LONDON – The World Nuclear Association is making a laudable start at trying to “rebrand” nuclear. But as became apparent here yesterday, it’s missing a trick.
“In the aftermath of Fukushima, we have to take a lead in rebranding nuclear power,” WNA acting director general Steve Kidd said in an address at a conference organized by the UK’s Nuclear Industry Association (NIA).
The WNA is the global trade body for the conventional nuclear industry. It wants to assure that the public broadly perceives nuclear as an effective, safe source of carbon free energy. And as Kidd noted, following the meltdowns at the Fukushima plant after Japan’s tragic 20110 earthquake and tsunami, “That’s a pretty tall order.”
Indeed it is. Even though the nuclear industry has a stellar safety record, and even though – to consider the gravest of statistics – it has killed few people over the years compared to the deaths caused by fossil fuels, it still struggles around the world against impassioned nuclear opposition.
One way to help offset that would be to champion the safer and more efficient alternative nuclear designs that the industry rejected 40-some years ago, when it instead settled on inferior designs that rely on solid uranium fuel and water cooling.
Alternatives such as liquid molten salt reactors, high temperature pebble bed reactors, fast reactors (which to be fair were the industry’s objective at one point) and others represent improvements in both safety and operating efficiency, especially in some cases where they run on thorium fuel instead of uranium.
The liquid thorium molten salt reactor that Alvin Weinberg designed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee in the 1960s serves as one stellar example.
Among its benefits: It runs safely at high temperatures; it could serve as an effective industrial heat source as well as an electricity generator; it leaves behind less dangerous waste than today’s reactors and its waste lasts only a fraction of the time; it does not require potentially dangerous pressurization; and in the unlikely event of a serious problem, a “freeze plug” melts away and allows fuel to drain harmlessly into tank – meltdown averted.
IF IT AIN’T BROKE
So, wouldn’t it make sense for the WNA to embrace these ideas? To leverage them as something like a “not the same old nuclear”?
No, says Kidd.
“I’m very strongly against that idea,” Kidd replied when I inquired whether the WNA should be promoting safer alternatives.
“We cannot be seen to be suggesting that current operation of reactors is unsafe,” he said. “These reactors (conventional reactors) are licensed by the national regulators as being safe to operate and the public trusts in their national regulator…The point is, the reactors in operation around the world today are safe.”
The irony is that WNA is a group that’s highly knowledgeable about the potential advantages of the alternatives. Its impressive website is rich in information about them. As just one example, read what the WNA has to say about thorium.
But as the industry association controlled by the makers of large, conventional nuclear plants the WNA just isn’t ready to parlay that wealth of knowledge into a promotional push. The WNA, founded in 2001, is not far removed from its roots as the former Uranium Institute.
NOT JUST THE FACTS
It has been steadily attempting that, among other ways, by building a fact-rich website full of information on nuclear’s advantages, not the least of which is that it’s a carbon-free source of round-the-clock power.
Kidd said that facts alone will not be enough.
“We’ve really got to get into people’s psychology, into their emotions, because obviously the factual approach can only get you so far,” Kidd said, noting that the industry is fighting against people’s preconceived notions of safety and weapons threats.
“I think the best branding people, the best marketing people, in the world, can probably overcome that,” he said.
It would be easier if they started to work with words like “thorium.”
Image: Andrea Omizzolo via Flickr.