The role of nuclear professionals as public educators

By John Wheeler

The first light bulbs ever lit by electricity generated by nuclear power at EBR-1, what is now INL.

The history of the development of peaceful uses of nuclear energy is accentuated by a number of significant emotional events. Some have been distinctly positive; the first man-made self-sustaining fission reaction, the first electricity generated by atomic energy, feats accomplished by the first nuclear powered naval vessels, the invention of life-saving nuclear medicine techniques, etc. During and following each of these milestones our collective understanding of the technology has continued to evolve and mature with increased knowledge and experience.

Smoke billowed from the No. 3 unit at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Other periods are defined by negative significant emotional events: reactor accidents at SL-1, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima Daiichi.  Following each of these accidents, the worldwide nuclear community has reacted by systematically dissecting the mechanical, natural, and human responses to the accident, then squeezing every drop of information and every lesson learned from the experience. Inevitably, oversight is enhanced, nuclear regulations evolve, reactor and power plant designs are updated, worker training adjusts, and operating practices improve. Together, these responses result in a prompt jump in our collective knowledge and understanding, and increases in safety margins.

While the nuclear community’s knowledge and understanding has continued to grow, we’ve been less successful in helping our ultimate stakeholders—the public—understand our technology. Lack of information and knowledge can lead to mistrust and fear. In this era of instant communications, social media, and streaming video in every pocket, this shortcoming can be disastrous. For example, in Germany, opponents of nuclear energy have convinced the public that nuclear plants pose an unacceptable level of risk. This despite the fact that shutting down their nuclear plants will lead to significant increased air pollution, greenhouse gas production, and loss of energy independence.

Our mission in the Education, Training, and Workforce Development (ETWD) Division of ANS includes “educate the general public.” While there is great work being done to support and promote other aspects of our mission, this is an area where we need to do a better job. Let’s face it—our technology is not always easy to understand! Declining mathematics and science proficiency in our schools make the challenge of explaining nuclear science and technology tougher still.

I challenge every member of the ETWD Division (all 1,321 of us) to set aside time each month to do something to promote public education. Volunteer to speak in a classroom, tutor a student, contribute to online discussions and blogs, attend a career fair, organize a workshop for science teachers or guidance counselors, engage your local schools to improve curricula, or invite students and teachers to visit your workplace. Together we can make the “post-Fukushima era” remembered for a step change in public knowledge and understanding of nuclear science and technology, and increased awareness of the benefits that nuclear energy provides society.

We have a great program planned for the upcoming 2011 ANS Annual Conference in Hollywood, Fla. I hope to see you there!

This article first appeared on the ETWD website.

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Wheeler

John Wheeler is an engineer, father, podcaster, triathlete, manager in the nuclear industry, and American Nuclear Society member. He is the chair of the ANS Education, Training and Workforce Development Professional Division. He regularly podcasts and blogs at This Week in Nuclear.

5 thoughts on “The role of nuclear professionals as public educators

  1. John Wheeler

    Bob,
    I understand your reluctance to speak out. Many companies (not just in our industry) have yet to recognize the immense value of an informed and socially engaged workforce. I work for a large utility and fortunately we do have a formal policy that describes expectations and rules regarding employee participation in social media. That policy did not happen on it’s own; the company realized we needed it, and had the foresight to ask for input from people who were already active in the social media.

    Perhaps you could check with your legal or human resources folks if such a policy exists. If it does not, volunteer to write one for them.

    John

  2. Rod Adams

    Bob – it is indeed a challenging issue. You have focused on a key task for ANS – communicating with employers to convince them that they are wasting a huge resource by not allowing independent, volunteer efforts by people who know the technology. Yes, professional opposition to nuclear energy tend to have an immediate “talking point” reaction when professionals speak – they accuse us of job protecting bias. My response recently has been – sure but, why shouldn’t I be allowed to explain why I chose my job and why the actions of reflexive antinuclear activists are threatening both my livelihood and that of thousands of other dedicated, hard working, high integrity people?

  3. rmichal

    Hi Bob. Thanks for your comments to John Wheeler’s solid post. I am an editor of the ANS Nuclear Cafe, and although I am not actually involved with ANS’s public information department, I will make sure that you get connected up with someone from there. I think your idea has good merit. A lot of us ANS folks will be at the ANS meeting in Florida for most of the coming week. We will make sure to get back with you the week after, for sure. Thank you.

    -Rick Michal

  4. Bob Apthorpe

    How do I do that without putting my job at risk?

    In this age of risk-averse managemen, there is a pervasive view that employees’ off-the-clock actions and statements are ‘actionable’ which has a real chilling effect on public outreach.

    It’s hard enough to get employers to even provide time off for outreach; expecting them to let one speak publicly without consequence (as a private citizen, not as an agent of the firm) without first clearing every utterance through corporate legal and marketing is a huge stretch.

    Am I overstating matters? Maybe. But unless our employers are also prodded to support outreach efforts by letting their staff speak, the lack of outreach will again look as if we technologists don’t care, rather than we simply fear for our jobs.

    That said, it’s bad form to raise a problem without suggesting a solution. ANS could put together outreach guidance (one page of tips), keep a list of people who want to speak & will use the guidance, then encourage (cajole, prod, guilt) employers into supporting their employees’ outreach (principally by not retaliating against them.) This provides some comfort for management; they can see formal sensible ‘rules’ for outreach and a list maintained by a respected professional society and a way to distance their employees statements from themselves. Speakers can reference the ANS outreach program instead of their employer which keeps the speaker’s statements at arm’s length from their employer.

    It’s not perfect, but it’s a start. Where do you want the draft outreach guidance sent? :)

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