Monday, July 09, 2012

Government told: use social media to allay public's nuclear fears

 A German protest against carbon capture and storage
It's not just nuclear: Greenpeace and others have effectively campaigned against carbon capture and storage in Germany using new media, and MPs want the Government to take them on using Facebook and Twitter. Can you see this happening?

The Government is being advised to use independent regulators and social media to provide public information on the risks associated with nuclear power and other energy technologies.

A group of MPs is recommending that officials and regulators use the same communication strategies as employed by campaigning organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to allay public fears on nuclear power, fracking and carbon capture and storage.

Would you ‘like’ a Facebook message from the Treasury telling you that it's okay for the taxpayer to subsidise nuclear power?

Because the public knows that the Government backs nuclear power, it regards official messages on the subject as biased, says the Science and Technology Committee, which has been looking into the public perception of risk.

Therefore, technically competent public bodies that are independent of Government are in a much better position to engender public trust and influence risk perceptions, the MPs say, citing the Health & Safety Executive and Office for Nuclear Regulation as examples.

"The public must be able to trust the information it receives on the risks of nuclear power and other energy technologies – such as fracking or carbon capture and storage," said Andrew Miller MP.

"Developing the public profile of independent regulators as trusted and authoritative sources may be one way of increasing public trust and understanding of such risks."

The MPs say in the report that "the evidence shows that around half of the population support [nuclear power], even though it may be a reluctant support for the least worst option. The Government's position as an advocate for nuclear power makes it difficult for the public to trust it as an impartial source of information."

Carbon capture and storage

Although most of the inquiry looked at nuclear power, the MPs also considered other technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS). As one witness who gave evidence, Professor Nick Pidgeon, Director of the Understanding Risk Programme at Cardiff University, said: "[energy] policy in the EU and UK depends very heavily upon CCS technology working".

The MPs visited a site of a pilot CCS project in Germany, where there has been almost as much opposition to the technology as there has been to nuclear power. They found the underlying reasons for this were “distrust of industry and concerns that CCS would provide a means for fossil fuel dependency to continue".

They highlighted a comment by one of the enquiry's witnesses that campaign groups like Friends of the Earth were very good at getting their message across. They "will pick a very narrow issue, go for that very strongly and throw lots of resources at it. They have embraced the internet and the new media very well," said Dr Andrew Bloodworth, Head of Science, Minerals and Waste, British Geological Survey (BGS).

"If the Government intends to rely on carbon capture and storage (CCS) as part of emissions reduction strategies, it should examine the difficulties experienced in Germany due to public concerns," concluded the MPs.

Community engagement

While in Germany, they were also impressed by the model of citizen partnership that has been developed there for wind farms. They suggest that “enabling communities to feel more ownership of local energy infrastructure by offering shares in projects could be conducive to building acceptance".

Regarding nuclear new build proposals in particular, the MPs advocate "the further use of current community engagement processes led by energy companies, working with local government and the public, for building trust".

In this regard EDF Energy has recently been sponsoring a series of editorial features in women's magazines. It seeks to portray the human side of working with nuclear power by, for example, interviewing female workers and photographing them in the same style as fashion models.

For example, the last issue of Marie Claire features an attractive photograph and an interview with Sabrina Greenberg, whose age is patronisingly noted as 25, a member of EDF Energy's Nuclear New Build team and personal assistant to the 'client construction and commercial director'.

Before taking on this job she worked, the advertorial says, at the Department of Energy and Climate Change. However, her LinkedIn profile makes no mention of this, instead saying that she worked at the Department of Justice.

The interview questions include: how much she knew about nuclear energy before starting work, what is involved in her typical day, what her family and friends think about her working for an energy company, what she likes about working at EDF Energy and what she sees as her future there.

Propaganda versus information

EDF has clearly noted the recent market research which shows that women are far more likely to oppose the new nuclear build than men, and this is their cynical response: to use senior members of their own staff as examples of how safe nuclear power is.  How stupid do they think women are?

It illustrates that the distinction between propaganda and objective information can be easily blurred.

This blurring may also explain why NGOs are trusted by the public more than energy companies and the Government. The public sees that when it comes to international efforts to save the planet such as the Rio+20 Earth Summit and UN climate change summits, it is NGOs who are pushing most strongly for the required measures, and governments that are lagging behind.

The MPs' report accepts that the public does not always understand the true nature of relative risk, even when attempts are made to explain it scientifically. It is a difficult issue to get across. This was seen most dramatically in recent times with the controversy over the MMR vaccine.

This does not mean that the public is necessarily anti-scientific, it says. While their level of scientific understanding may not be the same as a scientist, they may be influenced by “other affective (that is, feeling or emotion-based) factors" that are not accessible to rational argument.

This must make women wrong. Shame on them, for responding with their feelings.

In response, the MPs advocate the setting up of a new Risk Communication Strategy team led by a senior individual in Government.

That's all right then: I'm sure they will be completely trustworthy.

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