Nuclear Communication with General Public

Kye Kim
February 15, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Nuclear energy, as a technology, requires a lot of engagement with public. Decisions on building plants, supporting government subsidies, and investing in nuclear industry companies depend on public's acceptance. As International Atomic Energy Agency stated in a publication on nuclear communication, the fate of nuclear power is highly dependent on public opinion. The IAEA saw that "If the trust gap between the industry and the public widens, nuclear power has only a slim chance of survival, far less of development." In perspective of public, nuclear communication is crucial for making informed decisions on how their objectives can be met. [1]

Types of Nuclear Communication

One of the big categorization of nuclear energy is internal- external. A document by U.S. Department of Homeland Security is a good example of both internal and external communication. [2] The document specifies response guide for nuclear power accidents and messages by emergency clarification level, so that the administrators can be internally ready for the external communication with public. It specifies roles and expectation for designated groups in times of emergency, and provides safety tips for prevention of accidents. It also specifies answers for critical questions for national spokesperson. When it comes to external communication, which is more relevant to public, types of nuclear communication can be categorized by different stakeholders. Some examples of the list are employees and their families, local communities, local media, state/regional organizations, national media, scientific and professional organizations and international public. IAEA specifically categorize public into national public and international public. [1]

Barriers of Nuclear Communication

Many studies have shown nuclear threat creates particularly strong negative emotions among the population at large. [3] Fear creates perspectives based on emotional stress, which is hard to be resolved in structured procedures. Even though public opinion is not normally volatile around nuclear energy, emotionally intense events such as the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents can cause a drastic decrease in public support, which only recovers slowly. [4] And public tend to overestimate the risks that dramatic or sensational, such as nuclear threats, and underestimate the more mundane ones such as road accidents. [1] Another big barrier is lack of trust. Interesting observation is that public gains most of its information on energy energy from the media, but does not give that much credibility to it. Public trusts scientists and environmental protection or consumer organizations the most. Meanwhile national governments are usually even less trusted than the media when it comes to nuclear energy. This is sometimes due to delayed response from government organizations after crisis situations, sometimes due to lack of knowledge and many other reasons. This creates a significant challenge to governments trying to communicate with public. [1]

For Improved Nuclear Communication

Multiple factors should be considered to find the best communication method for each scenario. Diverse engagement of various stakeholders is another way of improving communication. Experts advise that an open, honest and balanced relationship between policy makers, the nuclear industry and public involvement will become increasingly important. [4] Another important point is that organizations should recognize that nuclear communication is a dialogue. Nuclear industry should respect and understand the public's value judgments, rather than dismissing them due to their emotional factors. [1]

© Kye Kim. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Nuclear Communications: A Handbook for Guiding Good Communications Practices at Nuclear Fuel Cycle Facilities," International Atomic Energy Agency, STI/PUB/966, October 1994.

[2] "Communicating During and After a Nuclear Power Plant Incident," U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, June 2013.

[3] X. Xie, "Fear of Nuclear Threat," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2013.

[4] "Public Attitudes to Nuclear Power, Nuclear Energy Agency, NEA No. 6859, 2010.