A radical change in pro nuclear spin

This an an abridged version of the article that first appeared on michaelwest.com.au (as Reactorvated: new nuke push ramps up)

We don’t hear much about this, yet. It’s an international nuclear industry plan to develop new nuclear reactors, ones that are still only in the design phase. The Australian Parliament’s  Treaties Committee is holding an Inquiry into the Framework Agreement for International Collaboration on Research and Development of Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems. Australia already signed up for this in June 2016, without any public discussion.. Now the plan is to extend Australia’s involvement, and the Committee calls, (rather quietly)  for submissions by 28 April 2017.

Anyone would think that the idea of expanding the nuclear industry in Australia was dead and gone, following last year’s debacle of the South Australian government’s attempt to get a nuclear waste import business set up in Australia. However, the latest plan is different.

The South Australian plan was unsuccessfully touted as a bonanza for that state. It was also promoted to the global nuclear corporations as the answer to their problem of where to put radioactive wastes. It would have been a plus for AREVA, Westinghouse, Toshiba, G.E. Hitachi, enabling them to market nuclear reactors to South East Asia, with the promise of having the waste disposal issue solved.

The failed plan was set out in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission Final Report .  The idea of Australia developing new generation nuclear reactors got the barest mention, in Chapter 10. However, this idea was always quietly a part of the nuclear lobby’s plan for the future.

When it comes to pro nuclear propaganda, what is radically different now, is that Generation IV nuclear energy systems are no longer touted as a helpful solution for those “conventional ” nuclear corporations, (that I will call “Big Nuclear”). In the current climate of financial crisis for AREVA, Westingouse, Toshiba etc, the “new nuclear” companies, Terrestrial Energy, Transatomic, NuScale etc now pitch their products as not a help, but a radically different alternative to the conventional reactors.

This new nuclear propaganda is certainly out there, but is not yet prevalent in Australia. The nuclear lobby’s first step now is to get government commitment in principle, getting Australia in step with USA and the other nations in the campaign. While the government is certainly well aware of the rejuvenated pro nuclear campaign, the soft sell to the Australian public is barely underway, yet

In 2017, the change in both content and style has come about both because of recent developments in the nuclear industry, and also because of the changing media environment. Today’s persuasion campaign is promoting a different product, targeting different audiences, using different media outlets, and above all, has adopted a revitalised style.

The product ? The favoured product is the Small Modular Reactor, (SMR) which does not yet actually exist, except as a design. Some are said to be under construction in China. It’s not at present possible to build them commercially in America or UK: licensing and safety regulations would have to be changed first.

The target audiences? There are several. First, governments have to be won over, particularly because of need to change nuclear regulations, and also because of costs. With the availability of cheap gas and renewable energy, nuclear projects do not currently attract private investment. Even the Bill Gates’ billionaires’ SMR project, Breakthrough Energy Coalition  is seeking tax-payer funding, via the governmental Mission Innovation programme. In Britain, Weinberg Next Nuclear not only informs the government, but has achieved the status of a registered charity.

Secondly, mainstream journals are targeted. Not a week passes without ecstatic articles on SMRs popping up in mainstream media. Almost certainly, these derive from carefully worded handouts from the SMR firms, or better, from journalists like James Conca, who specialises in writing for the SMR lobby.

However, the most important target is the public, and particularly, youth.

Media outlets? You have to hand it to the new nukes lobby. They are way ahead of other industries, and especially of Big Nuclear, in their use of Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, SoundCloud and also of TV, film, radio and podcasts

Style? I think this is what counts, in winning hearts and minds. The media manipulators for the SMR lobby display publicity skills, with a versatility worthy of Joseph Goebbels. Lavishly produced TV series, such as Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail and the film Pandora’s Promise, carry a very subtle soft sell for new nuclear. A new pro nuclear spin film, The New Fire, is in production.

In fact, quite a small number of individuals produce both wordy technical presentations for government, industry, and mainstream journals, and bright, snappy, easily accessible messages for the young, and for non-technical environmentalists. The best example is Michael Shellenberger who writes extensively, and runs numerous nuclear front groups – Environmental Progress Ecomodernists, etc, – of great appeal to enthusiastic environmentalists.

In Australia, this propaganda genius is shown by Ben Heard, who sends sophisticated submissions to government , tweets incessantly, and also runs a touchy feely nature-loving nuclear front group “Bright New World” 

Especially in the USA, these very appealing groups pop up quickly, to meet changing circumstances. The latest is Generation Atomic, formed in April 2017, specifically to organise a clear pro nuclear presence in the March for Science, an American and international event on 22 April.

Reading back through this, I realise that it shows that, as Marshall McLuhan said,The Medium is the Massage.  What the message IS might matter less than its attractive style.

However, the nuclear propaganda message is always there, though it has evolved over decades.

The decades of nuclear spin from the late 1940s to the 1990s could be called the era of Defensive Spin.  Apart from one ambitiously positive 1950s campaign about Cheap Electricity “too cheap to meter”, pro-nuclear propaganda became mired in the fear, and the support for weapons, that characterised the Cold War period. The defensive themes of the 1970s -80s followed news of nuclear accidents, and could be summarised as Downplaying Radiation Effects, and Assurances of Safety. 

I have skimmed through that Defensive Spin era because the later Positive one is much more interesting, and relevant to today.

1990 The first burst of positive nuclear spin came  at around the time of the first IPCC Climate Report. Already, nuclear corporations like AREVA were talking about Fossil Fuel Depletion and Energy Security: nuclear power was the answerThe industry was reluctant to yet push the low-carbon argument, as many in these corporations did not believe in global warming. However, they could still push the line about nuclear power being Clean and Pollution Free (Nuclear Energy Institute)

2003, The Breakthrough Institute  was the first big foray of a new nuclear front group. They pushed the clean energy line, but courageously in 2004 touted the benefits of nuclear power to combat global warming. While some nuclear lobbyists are still pushing that line, it has also somewhat lost favour, because research is showing that this line has resulted in promotion of renewable energy, rather than nuclear

Over the 2000s, nuclear front groups have sprung up. For a long time they promoted “new nuclear” – Generation IV reactors as Supporting Big Nuclear.    The big selling point was the promise that Generation IV reactors would eat the wastes of conventional reactors. They still push that promise to the world, but are now not keen to be seen as associated with the troubled Big Nuclear   companies.

The message is always a positive and optimistic one.  Even the Fukushima disaster becomes twisted as some sort of evidence for the benefits of new nuclear.

With the more youthful and digitally aware target audience in mind, the Ecomodernism  movemen brought in a new spin angle – Humanitarian and nature loving. It has the feel of an alternative to big corporations, although billionaires are behind it.

The overall message is saving the planet. This encompasses: endless cheap and pollution-free energy for all of humanity, recycling nuclear wastes and thus solving that problem, combatting climate change, and promoting the beneficial uses of ionising radiation, freeing people from irrational fears, and from anti-science.

I am not here interested in scrutinising the claims made by today’s pro nuclear spin. I am in awe of their chutzpah. The Generation IV- SMR lobby has been successful, in gaining the attention of government and media for technologies which do not yet even exist.  In today’s world of “alternative facts”, I guess that this success is not surprising. It remains to be seen if “new nuclear” can win the public approval that it needs.