Since March 11, when the Japanese tsunami triggered the accident at the country's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, support in the US for nuclear energy has waned, then come back slightly, pollsters have found. However, say experts, the onus is on policymakers and the industry to restore confidence among the public and investors about this often-controversial energy source.
"It was just a matter of communicating as quickly as possible," says Scott Peterson, SVP of communications at the Nuclear Energy Institute. "At 6:30am, as soon as I got the first call, I did a full activation of our center. We staffed 24/7. We were communicating to stakeholders as fast as possible and being as open and transparent as we could."
That communication to policy-makers and investors took the form of using experts in short videos, briefings, and conference calls to educate stakeholders about what was happening. The institute has also testified before Congress three times.
Traffic to the institute's website increased from 88,000 visitors the day prior to the accident in Japan to a high of 8.6 million on March 16, resulting in the need to expand server space. Most traffic came from the US and Canada, followed by Japan, even though the information was in English, says Peterson.
An immediate communications response was critical, but shaping the message in the aftermath is equally important.
"As quickly as possible, the industry must get off the defensive and provide an illustration of what tomorrow's safe nuclear industry looks like," says Joe Farren, GM and leader of the global public practice at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide.
"It has to be a conversation, not a speech," he adds. "The trade group is the best place to start: it has to reach out to scientists and other experts. It can't be the industry saying, 'We're safe.' "
Facing a crisis head-on
Farren says both the aviation and cruise-ship industries have dealt successfully with tragedies by handling them head-on, rapidly, and in a transparent fashion, and that's what the nuclear energy industry needs to do.
"It will require a careful review and assessment on the part of our policymakers and lawmakers," explains John Files, SVP at Powell Tate in Washington, "as well as the nuclear industry, to show they are applying any lessons learned from Japan to American plants."
Post-Fukushima, both the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Nuclear Energy Institute have been conducting evaluations of the safety of each of the 104 nuclear power reactors producing electricity in the US. Results from the institute were not available at press time.
The Japan accident happened at a crucial juncture, just as nuclear energy was poised for a comeback in the US, says Michael Schmidt, VP of public affairs at GolinHarris. Building a new nuclear power plant represents a hefty investment of money and time, and the Fukushima situation adds "another layer of doubt" among investors, he says. Nonetheless, Schmidt doesn't think fear about the safety of nuclear plants and setbacks associated with it will be long-lasting.
"If you look at commercial nuclear operations in the US, we have clearly shown we can evaluate accidents here and in other locations and put those lessons in place," says Tim Pettit, a spokesman for Charlotte, NC-based Duke Energy, for which nuclear-generated energy from three plants accounts for 50% of its output. (That is followed by coal at 47%, and then a smattering of other sources, including solar and hydro.)
He adds that the mistakes of 1979's Three Mile Island accident helped the industry institute safer practices. However, the 1986 Chernobyl situation wasn't analogous, explains Pettit, because the plant in Russia was different from the ones used in the US. He notes that it's far too early to extract much knowledge from Japan's experience.
Polling Americans on power plants
In spite of the health threats associated with the Fukushima plant in Japan, more than half of Americans - 58% - still rank nuclear power plants in the US as safe, according to a Gallup poll conducted in late March
A Harris poll also con-ducted in late March reports that 29% of Americans feel nuclear power plants are "very safe," while 34% consider nuclear power plants "somewhat safe."
A Rasmussen Reports poll shows that shortly after the accident, 40% of Americans were in favor of more nuclear power plants being built here.