Framing the Discourse

By Meredith Angwin

viewfromVermontI have been thinking lately about “framing the discourse” on nuclear energy. Framing is the way that people use words and concepts to present their points of view in an understandable and appealing way to other people. I think that pro-nuclear people are often bad at this. We figure that “the truth will set you free,” and then we don’t spend very much time on how to frame the truth.

picture frame 173x150George Lakoff wrote the most-quoted essay on this subject: Framing 101: How to Take Back Public Discourse.

Lakoff’s first example of framing is the phrase: “Tax Relief.” This phrase implies that taxes are a burden from which anyone would seek “relief,” and that someone who relieves you of the burden is a hero. You wouldn’t want to stop a hero who is bringing “relief”—that would make you seem a “villain.”

Later in the essay, Lakoff contrasts this with the idea of taxes as an “investment” in America’s future and especially its infrastructure. Nobody needs “relief” from continuing the wise “investments” our parents made in highways, schools, the Internet…

Nuclear framing

What does framing have to do with nuclear power?

Let me give you an example. I just finished reading a book about the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant: Public Meltdown by Richard Watts.

In writing this book, Watts had amazing access to Vermont Yankee opponents, who were pleased to share their strategies with him. One strategy was designing the phrase: “Retire Vermont Yankee on Schedule.”These words were very effective framing: almost a work of genius.

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Member of Shut It Down Affinity Group at NRC meeting in Brattleboro, May 2012

The hard-core opponents don’t use this phrase among themselves. For example, there is a “shut-it-down affinity group.” The women in that group chain themselves to the Vermont Yankee fence and get arrested. They do this on a regular basis: They have been arrested about 20 times. They get lots of newspaper coverage, and they receive admiration from other opponents. But do they attract more people to their cause? I don’t think so. Most people are kind of “middle-of-the-road.” Most people don’t identify with “shut it down” rhetoric or frequent arrests.

“Retire on Schedule…” That is a different matter. That is effective framing. The statement says that you are only trying to live up to a scheduled agreement, something anyone would want to do. The word “retire” also implies that a plant is aging and should be closed. To agree with “Retire Vermont Yankee on Schedule” is to affirm that you are a law-abiding, middle-of-the-road citizen who thinks that agreements should be honored.

Of course, there was never such an agreement. Vermont Yankee’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission license was renewed: it was not retired. At the state level, Entergy’s purchase agreement in 2002 included a provision for revenue sharing after 2012 (when the first NRC license ended and was renewed). In other words, there wasn’t ever a “scheduled retirement” for 2012. There was a possible retirement (if they didn’t get a license renewal or state certificate), but the “on schedule” part is the kind of close-enough statement (like  “tax relief” or “tax investment”) to be effective framing.

Our turn

We can admire the opponents for their anti-nuclear framing, but how can we do similar framing from a pro-nuclear point of view? Let’s take the “Retire Vermont Yankee” framing. What would our framing phrase be?

  • Keep Vermont Green without greenhouse gases.
  • Make the power in Vermont!
  • Honor Vermont Yankee’s revenue agreement with Vermont.
  • Don’t cheat Vermont out of its VY revenue sharing.

Or maybe something completely different.

Let’s crowd-source this one. Suggestions please!

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Meredith Angwin is the founder of Carnot Communications, which helps firms to communicate technical matters.  She specialized in mineral chemistry as a graduate student at the University of Chicago.  Later, she became a project manager in the geothermal group at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI).  Then she moved to nuclear energy, becoming a project manager in the EPRI nuclear division.   She is an inventor on several patents. 

Angwin formerly served as a commissioner in Hartford Energy Commission, Hartford, Vt.  Angwin is a long-time member of the American Nuclear Society and coordinator of the Energy Education Project.  She is a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

11 thoughts on “Framing the Discourse

  1. Meredith Angwin

    Thank you all for these ideas! They are wonderful, succinct, and clear. I plan to do a blog post about this at my own blog soon. I hope this will just be the beginning for these frames!

    I also want to thank you for your patience. I know that the comments didn’t go up immediately, and I appreciate that so many people wrote comments, even when it seemed that their words were just disappearing. And thank you to ANS for fixing the problem.

  2. David

    Why not ‘life begins at 40′ or ’40 years young’ and focus on the renewal efforts at the plant. That should resonant with a lot of the demographic.

  3. Martin Burkle

    “Earth Power”

    There are several sources of carbon free power
    Solar Power
    Wind Power
    Water Power
    Earth Power

    This is a takeoff on the title of William Tucker’s book, Terrestrial Energy. He gives a nice explanation of his book title which also applies to a slight recasting – Earth Power.

