Strategic communication in a passively hostile world: a prescription for the nuclear industry

Last week I talked about how the “nuclear industry” had been outmaneuvered by the green/gas lobby in the fight over stimulus money in the U.S.  Now, American nuclear utilities face the threat that existing loan guarantees that were intended to jump-start nuclear projects won’t be available when they apply for them. So no new money, and the money they thought they had might not be available. That’s gotta hurt.

This is more a failure of strategic communication than of legislative tactics. Tactics are important of course, but the greens would not have prevailed at the House-Senate Conference Committee had they not also won the strategic communication war. Somehow, current policymakers don’t think of nuclear energy when they ponder ways to reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels. This though every production statistic from every electricity system and every credible load forecast shows that nuclear is—by far—the cheapest way to achieve enormous carbon reductions from power generation.

America is a democracy, and elected politicians respond to public pressure, whether that pressure comes from interest groups, the media, or constituents. Public opinion is an amalgam comprising all three elements. And today’s public opinion, especially in the U.S., thinks “alternative” and “renewable” forms of electricity—wind, solar, biomass—are the way to reduce carbon emissions. In this opinion climate, the House-Senate Conference Committee that removed support for nuclear energy did so with impunity. Nobody, other than the nuclear industry, cares.

This month’s online edition of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists carries a piece entitled “The nuclear energy industry’s communication problem.” It should be required reading in the industry. One of the most interesting recommendations is that management within the industry must press for industry-wide discipline when it comes to messaging. Though the author alleges that industry associations call anti-nuclear groups “evil” (I have not heard that characterization myself), he does point to how such characterizations could hurt the industry’s credibility and hence its message.

I have an excellent example of this. Many nuclear advocates focus on the contrast between nuclear and coal. In doing so, they trot out what I believe are facile statistics on premature death caused by emissions from coal plants. In my view, this is totally counterproductive. It just bolsters the arguments of the anti-coal lobby. And guess what the anti-coal lobby pushes for? If you guess nuclear, you’re dead wrong. The anti-coal lobby is the same thing as the anti-nuclear lobby. They push for wind, solar, biomass, and conservation.

Nuclear’s enemy is natural gas, not coal. In fact, nuclear and coal share an obvious natural synergy: nuclear produces cheap zero-carbon baseload power; coal produces cheap high-carbon baseload and intermediate power. From a system-wide perspective, if we want cheap low-carbon power, we should keep coal but shift more baseload generation to nuclear.

The victory for wind and solar is really a victory for gas. After all, dispatchability is the paramount criterion for an electric power system (see article). Shifting generation away from coal and toward natural gas achieves only marginal system-wide emission reductions, and at a high cost. Yet the shift to gas is occurring now, under the cover of the massive support for wind and solar. The trend will intensify unless somebody does something.

And the kicker is that nobody has noticed this. Why? Because those who advocate the shift do not advertise it as a shift to natural gas. They advertise it as a major shift to wind and solar.

So, while nuclear advocates continue to trash coal, the wind-and-solar crowd have presented an attractive, though utterly facile, path to emission reductions. Who wins? The gas industry.

Nuclear industry, your enemy is not coal.

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14 years ago

Didnt I predict all this a couple of years ago? The people who build nuclear power plants do not have enough fanatical commitment to prevail. The greens do. Soon, nuclear power development expertise will fade due to lack of practice for such an extended period. And just imagine what a tiny accident will do – especially if it turns out to be not entirely accidental. I think we have seen the beginning of the end of the nuclear age – and as a result we are all going to enjoy a serious decline in our living standards. The greens will be thrilled to see bankers and astronauts hoeing side by side in the turnip fields.

Steve Aplin
14 years ago

Randal, welcome back. Yes you have been predicting this all along. I’d say the industry is hampered more by lack of cohesion than by lack of commitment. But the upshot is the same: the greens are walking all over them. It’s like they announced a hockey game and the industry showed up ready for ringette.

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