Controversial Brand Communications 
Nuclear Energy and its often negative brand associations

The March 2011 earthquake that occurred off the Pacific coast of Tohoku, Japan, resulted in a Tsunami of historic proportions that gave global anti-nuclear lobbies a fresh, post-Chernobyl, excuse to strengthen their anti-nuclear rhetoric. Prior to this earthquake, the nuclear accident that occurred in Chernobyl on 26 April 1986 had been the main weapon of choice against proponents of nuclear power.

The Chernobyl RBMK reactor met its unfortunate end as a result of reactor design faults that should never have happened. 25 years after Chernobyl, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) in Japan experienced a meltdown following a power failure that prevented the nuclear rods from being normally cooled by sea water. The generators that should have kicked-in as secondary cooling power sources also failed as a result of the force of the Tsunami. The main differences between the two accidents, 25 years apart, are the reactor design and the absence of human deaths in Japan. The hundreds of people who died were killed by the force of the Tsunami that razed motor vehicles, farms, boats, buildings and homes, destroying everything in its path. Residents and workers were moved away from the NPP as a precautionary measure, to protect them from possible radiation.

Nuclear Power brand perceptions

Fukushima gave a fresh set of reasons, albeit often more emotionally exaggerated than rational and factual, to Greenpeace and other anti-nuclear lobbies to increase their rhetoric and to scare away any plans by other countries to develop nuclear power. This is despite the fact that more people die almost daily from motorcar and plane accidents than there have been any deaths from nuclear power plants since Chernobyl in 1986. The nuclear industry, on the other hand, has also been jostled back into life by increased attacks on it; especially after countries like Germany and Italy decided to adopt laws that would phase out nuclear power and let existing nuclear power stations, in the case of Germany, to be retired by 2022. However, unsure about its ability to support all of its energy needs through renewable sources alone, Germany is unlikely to stop importing nuclear power from neighbouring France. The overwhelming perceptions about nuclear energy are that it is very dangerous, therefore unsafe and should be done away with once and for all and altogether.

Top-level Nuclear Crisis Communications Management

The post-Fukushima avalanche of media interviews of nuclear top guns such as the Chairman of Britain’s Nuclear Industry Association, Lord Hutton (Former Labour Minister) and that of John Ritch, Director General of the World Nuclear Association (WNA), provided a good indication of the panic in the industry.

More than the immediate material devastations in Japan, Fukushima has created material for crisis communications for the World Nuclear Association. WNA’s John Ritch delivered this warning at a recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety: “The lesson of Fukushima, from the event and its worldwide reverberations, is that our response must combine ever safer practice with ever better public education. Without both, the foundations of nuclear power will remain dangerously fragile, and so too will the prospects for the worldwide clean-energy revolution on which our planet’s environmental future so crucially depends”. The IAEA Ministerial Conference was called by the IAEA to draw on the lessons from the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi NPP in order to strengthen nuclear safety throughout the world. In the speech: “Fukushima – Shaping a Sound Response“, John Ritch pointed out that the world population will continue its explosive growth, global electricity demand will continue to grow even faster; that the need to cut worldwide carbon emissions remains essential and it remains true that we can achieve a global clean-energy revolution only with a vastly expanded use of nuclear power.

Taking the Nuclear Communications bull by the horns

In the face of often emotional outbursts by the anti-nuclear lobbies, the world nuclear fraternity needs to carefully study attitudes and reactions, as well as analyse the words of its opponents before formulating appropriately factual responses that will inform and educate even the most uneducated publics; for these are often used as unquestioning herds by the anti-nuclear lobby. The era of controlled gentlemanly silence by the nuclear fraternity should be a thing of the past because we now live in a world of competing noises, opinions, easily accessible and ubiquitous social media, as well as increasingly shortened attention spans. In fact, the nuclear communications bodies should take the initiative to lead from the front, ensuring that their communiqués are not just lame and defensive reactions to yet another emotional attack by the anti-nuclear lobbies.

There is much to be won; there is much to be lost!