Why problem-solving is more than finding technical solutions

or: When nuclear supporters are their own worst enemies

by Suzy Baker

There is an ever-growing online pronuclear movement brewing, which I see as a very promising and important part of moving nuclear technologies forward. I am, however, also seeing some trends within the online pronuclear community that have the potential to create new challenges.

Banned!

I’ve only ever had to ban one person from the PopAtomic Studios facebook page. I am keeping a close eye on another person and have had to mark several offensive remarks as spam—in a post about the importance of the energy industry staying engaged in nonproliferation efforts.

The surprising thing is that the woman I had to ban and the gentleman who made the comment above both are pronuclear advocates. Interestingly, I have never had to ban an antinuclear activist from the page. In my opinion, the man’s comment above is insensitive, but I let it stand. (The remark that he responded with had to be removed, however.)

Silver bullets

As movements form, there are always debates about the best way to move forward. Recently I’ve read quite a bit about how the nuclear issue divides leaders in the environmental movement, and the nuclear community will surely face similar struggles over time. One of the big issues that I see emerging that stands to divide the pronuclear movement is the potential for narrow focus on a single technology vs. broad support and cooperation in moving nuclear forward as a whole.

People who support nuclear tend to be technically-minded and can even be quite, um, unemotional. These are valuable qualities if you must stay completely calm in an emergency situation or remain as unbiased as possible in your research. However, when trying to connect with everyday people and get them engaged in the process of learning about energy issues, being blunt and unemotional can come across the wrong way. It can even do more harm than good in terms of advancing your message.

This effect can be amplified when nuclear supporters get focused on a single technology as a ‘silver-bullet’, and start to blame culprits like the government, the industry, the environmentalist movement, the public for not knowing enough about energy… the list goes on.

The reality is that moving nuclear technologies forward requires huge amounts of collaboration and cooperation. When things don’t work out, it is very often due to communications breakdown between all of the parties involved. The more powerful parties have a bad habit of excluding less powerful parties, which has frequently resulted in very poor outcomes. Inclusivity is the word.

We’re all in this together

My suggestion to the nuclear industry is the same one I gave to ‘snarky internet man’ who seems to think the Integral Fast Reactor is going to sprout the ability to negotiate with policy makers, the public, and other stake holders and save the world all on its own.

In the end, the nuclear industry is not an industry at all. It is just individuals positioned within different organizations trying to work together to safely make clean energy. We are unique in that cooperation is central to our success in a way that is quite different from other energy sources. We should treat each other with kindness and respect, even if we favor different technologies.

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Suzy Baker is currently traveling through Europe and reporting on her experiences at Diary of a Nuclear Tourist—a new initiative of the Nuclear Literacy Project. Keep up with her nuclear adventures and be sure to check out the new photo stream. If you have questions for nuclear industry leaders, write them on an index card, then scan or photograph and email to Suzy@nuclearliteracy.org

20 Responses to Why problem-solving is more than finding technical solutions

  1. Robert Margolis

    I read Getting to Yes over 15 years ago. The book still carries impact after all these years. As for reactor types, I am curious if jet and propeller engine designers have these kinds of arguments. :-)

  2. Tom Clements

    I agree about the statement in the blog that “nuclear supporters get focused on a single technology as a ‘silver-bullet’, and start to blame culprits.” We sure can see this at the DOE’s Savannah River Site, where management was promoting hypothetical “small modular reactors” as the future of the site until the Office of Management and Budget directed the site not to transfer clean-up funds into SMR promotion. There is little basis for claiming that SMRs are the future of the site but SRS management, which has taken its eye of the urgent clean-up ball, is grabbing at their own version of a silver bullet. So far, that bullet has ricocheted and is causing great embarrassment to SRS management, left with no funds for SMRs promotion (but that hasn’t stopped them from still trying to use clean-up funds for something private industry should fund, if SMRs at SRS are really serious).

