How to Talk About Nuclear to Non-Nuke People

H. B. Robinson Nuclear Power Plant, rendering in pencil and Copic markers by the author.

How to Talk About Nuclear to Non-Nuke People:

Questions and Answers

All the major players in the nuclear industry from power companies to various industry supply-side folks have their own marketing and public relations people dedicated to providing a positive, comforting, view of nuclear power to the general public. However, the irony is that the geneal public often distrusts these official voices due to the very fact that they’re in the service of corporations with vested interest in a good public impression of nuclear power. I’ve enjoyed the interesting position of being both a software developer on the technical side of experimental physics and also a journalist who often writes about science and technology topics, so many friends and even people I’ve met at a bar or on a plane have asked me tough questions about nuclear—the same questions the PR pros get, but I suspect the interested parties asking the questions are hoping for a more frank and direct answer from someone like myself outside of the PR offices.

Most of you reading this blog probably have, as industry professionals, been in this same situation yourselves. In this entry I want to share a little of what I’ve learned working as a journalist in dealing with such questions and how to provide honest, helpful, information without providing explanations that get too technical or long-winded for most lay-people to bother following or caring about. Therefore, my sample responses here probably will seem mundane, overly-simple, and even to omit a wealth of important detail to many readers, however, they are designed to do two things: to answer the question honestly and in a manner that provides straight-forward information and secondly, to not confuse, bore, or lose the listener in the process. In my own research, I design software that models synchrotron radiation problems and aspects of deep ultraviolet light functions and in speaking about my work, I’ve found that even a short scientific abstract will often confuse or bore many people and the included information, while concise to a scientist, may seem obtuse and complex to a non-scientist. Wording things to the public, or at times even to scientists/engineers in other fields, requires a different type of approach.

People want to know the following:

1) Is there a danger? Why or why not?
2) What specifics are involved? (List clear specific details: in example, instead of just saying “the NRC has great transparency to the public” give examples, like their online ADAMS database.

So, without further ado, here are some questions—and how I have tried to answer them—that I’ve often been asked about nuclear:

Q: If nuclear power wasn’t dangerous, wouldn’t more people be for it? It seems everyone for it is someone who stands to gain from it, and it’s the people getting rich off of it who promote it the most.

A: Well, a lot of people are in fact for it, if they know the facts at hand. As for the general public, popular views on many topics sway with the wind. In example, the current debate over gay marriage is something that polls indicate a majority of American favor the right for gay marriage whereas mere decades ago that would not have been the case. Fifty years ago, the idea of a female Secretary of State or a female admiral would have been fiction. Times change and while we hope things move apace towards a better future, there are sometimes few explanations for where the fulcrum of public opinion will really rest. We can only hope that the public will seek valid, science-driven, factual information on nuclear power and form their own opinions based on that. Much of what the generation of Americans who are now middle-aged (and thereby primary forces in public policy) know about nuclear power comes from a haze of memories of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents, the movies The China Syndrome and Silkwood, and the fear of nuclear war near the end of the Cold War in the 1980s. All these aspects contributed to a cultural move against nuclear power without as much solid fact behind it as just general feelings and downright myths and fictions. It's worth looking at why we think nuclear is "scary" or "harmful to the environment" or "companies are greedy and evil": is this coming from actual real-world instances or from Hollywood?

As to the idea that those who promote nuclear stand to gain from it, any industry will promote itself, true, but consider this: nuclear is a very expensive and time-involved business to even enter. No one wakes up one day with a couple million in the bank and decides to invest in a new nuclear plant as a get-rich-quick junket. There are a lot of places you can spend money and see a better immediate return in terms of the numbers, so those who have in fact invested in nuclear are there for the long haul in most cases and very sincere about their efforts. Nuclear is a good, valid, realm for investment, to be sure, but not one to make millions overnight.

Q: The Japanese are it seems at the cutting edge of technology. If they of all people could suffer a horrible nuclear accident as with Fukushima Daiichi, how can we believe that any nation can “do it right”?

