The nuclear industry, and governments, must learn that it is essential that communication with the public must be clear and complete and must flow in both directions.
Public must play a role in shaping nuclear futures
'We decide when we engage," said one nuclear communicator, when asked about his organisation's low level of interaction with the public.
Another one ignored a grave, factual error in a publication. "Even if blatantly incorrect like in this case," this person said, "we don't want to enter into a cycle of clarifications and corrections."
A third one refused to respond to a reporter who was merely checking facts. The argument? "It would be best to have this guy simply read our press release."
These so-called communicators from different national and international nuclear authorities - people with whom I have personally interacted in recent years - forgot one basic rule: If you don't engage, somebody will, on your behalf, and you won't like it. The result, in all the examples above, was that misinformation and hearsay prevailed, and the record was not set straight. What was published, incorrectly, will loom online eternally.
Twenty six years after Chernobyl, and 18 months after Fukushima, the nuclear industry should not need reminding that transparency is critical to success. And yet, here I am with a reminder.
As a communicator who has been on both sides of the camera, I still see a know-it-all attitude prevailing when it comes to talking nuclear. The disaster in Fukushima showed it once more: official communicators speaking too scientifically and opponents using only emotions.
Blueprints for better nuclear communication exist. Six months after Fukushima, the International Atomic Energy Agency adopted a Nuclear Safety Action Plan. And the longest of its 11 operational paragraphs was on "communication and information dissemination". In that document, the IAEA Secretariat was tasked with providing "member states, international organisations and the general public with timely, clear, factually correct, objective and easily understandable information during a nuclear emergency".
For this to work, however, each country must also see this as its duty. And this should start before any key decision regarding nuclear matters is taken. Withholding information for proprietary or national security reasons must be the exception, not the rule. Involving stakeholders, including the public, should not be limited to emergencies.
Transparency enhances safety. Haven't we learnt this from the intertwined relationships between the nuclear regulator and the utilities in Japan? Thus, here are four ideas to improve nuclear communication globally:
First, public participation in key decision-making must be globalised. This may sound like a major deal but there are already good examples at hand, like the Aarhus Convention. In force since 2009, it forces the ratifying 16 European governments to engage with their publics on decisions that might affect the environment. It is about government accountability, transparency and responsiveness, and is trans-boundary.
The 1990 African Charter for Popular Participation in Development and Transformation, and the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, have similar approaches. Some countries also have laws ensuring public access to information.
This concept must be adapted to the nuclear realm. For instance, the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS), the world's only legally binding safety framework covering 75 countries, makes no mention of involving stakeholders or informing the public in nuclear decisions. The CNS should be strengthened with these transparency measures. Parties to this key convention, who are gathered this week in Vienna to discuss lessons from Fukushima, must remember that communicating with the public is an integral part of the safety culture.
The UAE is at the forefront of the dozens of nuclear "newcomers", with its first two reactors now under construction. As a fresh CNS party, the UAE must push for more transparency to avoid the mistakes many nuclear-energy-producing countries made when they launched their programmes.
Second, measurable criteria for assessing public engagement must be embedded in international nuclear safety reviews. The IAEA sends missions to look into countries' regulatory frameworks, how they operate particular power plants, or the preparedness of a country that is considering the nuclear energy option. The World Association of Nuclear Operators, an industrial group linking commercial nuclear power plants, has similar peer missions. But none of these dig deep into stakeholder involvement.
Thirdly, communication courses should be included in the curricula of nuclear studies. Engineers, at the onset of their careers, should be taught that openness is not just a necessity, but a duty. Only then can they push transparency within their workplaces, from day one to when they assume top positions. Khalifa University, with its various education levels for young Emirati nuclear engineers, could lead by example with such a move.
Finally, national and international entities, journalists and academics should foster better communication in scientific issues. Independent science media centres that provide a network of trusted science sources for reporters in several countries are good examples. Also, bureaucrats must encourage, not discourage, journalists to cover their work.
Communication is a two-way process. Just because people in the nuclear industry talk or Tweet does not mean they communicate successfully. It is past time to make transparency a required ingredient for all nuclear programmes, and for administrators to engage openly and honestly with the public.
Ayhan Evrensel, a Vienna-based nuclear communication expert, is a former spokesperson for the IAEA, and FANR in Abu Dhabi