  3. Laura Scheele

    Great post, Suzy! NA-YGN distributed Getting to Yes to their conference meeting attendees a few years ago. Like you, my hope has been that the nuclear community continues to evolve and grow — and the NLP should play an integral part in that evolution (pun intended). We need the amazing minds of nuclear engineers and scientists … and communicators and teachers and authors and artists and filmmakers for nuclear energy to fulfill its promise.

  4. Robert, you are one of the rare ones :) And I wouldn’t be surprised if the guys at Boeing are having some serious conversations about how to resolve both technical and communications challenges about now…

  5. Suzy – yes, thank you for this. This needs to be repeated a thousand-fold.

    One minor critique I’d make – I’d not so much say that technical folks tend to be “unfeeling” as they tend to exhibit low “agreeableness” in the Big Five personality traits (or, roughly to your point, in the Myers-Briggs spectrum, trending toward “Thinking” over “Feeling”). (In other words, I think the article you link to regarding that study may be presenting a grossly simplified picture of the study for entertainment value.) My personal though is not so much that technical folks don’t exhibit emotion so much as that they don’t exhibit agreeableness however, is what I’d argue. (Which, in the end, probably maps well to empathy.) Regardless, your point stands as a very important one.

    In any case, the main point you make cannot be emphasized enough – do you want to win internecine arguments over reactor technologies or do you want to push forward actually getting reactors built? Pick one.

  6. Tom- I was thinking more about newly minted Thorium and IFR supporters who get excited about a technology, but don’t have a good grasp on the importance of regulation and industry cooperation- and subsequently advocate for ideas that are not realistic (like stop funding nonproliferation efforts and build a bazillion [insert reactor name here] right this second). That said, I agree that better communications would benefit SRS. They have a lot of valuable resources and highly trained people at the site, but seem to be struggling with priorities as they shift from a federally funded lab towards working on commercial interests. I believe the SMR initiative at SRS is on hold indefinitely and the DOE is working directly with industry via their recent private/public partnership with B&W – so the DOE seems to be on your page.

  7. Suzy – There will always be “fanboys.” Next time you encounter one of these folks, just think of the last time you ran into a heated discussion about the relative merits of various brands of [insert electronic gadget here -- MP3 player, cell phone, tablet device, ebook reader, etc.]. Technology is technology, whether it is a gadget or a reactor, and some people let themselves get carried away like a kid on Christmas morning.

    I’ve come to the conclusion — after much experience with this — that it’s usually best to ignore such childish behavior. I’m not saying that this is easy to do, but trying to talk rationally to these “fanboys” almost always leads to greater frustration.

  8. Thomas Eiden

    “When things don’t work out, it is very often due to communications breakdown between all of the parties involved. The more powerful parties have a bad habit of excluding less powerful parties, which has frequently resulted in very poor outcomes. Inclusivity is the word.”

    Would you care to elaborate? What is a communication breakdown and between whom? Who are the parties you are referring to? Who are the powerful parties? What does it mean to be “inclusive?”

    Not trying to nitpick, but I am fond of specificity.

  9. It’s always nice to hear a nice lady talking about how much better things would be if everybody was just – well nice.

    Unfortunately nice doesn’t work in politics and the struggle to get nuclear power built is just that – politics. Obama almost lost a election and did incredible damage to the nation trying to be nice to an implacable foe.

    Paul Krugman tells his readers that he has given up trying to nice to people so consistently incredibly wrong about obvious matters.

    My home state is suffering under the yoke of a terrible government because their opponent in last election lost it refusing to engage the bad guys in a tit for tat exchange of attack ads.

    Most science based environmentalists like James Hansen, and Steve Kirsch would argue that “build a bazillion [insert reactor name here] right this second). ” aka a Manhatten project is the only possible in time solution to the fast approaching AGW cliff. This is in opposition to Obama’s view that spending $250M studying advanced nuclear is plenty while spending $15B making sure America’s nuke arsenal is just tip top. The Obama just spent $1M on a studying HTGR’s while China put shovels in the ground to build a commercial demo for 2017 service.

    Politics is war, and disarming yourself as Krugman says is not an effective strategy.