A: TEPCO, the power utility responsible cut corners and even created false records of certain actions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. This and the natural disaster that was the immediate catalyst to the accident at hand produced a very grave and serious situation. Could TEPCO have been better prepared for this type of natural disaster? Yes. Could it have spent more money and effort to make this plant safer? Most probably so. However, if there is a silver lining here, it is that the aftermath of this disaster really prompted the NRC, specific power companies, and industry suppliers to all ensure that American reactors are safe and cannot fall victim of the same type of situation should those conditions ever present themselves in America. The question of nation involved should not be viewed in terms of “who is known for having a good track record with general high technology” but instead “which nation, and which national government agencies, are doing the most to foster a safe operating environment?”. I don’t think anyone is doing that better than the US following Fukushima Daiichi and also European nations are being certainly very careful and astute in ensuring their own plants are up to the highest levels of safe operation.

Q: Speaking of the NRC, what about the complaints anti-nuke groups have made of the NRC being a victim of “regulatory capture” and kowtowing to the demands of the nuclear industry instead being an able police force/watchdog over that industry?

A: I think if anyone speant a day in the nuclear industry, they would find the concept of the NRC being more a lapdog than a watchdog to be patently absurd. Do NRC officials come from the ranks of industry professionals? To an extent, sure, where else will you get people with the appropriate expertise about nuclear power and nuclear medicine than from within these very industries? Most people at the NRC are not right out of grad school and gained their actual professional experience in some industry position prior to going to work in a government position. That should be very encouraging. Also to note, the current and immediate-past chair-people of the NRC both come from academic/government experience rather than industry experience. Dr. Allison Macfarlane is a geologist and Dr. Gregory Jaczko is a physicist; neither are nuclear engineers and both came into nuclear issues via fairly specific issues. While a lot can be said about the wisdom of appointing such people who really are somewhat outside of the industry to its highest regulatory position, there can be no doubt that diversity of experience has actually been a key concern with who is put in at the top in recent years.

In any case, I like to think of th NRC as a great resource for the nuclear industry rather than a cop watching over what is going on: I like to think of them as I think of the USGS or any Federal agency in the public service.

Q: What about transparency and the NRC, or with regard to the nuclear industry? It seems a lot is kept from public eye, and how can we trust that?

A: This is seriously a question in a variety of forms I get quite often. The NRC’s official website has a searchable database called “ADAMS” that is beyond superb. I mean, really, it beats most any research library database I’ve encountered at some of the nation’s leading universities. What is more, you can get most of the data it pulls up in PDF format for direct download. And we’re not talking about press releases here, but things like complete meeting minutes, approval process documents, and historical files going back decades that have been scanned in from the original hardcopy. The vast majority of information under NRC jurisdiction that is not classified for security reasons is availible via ADAMS. Anything that is not, the NRC can be contacted and they can in many cases locate the file in question and provide a hardcopy for a small fee. Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests can also be filed for data that is classified in cases where the requesting party thinks the data should be made public. As I do a lot of research on historical reactors, I’ve pesterd the NRC many times for obscure information and they’ve been polite, prompt, and flawless without exception in providing me with what I requested.

The public utilities, power plant owners, and supply-side folks in the industry also are, again with the exception of classified or sensitive information, very forthcoming in answering questions. I cannot think of any time I’ve asked for information on something and explained why I wanted it and was not met with a polite and prompt response from people across the industry.

Q: What about security at nuclear power plants? What about the Y-12 complex and its embarassing security issues in recent years? How safe are we from the threat of terrorism with our nuclear facilities?

A: Overall, I feel that our nuclear power plants and other faclities—research reactors at academic institutions, DOE facilities—related to nuclear materials are very very secure. Just getting into such a facility is difficult, but once in—if someone was to break in with ill intentions—they would face two major problems: for one, the security inside plants and other faclities is very tight and secondly, it is not easy to damage a nuclear reactor or to create a mishap, either. Even if someone who knew what he was doing could get into a plant’s control room, they’d need ample time to do any real damage and then, it must be understood that power reactors are designed to shut down instead of go into any status that presents possible danger to the plant or outside world. So our terrorist, providing he could 1) get into the plant complex, 2) evade internal security forces, 3) gain access to control surfaces and knew what to do with them, would still be unable to cause great damage. Indeed, he at best could scram the reactor or remove the plant from the power grid, costing the plant’s owners some money and headache, but certainly not the sort of horrible damage most terrorists seem to dream of doing.

