The global giants of nuclear power are in disarray. As Westinghouse Electric, Toshiba, AREVA struggle in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, a new breed of sophisticated nuclear campaigners, led by US billionaire Bill Gates, are spruiking “Small Modular Reactors”. Veteran anti-nuclear campaigner Noel Wauchope investigates the pro-nuclear push, the smart social media offensives and the latest government lobbying.
Oped by Noel Wauchope
We don’t hear much about this, yet. It’s an international nuclear industry plan to develop new nuclear reactors, reactors which are still only in the design phase.
The Treaties Committee of the Australian Parliament 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 has called for submissions by April 28, 2017.
Most people would think the idea of expanding the nuclear industry in Australia was dead and gone, following last year’s debacle of the South Australian government’s attempts to get a nuclear waste import business set up in Australia. The latest plan however is different.
The South Australian proposal was unsuccessfully touted as a bonanza for the state. It was also promoted to 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, solved by the world’s biggest nuclear waste dump in South Australia.
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, (call them “Big Nuclear” if you will).
In the current climate of financial crisis for AREVA, Westinghouse, Toshiba and so on, “new nuclear” companies such as Terrestrial Energy, Transatomic and NuScale now pitch their products as a radically different alternative to conventional nuclear reactors.
This new nuclear propaganda is certainly out there, but it is not yet prevalent in Australia. The nuclear lobby’s first step is to get government commitments 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. It will come.
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 campaign of persuasion is promoting a different product, targeting different audiences, using different media outlets, and above all it has adopted a revitalised style.
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 is not possible at present to build these so-called SMRs commercially in America or the UK. Licensing and safety regulations would have to be changed first.
There are several targeted audiences for the new nuclear campaigners. First, governments need to be won over in order for nuclear regulations to be changed, and also because of costs.
With the availability of cheap gas globally (although certainly not in Australia) and increasingly efficient renewable energy sources, nuclear projects do not now attract private investment. Even the SMR project of US billionaire Bill Gates, Breakthrough Energy Coalition, is seeking taxpayer funding via the governmental Mission Innovation programme: a coalition of billionaires such as Gates, Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Jack Ma, Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg and George Soros.
Secondly, mainstream journals are targeted. Not a week passes without enthusiastic articles about SMRs popping up in the mainstream media. These stories appears to derive from sophisticated press-kits from the SMR firms, or from pro-nuclear science journalists such as James Conca, who espouses the cause of the SMR lobby.
The most important target however is the public, and particularly youth via social media.
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 podcasting, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and SoundCloud.
Style is a big factor. The media manipulators for the SMR lobby deliver lavishly produced TV series such as Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail and the film Pandora’s Promise. It is subtle, a soft-sell for new nuclear. Another new pro nuclear spin film, The New Fire, is in production.
It is quite a small number of individuals who produce both the wordy, technical presentations for government, industry and mainstream media and the bright and snappy messages for the young and for non-technical environmentalists. The best example is Michael Shellenberger who writes extensively and runs nuclear front groups Environmental Progress and Ecomodernists. These appeal to enthusiastic environmentalists.
In Australia, this nuclear PR is typified by the work of Ben Heard, who sends sophisticated submissions to government, tweets constantly, and who champions the environment via the nuclear front group Bright New World.
Things are moving more quickly in the US as new nuclear lobby groups pop up to meet changing circumstances. The latest is Generation Atomic, formed in April 2017 to organise a clear pro-nuclear presence in the March for Science, an American and International event in the coming week.
Now, more than ever, as Marshall McLuhan famously said, “the medium is the message” and the message is more about attractive style than substance.
Nuclear spin has been with us for more than six decades but it has evolved from its time of “defensive spin” in the 1950s.
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 and 1980s followed news of nuclear accidents and could be characterised as “downplaying radiation effects” or “assurances of safety”.
The second burst of positive nuclear spin arrived around 1990 at 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 answer, they said.
The industry was reluctant to yet push its 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).
Then, in 2003, The Breakthrough Institute was the first big foray of a new nuclear front group via The Breakthrough Institute. 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 showed that this perspective also resulted in the promotion of renewable energy rather than nuclear.
One after another, nuclear front groups sprung up. For a long time they promoted “new nuclear” Generation IV reactors as supporting Big Nuclear. The key selling point was the promise that Generation IV reactors would “eat the waste” of conventional reactors. They still push that promise but are now not keen to be associated with the troubled corporations of the Big Nuclear sector.
The New Nuclear message is always optimistic. Even the Fukushima disaster somehow became twisted as some sort of evidence in favour of the benefits of New Nuclear.
Now targeting youth via new media the spin has taken on humanitarian and nature-loving elements. Although a collective of billionaires and big corporations are behind it, it promotes an alternative to big corporations. It is about saving the planet. It is about endless cheap and pollution-free energy for all, recycling nuclear wastes, combating climate change, promoting the beneficial uses of ionising radiation, freeing people from irrational fears and from anti-science.
The SMR lobby has been successful already in gaining the attention of government and media for technologies which do not yet even commercially exist. In today’s world of “alternative facts” this success is not surprising. It remains to be seen if “new nuclear” can win the public approval that it needs.
Author Noel Wauchope operates websites www.nuclear-news.net and www.antinuclear.net.
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