Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Nuclear and Society: an outsider’s perspective

A new guest blogger! This time, we have Elizabeth, an outsider with a burning curiosity for nuclear.

By Elizabeth Harper

On the 27th January, I attended a lecture entitled ‘In The Public Eye: Nuclear Energy and Society’, given by Malcolm Grimston as part of The University of Manchester’s Dalton Seminar Series. This was set to be a particularly compelling lecture because, as we all know, nuclear has something of a PR problem and there are no clearly defined ways of rectifying it. Grimston based his lecture on a book he is currently writing on society’s conceptions of nuclear and the nuclear industry, and the innumerate tensions and uncertainties that these generate.

He began the lecture by saying that the nuclear industry does not deal with the distrust and negativity surrounding it in a very constructive way; often ending up in an indecisive state of ‘rubbing hands together’ and not proactively addressing the claims made against it. He argued that this is because of the way in which ‘people’ respond to the statements released by governments and companies like EDF that aim to inform and calm people. This can be seen in the case of the Fukushima evacuations where the government wanted to quell national and international anxiety by providing ‘safe zones’ which, ironically, served to inflame ‘people’s’ fear of radiation. According to Grimston, ‘people’ react perhaps quite rationally  to the information put forward specifically regarding nuclear safety: if they are told that nuclear stations are to be made ‘even more safe’, then how safe were they before, if it is possible for safety to be improved? Through this deconstruction of what it means to be rational or irrational, he argued that the nuclear industry and nuclear experts have to perpetually navigate a minefield of semantic eggshells in fear of inadvertently worsening ‘people’s’ already apprehensive sentiments towards nuclear.

A still from little known TV animation, 'The Simpsons'. 
I use the word ‘people’ specifically with quotation marks because it was a word that cropped up time and again in Grimston’s lecture. As he progressed, his diagnosis of who or what comprised ‘people’ became increasingly problematic: ‘people’ become an homogeneous mass of all of the people who exist outside the realm of science and the understanding of nuclear that this entails. More specifically, and more importantly, Grimston casually conflated the media with the general public, suggesting that they think (be it rationally or irrationally) in the same way.

This is problematic because the media and the general public are not the same thing and they cannot be conceived of in the same way by the nuclear industry, including highly respected academics like Grimston. There is a chain of understanding that starts with industry, which passes through the media and then is consumed by the public. As a result, the media can be considered to be more powerful than the public because they are the ones who take the information given by the industry and relay it in any way that suits their own, oftentimes, reactionary, ideological or political agenda. This not only encompasses nuclear power but also information and statistics regarding immigration or benefits claimants.

One obvious example of such an outlet is The Daily Mail, which only a few days ago published an article on how fallout and radiation from Chernobyl will affect our crops this harvest. As a result, the public read and can be swayed by headlines that scaremonger, distort facts and fuel ignorance of nuclear, producing the paranoid (ir)rational responses that Grimston discussed. I would argue, therefore, that members of the public are not to blame for their warped conceptions of radiation (amongst other nuclear problems) because they consume news headlines or Hollywood films that tell them otherwise.  If the public were not subjected to such sensationalised stories that feature in the tabloids, some of the most read newspapers in circulation and online, then it is much more likely that there would be a positive embracement of nuclear energy. As a result, the public and the media cannot be described under a vague umbrella label such as ‘people’.

This is important to not only give some credit back to an interested and interesting public who, it is becoming increasingly apparent, are misinformed and distrustful of nuclear because of the media (71% of 23,231 people from 23 countries in 2011 after Fukushima wanted to replace nuclear and coal with renewable energy sources), but also to improve the image of the nuclear industry itself.[1] It is hard to feel sympathetic for an industry where high profile academics do not critically separate the media from the public and show no active attempt to engage with the media to shine a light on the inflammatory journalism produced. Even though I, a humanities graduate, had a few of my own misconceptions addressed by the lecture, none of what Grimston said seemed to be news to the majority of the people there, evident from the knowing tutting and chortling taking place. As a result, the lecture actually ended up casting a scornful gaze on the public who through, perhaps, no fault of their own, do not know any better. This was cemented for me, when Grimston provided each case study with an example of ‘people’s’ (ir)rational reactions to safety measures; a sentence or two in the voice of ‘people’ that supposedly summed up their interpretations of various situations, mostly regarding Fukushima. As he read them out to a chuckling room, they sounded like they could have been taken for tabloid headlines. Instead of being critical of this, ‘people’, that indiscriminate homogeneous mass of everything outside of the industry, were merely mocked.

I argue that the most effective way for people who work in nuclear to ensure the future implementation and success of new nuclear is by directly addressing media headlines, for example this one from The Daily Express or this one, again, from The Daily Mail. Accept that the public have been misinformed by what they have seen and heard in the newspapers, on the television and at the cinema and confront the sensationalised stories directly. Nuclear has often been accused of secrecy and of lacking transparency, and this is becoming a self-fulfilled prophecy. I would argue that the industry must actively and publically engage in a much more open and critical dialogue and debate with the outlets and ideological apparatuses that construct what the public have come to know, understand and, ultimately, trust.   

[1] Globescan poll commissioned by the BBC, 2011.