The Y-12 complex is a DOE facility and overall, like all DOE faclities, it has great security. Yes, peace activists were able to break into the facilities to demonstrate against American stockpiling of nuclear weapons. However, this doesn’t mean they were taking their pictures next to a nuclear warhead they could have stuffed in a backpack and made off with at all. They got through the fences and were outside a building, not in any situation where they could steal, damage, or otherwise cause great harm to any key resource, supplies, or systems. I like to think of what happened this way: where these activists were was akin to where a normal bank customer would be in a bank—in the same general building as the vault but nowhere near the vault itself nor able to gain access to the vault without passing through many safeguards and much security first. So if a terrorist gained access to where these activists did, he could do precious little. He’d be in a better position to cause harm if he snuck into an airport or train station or other public place. While Y-12 may have been embarassing, nothing in Y-12 of note or importance was placed in jeopardy.

Q: Could an accident like Three Mile Island or Chernobyl happen now, in the US, in our nuclear power plants?

A: Short answer: no, not really. The time that has passed since these accidents has allowed for not only the industry to learn from them but also for technology—especially in control systems and telemetry—to advance greatly and thus provide operators with means to better monitor and control their plants’ systems. The issues that caused problems at Fukushima Daiichi have also been studied in great depth and lessons learned applied to American nuclear operations. Chernobyl could not have happened in America in good part because we use different reactor, plant, and control system designs and have different approaches to operations than the USSR at that point in time employed, and the Russians have also learned greatly from Chernobyl. Incidently, Cheronbly happened as it did in great part because the night shift that undertook the test activities that lead to disaster was a younger, less-experienced, crew that wasn’t really supposed to do these tests, which had been planned for the primary, more-senior crew to do earlier in the day. The Russians have markedly changed their crewing approach at power reactors due to this in the years that followed.

Q: What about the waste issue? Isn’t nuclear waste highly dangerous and will last for decades, if not longer?

A: There are a lot of specifics about nuclear waste that are not easy to explain in one general statement, however, the key thing to understand is that yes, these materials are very dangerous in general to humans and the environment, but as long as they are properly contained in physical containers designed for their storage, they will not harm anyone. The United States has yet to agree on a national long-term storage site for nuclear waste, but most waste now resides at the places it was produced in the first place or else has been removed to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. Either way, these waste products are in secure storage. In contrast, the wastes of coal-burning power plants are put directly into our atmosphere. Ample concerns exists germane to “fracking” in natural gas production and to offshore oil production and also oil transport pipelines and petrochemical refineries. In all, I would dare state that nuclear waste—given that such are in all cases secure from environmental or intentional (human) harm—are less dangerous to society overall. The danger of a substance cannot be limited in scope by its capacity to cause harm in a worst-case incident but the real, pragmatic, aspects of whether the material is apt to ever be in that awful situation where it could cause harm. With nuclear waste, the solution has been overall to isolate and secure these materials so they cannot do harm and thus far we have been very successful in doing just that.

Q: How can you possibly consider yourself an “environmentalist” and yet support nuclear power?

A: Simple. Because it’s the cleanest and most sustainable form of energy we can apply in a large scale. Cleaner than coal, involving less continued effort in securing resources than natural gas, and pragmatic in a manner that solar, wind, and hydro-electric options simply are not. The men who first suggested the “atoms for peace” concept in the 1950s waged a real gamble: they were taking a novel technology and asking America to take a chance on it—a chance that required investment that could have been spent elsewhere. The were, however, men of great vision and brought to us an option—really, the only viable long-term, large-scale option—for the type of power a growing nation with ever-growing electrical needs would demand. Why we’ve set that vision aside at the current point in time when we can make it safer and more-economical than ever leaves me fully dumbfounded. 