  10. Thomas- Again, I strongly suggest reading the book ‘Getting to Yes’ which goes into great detail about identifying parties involved in any given conflict, and how you facilitate compromise and collaboration to solve a problem. In the nuclear industry we have a lot of parties- 1) Department of Energy & Labs 2) Design & Manufacture Companies 3) Utilities 4) Construction Companies 5) Federal and State Regulators 6) Local Government 7) Local Community Members 8) Nonprofits (pronuclear, antinuclear and environmental) -I’m sure there are even more- and within each of these broad parties there are many other sub-parties.

    So to get a new nuclear reactor in place or a waste repository sited, all of these parties are involved at some point in development. All of these parties also have their own unique interests, which can sometimes be at odds with each other. The book suggests that to get the best outcome, all of these parties should should be involved in the decision making process from day 1- and in fact they should even work together to define the decision making process.

    This is almost exactly what the BRC recommended moving forward with a new repository- having learned that when the federal government doesn’t have “buy in” from the local government, community and nonprofit groups- these less powerful groups can and will fight your project into the ground. It has nothing to do with the technology- it has to do with the way we communicate and work together. If parties are not identified early on and get left out of the conversation, you are going to have issues down the road, re: Yucca Mtn. Once trust is broken it is really tough to rebuild.

    The theory is that if you can get past each party’s positions and find common interests, as well as an mutually beneficial framework, you can solve really big problems. It also usually takes a skilled facilitator to help build trust between parties and make the process work. There is a lot of literature on conflict management- it is a fascinating subject. I was lucky enough to take a graduate course on the subject a few years ago.

  11. Seth, please see my above comment in response to Thomas. I am just not advocating being nice- although I am constantly surprised at how rude pronuclear people can be to one another. I am advocating a specific conflict management technique…

    Getting all of these parties working together could potentially break the stalemate that is the current US nuclear sector, increasing public support and moving new technologies forward. I am all for a Manhattan Project moment- I am outlining the steps that must be taken to allow that to happen. It doesn’t matter how much money you throw at a problem if you don’t have the right conflict management framework in place. BTW- I am a lot more than a “nice lady”- Ugh, seriously, that is terribly disrespectful.

  12. Thanks Laura :) I am thrilled to hear that NAYGN is on the same page!

  13. Thomas Eiden

    “The theory is that if you can get past each party’s positions and find common interests, as well as an mutually beneficial framework, you can solve really big problems.”

    Given some of the parties you’ve identified, I think it is a much deeper issue, especially when you are talking about pro-nuclear advocate and anti-nuclear environmentalists. I find that most pro-nuclear advocates like nuclear power because it is able to provide abundant, cheap energy without many of the pollutants that other forms of concentrated energy have. In effect, they value nuclear’s benefit to humans (I hope). On the other hand, environmentalists like Bill McKibben want nuclear banned, despite the fact nuclear plants emit CO2. This is revealing. McKibben, and a whole slew of other anti-nuclear advocates such as the Sierra Club, object to cheap, abundant energy in principle, because it allows us to have a better human environment, which ultimately occurs by changing the natural environment to make it safer and suit our needs.

    Their standard of value is the preservation of nature (at the expense of our standard of living), while ours (hopefully) is the advancement of human life. I personally think it is a waste of time to change their minds when their value system is so completely skewed. Likewise, I don’t think many groups–environmentalists especially–should have any say in getting a plant sited. This country was built on a strong foundation of property rights, and no group should have any say what a utility can do with their property. Additionally, those property rights would protect nearby property in the event of an accident or contamination from a plant.

    Some of these groups, such as the NRDC, continuously litigate, which drives up the cost of reactor construction. Then they have the gall of stating on their website that they opposed nuclear because it is un-economical. I think you are wasting your time if you want to try to convince these people that nuclear is good.

  14. Thomas Eiden

    despite the fact that nuclear plants do not* emit CO2. Typo.

  15. Jeff Walther

    Communicate all you like, you’ll never get the truly anti-nuclear folks to take any sort of useful role in the process. Explaining facts and demonstrating evidence does no good because their personal philosophies do not intersect with the scientific method at any point. Or they’d lose their easy life on the NGO gravy train, if they stopped pushing the anti-nuke cool aid.

