Public Affairs: The nuclear bandwagon slowly grinds to a halt - Does the downsizing of the British Nuclear Industry Forum mean that the nuclear industry has finally accepted defeat at the hands of green pressure groups?

In May 1995 Roger Hayes, director general of the British Nuclear Industry Forum, said: ’Five years ago the industry was a joke. We had the worst reactors in the world and nobody trusted us. What we said was as reliable as our plants. PR has helped us. We now have some of the most sophisticated communications of any industry in Britain.’

In May 1995 Roger Hayes, director general of the British Nuclear

Industry Forum, said: ’Five years ago the industry was a joke. We had

the worst reactors in the world and nobody trusted us. What we said was

as reliable as our plants. PR has helped us. We now have some of the

most sophisticated communications of any industry in Britain.’



And yet last week PR Week reported that Roger Hayes is to step down,

after four years in the post, as part of cost-cutting at the forum.



Much of the nuclear industry has now transferred to private

ownership.



Last summer saw the sale of generating companies Nuclear Electric and

Scottish Nuclear under the umbrella of British Energy. Technology

services company AEA Technology was also privatised around the same

time.



With this fragmentation the forum’s annual budget has steadily declined,

from pounds 3.5 million four years ago to pounds 1 million today

Staffing has also dropped from 25 to 16.



However, BNIF chairman Dr Bill Wilkinson denies there is any less

commitment to communication and claims that Hayes’ departure is merely a

reflection of a ’restructuring to make the forum a leaner and meaner

operation’.



’Since the privatisation of Nuclear Electric and Scottish Nuclear into

British Energy last summer we have stepped back from PR and lobbying and

are taking on a more strategic style,’ he says.



Inevitably privatisation has led to a ’normalisation’ of the nuclear

industry. The parts in private sector hands become answerable to

shareholders rather than the public and face a different kind of media

scrutiny.



However one communications professional within the nuclear industry sees

the cut-backs at the BNIF as a serious step backwards: ’The nuclear

industry still suffers from an image problem and it is short-sighted to

starve its trade body of funds at this point.’



This insider believes the BNIF plays a valuable role as a conduit for

ideas and can better understand the effects of individual companies’

actions on other parts of the industry: ’There is a danger that the

industry is becoming more insular and inward looking.’



Dr Patrick Green, senior energy campaigner for Friends of the Earth

takes a stronger view. He believes the BNIF is winding down and for a

more fundamental reason - because it has lost the war of ideas. ’It has

nothing to argue for any more. In 1994 the Government’s nuclear review

decided no new reactors were going to be built, and since then the

industry has been in wind down mode,’ he says.



Green says the nuclear industry is living in ’cloud cuckoo land’ if it

thinks more reactors will ever be built and its focus must now be to

clean up the mess it has created.



He believes communications have been key in this victory: ’Fundamentally

the nuclear industry didn’t have the scientific knowledge to overcome

its problems and we have been continually proven right in the public

sphere.’



The nuclear industry was certainly dealt a serious blow in March when

John Gummer, secretary of state for the environment, refused the

go-ahead for the waste site planned by Nirex - the body responsible for

disposing of all intermediate-level UK radioactive wastes.



Writing in the Independent on Sunday, Geoffrey Lean, said: ’This marks a

stunning vindication of the strategy by Friends of the Earth of fighting

the industry on its own ground. The international nuclear power has

suffered one of its biggest set backs since Chernobyl.’



Peter Bingle, managing director of government and political affairs at

the Communication Group, disagrees that either the BNIF or the industry

are winding down. Bingle has provided consultancy for both British

Nuclear Fuels Limited and the BNIF. ’The industry is changing,’ he says.

’The forum was crucial in the run up to privatisation and did its job

rather well. It has won cross-party support for a mixed supply of

energy.’



Bingle believes the BNIF’s role will become clearer when the industry

has ’settled down’ and it will be able to respond in PR terms to new

opportunities or threats.



Wilkinson confirms the BNIF will continue to play two important roles:

’On one hand we need crisis management for the day-to-day issues that

arise. And longer term we will attempt to influence public opinion.

Although we are not going to build any reactors for at least a decade,

when we do the public needs to accept it’.



Nevertheless he does admit that there have been public opinion

’setbacks’.



’There’s no doubt we have been caught napping by the anti-nuclear

movement.



It’s taken a long time to get on the front foot and we mustn’t reduce

our emphasis now.’



Dr Roger Highfield, science editor on the Daily Telegraph, says: ’The

industry seems to have lost the vigour of the 1950s and 1960s. It has

had to repair the damage done after Chernobyl and one area of expansion

would have been the deep repository plan by Nirex, but this was

defeated.’ He adds: ’Interest is now quite low in the nuclear industry.

It’s gone off the media agenda.’



With seemingly insurmountable problems over waste and a complete lack of

political commitment to build new reactors, the central question remains

- does the industry really have the confidence to shift public opinion

back in favour of nuclear energy?



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