Truly, there are other questions, but perhaps these and my responses to them will get people thinking about ways of responding to the questions they’re asked, too. I’m sure many industry professionals have had to deal with such questions and many have probably provided even better answers and more-helpful responses than I have here, but it’s going to take this approach: we cannot afford to mount a defense or circle the wagons, everyone who is pro-nuclear needs to be patient and rational, offering useful answers and helping people overcome their misplaced fears of nuclear power. I believe that moving public opinion back towards nuclear power is not only possible, but already underway, but it will take clearing up rumors, myths, and misconceptions.

Anonymous comments will be moderated. Join for free and post now! 

  • Anonymous

    MikeWalker. This is an interesting and important discussion. You hit some of my pet peeves too. You make some very valid observations, like how (social) opinions can change over time. But one problem nukes cannot recalibrate on is the truth about some conventional wisdom myths. A big one is “economy of scale” requires building these huge units. Virtually all, every plant ever built (except the early turn-key projects), has come in roughly three times the original cost estimates and very late on original schedule. Lots and lots of reasons for this, but the bottom line is that the actual observed economy of scale experience says these big unit construction projects are just flat out unmanageable. Thus the capitol money lenders don’t like the financial risk. The discussions on this topic always degenerate into an “excuse” exercise, about who is at fault, but never question if maybe the economy of scale is not the right concept at all because it is not doable at estimate. Progress has been made, hopefully not too late, with the birth of the SMR concept. Luckily we don’t even need to argue about this, when Votgle comes on line at the original cost and schedule, I’ll be the first to admit I was wrong, but I ain’t holding my breath.

    A second myth is “…the type of power a growing nation with ever-growing electrical needs would demand.” Nope, again an actual historical fallacy. Economies cycle. If you really study the post-TMI project cancel  information from late ‘70s and early ‘80s (about 100 of the 1975 proposed plants cancelled, 40% of those pre-TMI), the common thread, over and over, is “we don’t need them because actual load demand is nowhere close to projected.” The same thing with the ~48 new plants originally defining the “renaissance.” Where are they now? Same place… for at least the last ten years the growth isn’t there, plus gas is currently dirt cheap. So if you want to spread the truth, think up a better reason for building nukes than projected load growth, there are some. And if you really want to solve the problem of bogus constant growth projections, maybe it really is time to “shoot the messenger.”

    My personal pet peeve, and an approach I use when talking with the general public about nukes, is I never talk about nukes using the word “safe” (or any form of the word). The general non nuke public has a subconscious interpretation of the word, meaning 100% safe, and pro-nukes must deal with that, like it or not. You need to google the  ”safety goals” the NRC uses to license a plant (if you don’t understand it, I’ll help you… wordy but simple). The NRC licenses a plant because they find the plant risk acceptable to them, based on probably of a small number (0.1% of total possible other causes) of either instant deaths or long term deaths from its operation. Period. The way the NRC accomplishes that evaluation is a different, complicated subject. But the idea of risks being associated with daily living is easily understood by the general public, so they can easily relate to the correct discussion. They don’t have to agree with the acceptability of the risks, but they are entitled to the straight forward truthful facts.

    After an event like Fukushima you all are going to shift your explanation to mine anyway (I’ve seen you all do it). By saying Fukushima killed nobody with radiation, all industries have accidents, and you have risk from car rides, etc, blah, blah, blah. Change your argument on the front end; nobody can accuse you of ever saying something couldn’t happen here in the USA after the fact. Above, relative to a TMI type accident you said:  ”Short answer: no, not really.” Wrong… correct answer: the risk is really, really low. Chernobyl answer is yes, but because that plant was an orange, ours are apples, NRC thinks oranges are too “risky” to run here.

    I’d venture a guess that you would you never tell a software client, who asked if your software could be hacked and modified in a nasty way to cause some “accident, “no, not really”? Rather you’d say we’ve considered that in the design, we feel it is really a very very low risk event because we have installed safeguards, and even if it happened we have these additional features that prevent… or maybe not. Mjd.

  • Anonymous

    If nuclear plants could be built anywhere close to on time and on budget I might have confidence in nuclear power. But since the current projects are years and hundreds of millions over budget I have little faith in an industry that can't manage schedules and budgets with any degree of accuracy. How am I suppose to trust that the industry's safety systems are any more reliable than its budgets and schedules?