    Now your other point about pro-nuclear people wandering off into the weeds by getting too focused on specific technologies, I agree with. We should have a big tent of nuclear with advocates for all the technologies making common cause and then communicating in a clear friendly manner with the public, regulators and politicians.

    Instead we get the thorium and IFR folks sometimes agreeing with the anti-nuke crowd, and then following it with, “But look at my shiny technology which is different.” What the folks in the weeds don’t seem to realize is that the moment their pet technology becomes viable, as in, someone is ready to build commercial applications, the anti-nuke people will be just as opposed to them as they are to current technologies.

    We **all** need to learn the justifications for advocating the current technology and encourage the research and movement to the new technologies, but not at the expense of ceding any of the points (lies) of the antis.

    And we need to be friendly and grit our teeth and hold blameless the anti-nuclear people who do come around, and are willing to finally face the fact that their arrogant, self-righteously held ignorance has been killing millions of people for the last four decades, and was utterly unjustified no matter how passionate they felt about it. Where was I? Oh, yeah, welcome the converted greens with open arms, because blaming them for the past will just drive them off.

    It is analogous to giving surrendering soldiers good treatment. We don’t want to do anything that would discourage them from surrendering.

    And when arguing with the greens in public, we need to stay calm, reasonable and informative. Imagine our audience, not as the hidebound anti-nuker we’re arguing with, but as the silent lurkers who might be reading the comments to pass the time or learn a thing or two. Those are the people we can convince in an unwinnable argument with a “green”, **IF** we stay calm and informative and make the “green” do the frothing at the mouth.

    So, yes, we could do a better job of communicating with each other first, and make sure we are supporting each other and not undermining one nuclear technology in order to promote another. And we could communicate better with some politicians and some of the public.

    However, good communications is not a panacea which will fix the active opposition to nuclear power. The only thing which will fix that is for us to communicate more effectively to the public, until our truth shines through and their lies are exposed so many times, that their entire movement becomes socially irrelevant and more of a target for ridicule than astrology.

  16. The point isn’t actually to change anyone’s mind. It’s to manage the conflict in a way that keeps it moving forward, out of litigation and keep costs down.

  17. I can’t help but feel like many of the commenters have missed the rather valuable point Suzy has brought up. One of the biggest issues for public perception of risk has been in the polarization of risk perceptions – which occurs in part because people perceive particular policies/technologies (e.g., nuclear energy) as threatening to their cultural/value affiliations. The result is that they seek out their “own” experts which reinforce their point of view.

    Now couple that with a harsh, screaming intransigence – who in their right mind thinks this is going to de-polarize the debate? How many cases do you know of where shouting and brow-beating has brought about converts to your side?

    Part of the point of strategies like “Getting to Yes” and social science work in risk perception (I highly, highly recommend Dan Kahan’s studies of Cultural Cognition, which includes work involving polarization of risk perception of nuclear technology), is that you create mechanisms for people to agree (and even change their former positions) without losing face. In other words, the more you drive up the stakes by shouting and aggression, the more the other person stands to “lose” by backing down – so instead they rear up and cognitive defense mechanisms kick in. (In other words, motivated reasoning.)

    I think the bigger goal in approaches like Suzy’s is ultimately to depolarize the debate, ideally such that even people who disagree whether the benefits of nuclear outweigh the risks, that everyone at the table starts with a common, scientifically-informed perception of what those risks are. (i.e., part of what Kahan’s work has shown is how perceptions of risk are shaped by our values – if accepting nuclear energy “threatens” those values, the perceived risk increases.)

    Basically, if you want people to accept the science-based understanding of the relatively low risk of nuclear in order to facilitate a rational conversation about nuclear’s place in society (even if these people ultimately disagree!), it first means ensuring that accepting this conclusion doesn’t involve a loss of face. De-escalating things, like the way Suzy proposes, is easily the best way to accomplish that.

