x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Speak to the public to make progress

The UAE's public outreach campaign to allay fears about nuclear power should be a template for clear, early communication on many other issues.

Even before the disaster at Fukushima two years ago this month, much of the world was wary of nuclear power. The atomic accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island had tipped public opinion in many countries against commercial reactors, despite the many advantages of this form of power generation.

For the UAE, voracious demand for electric power, as well as the demands of energy diversification, makes nuclear power a natural option, and the government is proceeding with construction of reactors in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi. Perhaps aware of the potential for public anxiety, officials and planners have given a high priority to public outreach on the issue.

The result has been a sophisticated, sustained and broad programme of outreach to explain the issues of nuclear safety to the whole population. This is a fine model for communication between the government and the public about all sorts of official initiatives that require public buy-in.

A public meeting in Dubai this week, as reported in The National yesterday, was the latest element of the nuclear-education plan. Top officials and experts of the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation answered a range of questions about radiation safety, spent fuel, water usage, crisis management and other issues. The meeting was just one in a series, following sessions in Abu Dhabi, Fujairah, Sharjah and Ruwais.

The campaign appears to be working. A study into public attitudes towards nuclear energy, and perceptions of the UAE's nuclear programme, has demonstrated that public support has been increasing across the country, from 66 per cent to 82 per cent in one year.

This success is a signal that the public-awareness campaign on nuclear power can now become a model that can be applied to other government initiatives. A good deal of concern, some of it based on misconceptions and some of it not, might have been avoided by the roll-out of comparable explain-it-to-the-public programmes before, to name a few, the recent SIM-card re-registration drive, the project to upgrade and standardise small grocery stores, the relocation of used-car dealerships, and the continuing expansion of Mawaqif.

Engaging the public is important in any initiative. Two-way communication, when it's clear, complete and early, can improve cooperation and help any initiative move ahead smoothly and efficiently.