As the nuclear industry wrestles with how it can communicate better with the wider public, a recent workshop in Vienna may one day be looked back upon as a seminal moment of change.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) invited mayors and municipal leaders from around the world to explain how the nuclear sector and its activities are viewed from a community perspective, and what might be done by governments and the nuclear sector to better address public concerns, for example when seeking a site for a geological repository – concerns that if not addressed can block a repository programme.
The issues raised at the Vienna workshop point to the need for further continued change in the way in which the nuclear sector engages with the wider public. Examples of some innovative and productive industry-community collaborations were presented at the workshop. Despite the progress of recent years, mayors still felt more could be done to more openly engage with communities – well-intentioned nuclear experts still too often try and resolve a problem just amongst themselves. Such an approach is akin to being lost with no roadmap, but not wanting to ask local people for directions.
There is no satnav for managing public sentiment. Local people are the best guides. Ask us, and we can help — that was the unified underlying key message from mayors and municipalities from around the world at the Vienna workshop. Municipalities are the first tier of democratic community representation, and have planning and other legal authorities which can thwart or assist a nuclear project. As such, they represent the most obvious initial partner for the nuclear sector to learn how to change interactions with the public.
Communication is not the same as Dialogue
“Please talk with us, not at us” was a core plea from mayors. Mayors with many years of experience engaging with the nuclear sector feel that the industry still sees the provision of technical and safety information as communication and engagement. Providing such information is a necessary but is not a sufficient condition for successful community engagement.
The industry enthusiastically imparts technical and safety information to communities, but most municipalities still feel that it rarely actually listens to the community and its concerns – most of which are not technical or scientific. Communication is often perceived by mayors as a ‘one-way’ discussion, and not a two-way dialogue.
Unsurprisingly, government, politicians and the nuclear sector are at the bottom end of the ‘trust hierarchy’ in every country. This is not just an emotional response. There is basis in fact for this trust deficit. There are no shortage of examples from around the world of historic secrecy, cover ups and past bad behaviours by the nuclear and governmental sectors which justifiably drive public distrust.
Building trust is based on deeds, not words. It is also a two-way process. The nuclear sector needs to learn to trust municipalities, and to support the growth of a community’s own ability to be a responsible and equal partner in the development of any nuclear project or programme.
Empowerment & Independence
Engaging with the nuclear sector can be overwhelming for municipalities. The balance of knowledge, authority and power is weighted against local communities. This sense of inequity is not the best foundation to build a constructive relationship.
Municipalities need the capacity and capability to defend and promote their community’s interests, able to interrogate technical data, and feel confident that they are engaging with the nuclear sector on a more equitable basis.
Failure to support the community’s own independent capability to engage could potentially cost a nuclear project more money and take more time – many municipalities have legal powers that can be used to block or slow down projects. Investing in a community, so that it can acquire skills and expertise that make it feel it can engage on a fair basis, may be the most cost-effective and rational approach.
The recent workshop is thought to be the largest event to which the IAEA has invited mayors and municipalities into its Vienna hub, seeking their insight into some of the nuclear industry’s most difficult issues. It’s rarity generated some local media and some social media coverage.
A bit like Starfleet Academy from Star Trek, the IAEA’s HQ is a place where people from all cultures and countries come together to ensure the greatest wisdom is brought to bear in resolving nuclear technology issues. It is an admirable example of how humankind can co-operate as one.
We hope the IAEA continues to proactively engage with municipal audiences, as they represent voices which are too often unheard, but can provide much wisdom in helping to resolve nuclear’s non-technological issues. As one mayor said in Vienna, “if you want to know what people want, just go and ask them” – time perhaps for the nuclear sector to follow municipalities’ sage advice.