  • MJD, I will address your comments in a detailed answer later—they certainly deserve that. I may now, in fact, write a blog entry on the concepts of "safety" and "risk" per what you wrote above. I will admit that I consider the concept of what is "safe" as would most people in engineering fields, that is, I consider that many parameters involved. I never had given much thought to the fact the general public may consider "safe" as a is/isn't or yes/no binary as you suggested, but you're probably right about this. Engineers, physicians, lawyers, finance professionals—these fields all consider risk in various ways informed by what their own profession defines as not only "risk" but indeed the entire scope and concept of risk and "safety". Even in more general terms, it's a difficult concept: I coached youth soccer a few years ago and a parent asked me if soccer was a "safe" sport . . . well, I've played soccer my whole life and sure, I think it's safe. Yet there's no science to that answer whatsoever. It's the answer more or less every coach would probably offer, but it doesn't take into account issues such as age and level of play. It doesn't consider the worst that could happen nor really what injuries maybe likely happen. And as you suggested, what the parent wants to know is that Little Billy won't get hurt. I cannot promise that as a coach; if I'm coaching a competitive team of sixteen year-olds, I can warn that injuries could be more severe than for seven year-olds, but beyond that, I cannot venture too much of what will or won't happen, and no one wants to listen to a lecture on sports trauma epidemiology, either. So I think I will address the concepts of "risk" and "safety" in a future blog, because as you suggest, they're not only important ones for the nuclear industry but ones that have different meanings in the arena of public thought. To the other Anonymous poster's question of "How am I suppose to trust that the industry's safety systems are any more reliable than its budgets and schedules?", here are my thoughts on that one: the industry's safety systems and operating parameters are under the NRC's jurisdiction (as is plant design) so there is a different aspect of oversight than in the fiscal matters and construction timelines. Any massive construction project seems more apt than not to run over in terms of time and money both, be it nuclear plant or international airport. Or, for that matter, an aircraft carrier or fighter jet. Look at the F-35 in prime example. I don't see a direct or even indirect connection between cost overruns and the overall ability to ensure a safe industry. If anything, these overruns of time and cost should indicate that when things become more complex or encounter unexpected delays, they are fixed even when such means paying more and waiting longer to see something finished. An additional thought on that: part of my undergraduate education is actually in architecture (this is where I got into doing the little drawings I've posted on this blog). I got a great education, but one thing that was not stressed nearly enough to architecture students in studio was estimating costs. Now, of course, other professionals on major projects are also involved in cost issues, but still: I saw fellow students almost always under-estimate the costs of any project. And the bigger the project, the worse they did. I was bad at this, too. The only guy who had it down was a dude who worked construction a few years before coming to college. I don't think there is any matter of trying to fleece people on nuclear plant costs: I think we see some poor accounting that is endemic to the whole construction industry, really.

  • Anonymous

    MikeWalker. The easiest truthful answer to "the other anonymous" question of "How am I suppose to trust that the industry's safety systems are any more reliable than its budgets and schedules?

  • Anonymous

    another posting glitch. It is different people operating under different rules. A new construction project cost and scheduling info is done by the Constuction Management/Architect Engineering firm, not the plant buyer. Like hiring a general contractor to build your house, he does the cost, scheduling, project management. If he is late and over budget there is absolutely no correlation to assume the house is not safe. In the finished nuke plant it is a whole different set of players and rules insuring low risk operation.

    I think the historical evidence supports the idea, that for new plants, the cost and scheduler estimates can’t be trusted; even the money lenders agree, but for a lot of reasons. But as for trusting the reliability of an operating plant safety systems, again, considering the whole package of event risk and event consequences, by looking at the historical evidence I’d say you can trust them. mjd

  • MJD, that's pretty much what I stated above, too, no? The aspects of building a new plant are, overall, aspects of construction—the construction of a multi-billion-dollar facility. As you stated, the group of people responsible for plant construction are a whole different group than those who run the plant day-by-day. Cost overruns and not having projects done on time are typical issues with construction in general, be it a new nuclear plant or your three-bedroom house. As you state, the operational parameters and considerations of risk for a plant that is in operation should be determined by a host of different factors, but not the construction issues at hand unless a very specific problem came up in construction that appears to not have been remedied.