    I feel that I am an environmentalist who is concerned about our home on earth. So, using power that does not trace back to the sun, seems very natural to me. We should use the sun, wind, water, and earth power and leave the coal, oil, and gas where they are naturally sequestered.

  4. Robert Hargraves

    Some frame suggestions…

    Energy we can afford
    Emphasize the 6 cent/kWh cost of VY nuclear compared to 30 cents for solar and 24 cents for wind. The “we” bonds us in thought.

    Energy we can live with
    Can we live with mountain ridges despoiled by spinning wind turbines? Can we live with deforestation for biomass-fueled power plants? Sure there is some nuclear waste, but we can live with it.

    Preserving nature’s green world
    Why despoil mountain tops with wind turbines. Why deforest?

  5. Eric Schmitz

    “Nuclear Progress.” This, I believe, should have an appeal particularly on the American political left, which has traditionally been more opposed to nuclear power, as we know too well. Glad to see you mention Lakoff — he is a master of framing, and I have read a lot of him through the course of being politically involved. (Frank Luntz would be his conservative counterpart.)

    I actually own the domain,, and maybe someday I will feel up to begin blogging regularly. (This may even be the first time I have publicly mentioned it.) I am not a nuclear professional, although I do have an engineering degree — just a very interested and supportive amateur. But I still want to build up a good bit more knowledge and self-confidence.

    That said, part of my idea all along has been to pay close attention to the framing of the issue. Your diary here is timely and excellent.

  6. James Greenidge

    Allow me a very non-PC but relatively graceful recommendation. Not a forum or town hall meeting; bring the costumed characters and fretful fence grannies into a room before a live YouTube camera next a webcam screen displaying the likes of known non-industry flunkies as Meredith Angwin, Gwyneth Cravens, Andrea Jennetta, Kelly Taylor, Suzy Hobbs-Baker, Rod Adams, Will Davis, Ben Heard (especially!!), Cal Abel and Steve Aplin, and have the antis first dump all their FUD and misinformation to the quietly assimilating “panel” that afterwards gently takes each fret apart with experience, reason, history and lots of comparative industrial mortality/damage charts. Knock down each anti point like bowling pins. No prisoners thorough FUD trashing. Show up the emote and frets of the antis live for the wild nightmares that they are. At the end, challenge the big guns like Greenpeace and FOE and Arnie and Helen and Doc Kaku to a similar sitting — and STRONGLY “hint” that they’d be likely very shy to show! Do it right and complete and you won’t need a repeat act like the bounce-back villains of a cheap Kung-Fu movie and make the costumes guys and gate grannies look the zealot clowns they are.

    To me, it’s a damn shame it’s the grass-roots advocates of nuclear who have to take the battle and arrows instead of the “industry” and pro nuclear orgs.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  7. Joffan

    Keep Vermont Yankee Working
    Keep Vermont Assets Working

    It would be good to have something to express the idea that efficiency is using the existing plant… maybe with an idea of not being capricious, not tearing down the unfashionable to put something not as good in place.
    Reuse don’t Redecorate

  8. Brian Mays

    Here’s a shot:

    Vermont Yankee – Keep Vermont’s Energy in Vermont

    Of course, a slogan only goes so far. When the fact’s are on your side, it is good to follow up the slogan with a few clear, concise facts. For example:

    -> Vermont has the nation’s lowest carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation

    -> Vermont doesn’t burn coal and has the second-lowest per capita natural gas consumption in the US

    -> Nuclear power accounts for three-fourths of the electricity generated in Vermont, a higher share than any other State

    (Source: US Energy Information Administration figures for 2010)

    Finally, a quick summary is useful to tie up the facts with the slogan and complete the package:

    Vermont has a record to be proud of. Let’s keep carbon-free electricity generation in Vermont, for Vermont. Keep Vermont Yankee.

  9. Atomikrabbit

    They are all good – break out the proper tool depending on the audience and the context.

    I think even the most die-hard promotors of unreliables know that in the latitude and climate of Vermont, solar is an ineffective replacement for baseload, making wind their go-to favorite. I would like to introduce the phrase “windustrial sprawl” – a term invoking not “farms”, but many of the things the green left abhors, such as corporations, unsightly industry, and intrusion into wild and rural spaces. Unnecessary destruction of pristine ridgelines should be emphasisized – “Save Vermont’s Ridgelines – Support VY!”

    Use the emmission-free aspect of nuclear as a wedge against VY’s true enemy – temporarily cheap natural gas. A huge poster chart of the volatility of Vermont NG prices over the last 10 years might open the eyes of those who care lots about economics, but little about AGW.

    Also, make the connection with hydrofracking: “Anti-VY = Pro-Fracking!” If they don’t get it, there’s an opportunity to start a conversation.

    Above all Meredith, thanks for what you do, and have done, to support rational energy discourse in your beautiful state.

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