  18. Steve,

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful response. You really just helped me pin point the root issue that I am seeing with the communities that are focused on one technology as a silver bullet- in their fevered support they are at risk of continuing to escalating a situation that is ultimately in need of de-escalation and measured decision making.

    I recently asked one of the foremost experts on generating controversy to promote products (re: any press is good press), how his techniques could be applied to promoting nuclear energy. He very frankly said that energy is too important and too nuanced for that sort of promotion- and that he would strongly advise against intentionally escalating an already heated debate. Unfortunately many technology enthusiast don’t seem aware that there are potential negative consequences from pushing one reactor design as the solution to all of our energy problems.

    We are going to need many different types of nuclear technologies in the future in order to have flexibility to meet a variety of circumstances. There are places in the world where an SMR is more practical than an a full scale LWR or even an IFR or LFTR, due to the fact that it is being designed in a way that a small, developing country can have the technology without having a nuclear program of their own. *These political and human factors are extremely important.* Likewise we will need many different ways for managing nuclear waste- reprocessing, Gen IV’s and a repository are all being pursued- as they should be.

    The bottom line is one technology cannot solve all of the problems we need to solve, and it is disingenuous and potentially damaging to tout the false promise that one can.

  19. I comment on various tech blogs from time to time. I am interested in the future of energy in general and think there are different solutions appropriate for different contexts. That means that I sometimes correct pronuclear people who are spreading factual misinformation about coal, gas, wind, or solar and I’m then pegged as a “fossil fuel shill” or “anti-nuclear nut” for the rest of the discussion.

    I also frequently get the anti-nuclear label if I don’t accept the marketing on new technologies. Like proliferation: thorium doesn’t really offer anything special here. Any bulk source of neutrons is going to have proliferation concerns. The standard for solving proliferation by technical means is not “is it any less convenient than traditional paths to nuclear weapons” but “would major governments be comfortable with [Iran/Syria/North Korea] using this technology without any IAEA safeguards.” There’s no technology that meets that threshold, so stop touting it as a selling point for new designs and accept that safeguards are always going to be part of the nuclear conversation.

    I also get the anti-nuclear label for pointing out that new reactor designs don’t really reduce the amount of time that waste needs to be contained. They can reduce the volume of medium and long term waste, which is great, but they all produce long-lived technetium 99 in significant quantities. And standards going back to the early 1960s for technetium in groundwater mean that you need to plan for indefinite containment (though I don’t think this necessarily means geological repositories built from eternium).

    Oh, and when it comes to anti-proliferation and waste safety I’ve met many a pronuclear advocate who wants to discard those goals altogether if it means faster/more experimentation with or deployment of new reactors. Please, please don’t say “old safety standards are too restrictive anyway” to someone who is actually on the fence about nuclear power. The standard should be maximum reasonably achievable safety, not “just enough safety to be slightly less dangerous than coal.”

  20. The point is that nuclear power plants in Europe need huge liability subsidies (‘invisible’ granted by atomic laws) in order to compete (even more than solar now). If nuclear could develop power plants that do not need those subsidies, acceptance would be more easy.

    In ~10.000 nuclear reator years (~450 reactors operating ~22years average), we had 2 disasters. Each creating a damage of only ~$500billion thanks to favorable circumstances (winds not towards the cities Kiew and Tokyo, etc). So an insurance should cover up to a thousand billion.
    That translates to an insurance premium of ~$200million/plant year.
    This premium is now paid invisible (until disaster strikes!) by citizens in the surroundings and the tax payers.

    Same with nuclear waste; reservations for only 100years while >100.000years is needed. So the nuclear operator sponges on our grand- grand-children! Real reservations would drive the cost price nuclear electricity further up.

    So if you calculate these into the real cost price of nuclear electricity, then nuclear electricity costs ~$200/MWh (lower if the plant is situated in a desert). While solar panels in Germany now deliver electricity below 170MWh (without any subsidies)! Price going down by 7% each year during the last 30 years and expected to continue for the next 20 years).

    This financial issue is critical. It cannot be that nuclear is subsidized more than renewable, while creating a lot of new heat on the earth.
    So this issue has to be solved first!