopal, India was more hazardous to human health and killed several thousands more than the Chernobyl accident two years later, yet it is the latter which no one forgets.
The fear of nuclear plants failing is by no means irrational:
“The threats from a nuclear accident, are fundamentally different from many other dangers. An accident could devastate entire communities, not just random individuals — a singularly painful prospect for society as a whole. Moreover, a nuclear accident threatens the health and welfare of future generations as well as the present.” – from an unpublished report written by Dr. Bill Chameides and Mitch Golden.
There are 424 nuclear reactors in the world, and 420 of them are Generation II reactors, all built as safe as possible, but none beyond failure. According to Dr. Bill Chameides of Duke University we can expect a nuclear accident every twenty five years. The latest Generation II reactor accident was 30 years ago (Cernobyl was a RBMK reactor), so in the expert’s opinion, a new accident was just a matter of time, and mathematical prediction:
“A single reactor would, on average, experience an accident every ten thousand years — not much worry there. But we don’t have just one reactor, we have 420. The time for an accident at one of those 420 can be estimated by multiplying the number of Generation II reactors (420) by the frequency of core damage (10-4) and dividing it into one:
Years for an accident at one plant ~ 1/(420 x 10-4) = ~ 25 years.
So let’s see, Three Mile Island occurred 30 years ago. And now Japan … right about on time.”
As Dr. Chameides puts it, the nuclear accident in Japan should not come as a total surprise. Nuclear accidents are the price of doing nuclear business.
Sure thing, the nuclear power industry is well aware of the risks, but whines about media sharpening knives now because they fear a new Cernobyl. They are not worried about the health risks for the people exposed to radiation, they are worried about environmentalists who will, once again, be coming out in force to call for nuclear plants to be shut down.
They are worried about new building programs, that will be placed on hold due to a lack of political will to support them. And sure, they know that the building of new plants will continue as planned once the ‘moral panic’ subsides – but this may take a long, long time, and time is money. Isn’t it?
The nuclear industry is worried about its pockets, all right: There can be no worse PR for nuclear power than live television images of not one, not two, but three reactor buildings exploding and mushroom clouds of smoke billowing into a clear blue Japanese sky, – writes Tim Probert. Poor, poor nuclear industry stakeholders! This disaster really, really affected them. Damn that tsunami!