Nuclear industry faces public policy challenge

The near meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors in Japan created a challenge for the nuclear industry, given it has positioned nuclear energy as a safer alternative to fossil fuels.

The near meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors in Japan created a challenge for the nuclear industry, given it has positioned nuclear energy as a cleaner and safer alternative to fossil fuels.

“The short-term crisis we hope will be over soon but it will be a long-term effort in terms of rebuilding public trust and making sure we maintain the policymaker confidence that we have in our industry,” says Scott Peterson, SVP, communications for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI).  “We need to continue to demonstrate to the public that we can operate US facilities safely.”

To help achieve that in the wake of the disaster in Japan, the NEI has created an emergency response center, which Peterson is quarterbacking. The response has included the creation of a special page on its website, which provides updates, FAQs, graphics as well as relevant links about the crisis. 

In just the first five days, Peterson says the page had 10 million hits. “We've had to move the site from one platform to another to accommodate the traffic,” he tells PRWeek.

NEI is also dispersing information through its Twitter channel (@neiupdates), including links to news articles that portray nuclear energy in a balanced light.  It has also started posting short videos on its YouTube channel, including one in which a NEI expert discusses natural and safe forms of radiation.

 “We have a complex industry with a lot of terminology, so we've ramped up our use of social media so we can start explaining some of these issues,” says Peterson.

Burson-Marsteller is providing support in terms of social media. To deal with the volume of media requests, NEI has also tripled its media relations capacity with the help of Hill & Knowlton, which is also providing strategic guidance.

Key NEI executives have been making the media rounds, including president and CEO Marvin Fertel, who appeared on Meet the Press. Alex Flint, SVP, governmental affairs, has led communications on Capitol Hill.

“We've been proactive with briefing members of Congress and congressional staff since Monday,” he says. “We've been very intentional in terms of trying to educate as many of our key stakeholders as possible.”

He says one of the key messages is the fact the US nuclear plants can withstand man-made and natural disasters. “Although the Japanese have a very strong commitment to safety and a strong regulator, we put a lot of enhancements into our plants since 9/11 both structurally and in our ability to respond to the most significant challenges.”

GE, which designed the Japanese reactors, has also been making updates on its website as well as through its media hotline.

Bryan Thomas, SVP for the natural resources and energy practice of Fleishman-Hillard, says the challenge the industry faces is compounded by the existing fear people already had of nuclear energy.

He says that's underscored by reports potassium iodide tablets have been selling out in pharmacies on the West Coast, for fear of radiation exposure crossing the Pacific Ocean. “It has been 25 years since Chernobyl and over 30 years since Three Mile Island, but all of those things have come pummeling back into people's consciousness,” says Thomas. “People are really frightened of nuclear. I think it will be an incredibly big hurdle for them to overcome.”

Because of that fear, he says government will feel the pressure to look for alternatives to nuclear energy.

“It hasn't happened in the US yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Americans eventually follow governments in Europe by halting new projects,” says Thomas. “If they don't want to face resistance, the industry will need to demonstrate to the world that their standards are as failsafe as possible.” 

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