You may have noticed that whenever the word “nuclear” comes up in conversation something strange happens. Everyone gets tense and peoples’ tone of voice start to change- and unless someone expertly changes the subject, it is only a matter of time before the discussion is a full-blown conflict with dueling opinions that seem irreconcilable. When the same situation happens online it is often even more heated than in person, further escalating a conflict that is actually in desperate need of de-escalation.
But it doesn’t have to be this way! It is possible to have a constructive conversation about nuclear power, even with people whom you disagree! Whether you work in the energy industry or just care about energy issues, I want to share insights offered by some of the world’s top nuclear communicators at this week’s PIME Conference, hosted by the European Nuclear Society.
Although there was a lot of valuable information about crisis communications, I am going to focus on the more practical, day-to-day information for nuclear supporters like myself.
Here are my top 5 take-aways from the event:
1) Information ≠ Communication. The nuclear sector has a bad habit of “information dumping” without first assessing if their audience has the ability to understand technical language or if the information is actually related to their concerns. The first step to being an effective communicator is LISTENING. Instead of immediately providing “the facts” ask some questions and really listen to the answers in order to better understand other’s perspectives and level of knowledge. Expert conflict manager Millicent Danker calls this a “perception audit.” This helps to establish a meaningful dialogue.
2) Show some emotion! Cultivating empathy and sincerity goes a very long way in communicating with all types of people. Smile. Be proud of the achievements of the nuclear sector (Clean energy! Medicine!! Space travel!!!) – Enthusiasm is contagious! However, be careful not talk down to or antagonize your audience- this immediately damages trust and impairs your ability to connect with your audience.
3) “Fear is Real.” -Hans Cordee, who gave a talk about the Covra facility– a low, medium and high level waste processing and storage facility in the Netherlands. By acknowledging that people’s emotions are real and including the public in every aspect of planning, construction and operations- this innovative facility was successfully realized. As many countries struggle to site interim and long-term waste facilities, this process is an excellent example of how to cultivate the necessary support through compassionate communication and accessibility.
4) Interest-based bargaining. (aka “principled negotiation” aka “stakeholder management”) This issue came up again and again and again. The groups that are finding success in moving nuclear projects forward are all using some form of interest based bargaining. Basically this means that they include everyone (including the opposition) in the entire decision making process. This has been shown to lead to workable outcomes, reduce conflict and subsequent litigation as well as the associated costs. I recently recommended that pro-nuclear people get comfortable with this technique by reading the book Getting to Yes– after this meeting I very much stand by that recommendation.
5) PUBLIC ART!!! I’ve been singing this song for a long time and it was wonderful to hear about examples of how public art has successfully been incorporated into nuclear sites. Specifically the Covra facility I mentioned in item #3 on this list has an extensive art program that includes: a mural on the outside of the building that gets lighter as the waste inside decays, 5 art exhibits per year, and a storage facility for priceless artworks from local museums- as it turns out nuclear waste and antiquated artworks have similar requirements for temperature and humidity control. Considering that humans have been able to keep priceless paintings and architecture safely preserved for thousands of years, I think we can do the same for nuclear waste! Sometimes even in the same space! Creating opportunities for artists and the arts community at the site has given the public a reason to visit and get to know about the facility. It also speaks to people’s emotions in a way that says “Safe is Beautiful.” Covra has successfully cultivated overwhelming public support and is a great model for how others may do the same at nuclear sites of all kinds.
A very special thanks to the European Nuclear Society for a wonderful, thought provoking event! Now to start thinking about how to create a similar forum in the U.S.!!