It is as dramatic a reputational rehabilitation as any industry of major social impact has ever enjoyed in this country. In the last decade or so, the nuclear sector has been transformed from a widely feared and loathed presence on the energy scene -- caricatured by The Simpsons via sinister plant boss Montgomery Burns and his cringing sycophant Smithers -- to a singularly credible purveyor of solutions to the world's stubborn energy and environmental problems. No doubt the severity of those problems catalyzed the public shift, what with nuclear energy promising clean alternatives to costly and environmentally unsound standbys like coal. Meanwhile, solar and wind power, no matter how important, came to be seen as too slow and limited in effect. Wind, for one, operates at capacity levels reportedly around 60% below nuclear. (In his State of the Union Address on Wednesday, President Obama said: "... to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. ... And, yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.") But in light of the anxieties exacerbated by Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, it's not likely that public demand alone transformed public opinion. Actually, if we date the perceptual sea change to mid-decade, we note a few powerful intervening variables that were decisive in encouraging new perceptions and, as it were, building a new brand for the industry. One of the most striking of those developments was the conversion of a number of environmental activists to the nuclear cause. Most prominently, Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore became a believer. He alienated many of his compeers, yet other persuasive voices from the movement joined the chorus, including Stewart Brand, a founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, who attributed the shift to anxiety over global warming and fossil fuel.
Moore's language particularly underscores a new realism among the industry's former foes. In a Washington Post article , he wrote, "...Three Mile Island was in fact a success story: The concrete containment structure did just what it was designed to do -- prevent radiation from escaping into the environment...there was no injury or death among nuclear workers or nearby residents." It was in this awakening climate of opinion that Unit 1 of the TVA's Brown Ferry Nuclear Plant was restarted in May, 2007, the first American nuclear unit to come online in the 21st century. The chances of that happening at the end of the 20th century were nil. At this point the nuclear industry took a small step that if nothing else mirrors how its leaders had learned to think about public affairs. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the industry's policy organization and government relations right arm, founded the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition to support nuclear usage, and made none other than Patrick Moore its co-chair. (The other co-chair is former EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman.) The industry's grassroots resolve was thus conspicuously communicated, as was its goal to build relationships across all partisan lines. Today, third-party allies range from Bill Gates to John Kerry. The openings provided by Moore and others represented an opportunity that the nuclear industry itself shrewdly seized on. At that moment, leadership was needed to leverage a nascent positive situation and to make the reputational and political gains at hand sustainable. To be sure, however, the enlistment of luminaries and former adversaries was just one element of the leadership provided.
In its safety improvements, the industry exceeded the demands imposed by the regulators, according to NEI spokesperson Steve Kerekes. The industry also continued to draw heavily on their longstanding community advisory boards that had been set up in communities where plants operate in order to monitor and address local concerns on a constant basis. As a result of this extended outreach, NEI polls now show the strongest popular support precisely in those towns and regions where, one might think, the populace would be wariest. (An NEI survey last summer reported that 84% of Americans living near nuclear power plants favor nuclear energy.) The industry also identified the regions where the most confirmed skeptics reside. With New England high on that list, Entergy ( ETR), which owns the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, created the I am Vermont Yankee Website, which is wholly devoted to featuring supportive local workers. As it seeks to enhance its leadership role for the near future, the nuclear industry is all the better positioned because of just such strategic steps that were taken at that decisive 2005-2006 juncture. Strength begets strength. That said, the industry understands its past mistakes. Kerekes acknowledges that, while nuclear companies did over-deliver safety improvements after TMI, they forgot to tell the world. "We decided to keep our heads down through the 1980s and 1990s," he says. Since then they played catch-up well, but it was catch-up nonetheless. They made an even more serious mistake earlier. In marketing nuclear power, they mystified the technology, presumably to wow the world with the benefits of their expert sleight of hand ("Look, folks...electricity too cheap to meter!") In the process, they were blindsided by people's concerns and, to the extent they addressed those concerns, they did so ineffectively.
Interestingly, Kerekes now says the industry wants to "demystify the technology," which seems to show a better awareness that the uncanny can also be unsettling. People trust what they can understand even if only at a rudimentary level. Today, as the world's comfort level grows, the leadership challenge for the nuclear industry continues to be multidimensional. First, the industry must not get too confident. At many levels, nuclear energy still scares people and nuclear waste, as a storage or transport issue, remains a primary concern. While the reputational shift has certainly been seismic, they should likewise take nothing for granted. The industry must persistently reemphasize the fundamental ideas that have worked to its benefit in the last five years: Nuclear energy is clean, green, and the price is right. "Nuclear energy already plays a critical role in producing safe, reliable electricity with a small environmental footprint. As we look to meet our future energy needs and fight climate change, people are putting aside their preconceptions and realizing that nuclear energy is a significant part of the solution," said Jarret Adams, a spokesman for AREVA, a world-leading designer and builder of nuclear reactors and other non CO2-emitting power generation. "But describing nuclear energy's benefits requires openness and transparency on the industry's part," adds Adams, "through initiatives such as proactive communications, community outreach and plant tours, so the general public can understand more clearly what those in the industry already know." Indeed, the larger goal ahead for the industry is to actually transform its very identity as well as its reputation. It is the clean energy industry, not the nuclear industry. "Clean and green" is, at least, not a defensive position to fall back on; it is instead the very definition of this enterprise.
There is a final point to be made about the leadership that the nuclear industry provided mid-decade and should now seek to enlarge on. What's generally true for most industries is acutely relevant here -- that leadership, and the growth it seeks to engender, ultimately boils down to knowing human nature. The industry has apparently come to understand a classic principle of risk communication, which is that most of us worry about the wrong things. We worry about the airplane we're on crashing, but we don't worry about a quick drive to the corner store even though we're often distracted during that drive and not paying much attention. In its infancy, the nuclear industry assumed that a preponderance of credible science would assure people that its products and services were sufficiently safe. Too few were assured. Instead, there were films like The China Syndrome that knew enough about their audience to powerfully communicate a very different message. By turning at last to the human side of the equation -- by taking even the most intransigent anxieties seriously enough to personally address -- the industry has reversed that message on its own behalf. Now, with global warming the predominant catastrophe anxiety, the moment is ripe to build on success and achieve the kind of growth that seemed utterly fanciful a mere 10 years ago. Richard S. Levick, Esq., is the president and chief executive officer of Levick Strategic Communications www.levick.com, a crisis communications firm. He is the co-author of Stop the Presses: The Crisis & Litigation PR Desk Reference and writes for www.bulletproofblog.com. He was named to the 2009 NACD/Directorship list of "The Most Influential People in the Boardroom." In decades past he was a frequent participant in many anti-nuclear protests. Reach him at email@example.com.