by Will Davis, reporting from the ANS Annual Meeting in San Antonio
In an almost unprecedented shift away from technology, politics, or energy, the first full day of the 2015 American Nuclear Society Annual Meeting featured a heavy lineup of sessions that focused on every aspect of communicating about nuclear issues with the public. This topic has long been recognized as a major opportunity for all nuclear fields, but has never been made a focal point at the start of an ANS meeting.
ANS has recognized the need to discuss with the public (as well as policy makers) the real, actual effects of radiation. This year’s President’s Special Session was entitled “Radiation Conversations: Informing Consumers and Policy Makers.” ANS President Michaele Brady Raap hosted the panel to a large turnout.
Brady Raap noted that people make decisions quite frequently that involve radiation (such as signing off on a CT scan prescribed by a doctor) but do not have a grasp of radiation or its real effects. In light of that, she directed that ANS should help to create “informed consumers” in regard to radiation and its effects, saying that this task “falls to the scientific community.” She opined that most of the radiation charts and tables available to the public (mostly online) are too detailed and confusing. If the public is unable to understand it, then it leaves the public defaulting to the belief that any exposure above the prescribed regulatory limit must be harmful. All of these things need to be changed—especially this latter incorrect assumption, she asserted.
To drive home this point she reminded that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s set annual dose limit to the public from nuclear plants is about one-third of the actual background radiation experienced by that same public—a fact that the vast majority of people who are not nuclear professionals don’t realize.
Earlier this year, Brady Raap participated in the first ever Radiation Dose Communications Summit, a joint enterprise between ANS and the Health Physics Society, held in Norfolk, Va. Numerous interested parties convened in this first dialogue that covered, in a multi-disciplinary way, how to communicate with the public and with policy makers about radiation dose.
The panel at the ANS meeting in San Antonio for the President’s Special Session included Mary Lou Dunzik-Gougar, chair of the ANS Communications Committee, who presented on the fact that radiation is everywhere around us. She stated that we would benefit greatly from being able to effectively communicate this information with the general public in order to provide some common ground.
Dunzik-Gougar reminded those assembled that radiation is a natural part of our surroundings and always has been; in fact, all species of animals (including humans) evolved in its presence.
Communicating in a way that the public “buys in” is, however, quite different, according to Dunzik-Gougar. To ensure that we communicate this effectively, she suggested that ANS members be aware of the widely ranging audience to which they are speaking. She said to remember the “rule of 3” (which states that only three concepts can effectively be conveyed at once). Lastly, she asked that when delivering the message, use multiple paths (written words, images, speech) to carry out the mission.
Dunzik-Gougar asserted that we must keep front and center the three concepts that radiation is natural, is measurable and controllable, and the application of radiation or radioactive materials improves our lives. Following her with two further presentations were Alan Waltar and John Boice; the entire panel took live questions afterward.
Two separate and different panel events focused on communications earlier on Monday. That means at the ANS San Antonio meeting, an entire afternoon block of time was available for just this specific category. Laura Hermann, incoming Communications Committee chair for ANS, delivered two excellent panels.
The first panel focused on celebrity endorsement of nuclear technology, while the second panel included Maureen Brown, of Southern California Edison. Brown related the renewed efforts of her company to engage the public in a transparent manner during the decommissioning of the San Onofre nuclear generating station. She noted that this project will be the largest nuclear plant decommissioning project ever performed in the United States.
Scott Peterson of the Nuclear Energy Institute pointed out in his talk that if the U.S. doesn’t continually discuss the need for energy (and the need to build new sources), then nuclear energy will never become highly popular. He added that very often it is employees of nuclear utilities or vendors who have the most resonating credibility with the public. It’s not the chief executive officers or chief nuclear officers of those companies with the most credibility.
Buddy Eller, of STP Operating, spoke to the fact that everything we do communicates about us in one way or another, while Ben Holtzmann reminded us that the “general public” is not one amorphous mass, but really millions of individuals whose interests, education, and situations break into multiple definable groups.
All said, today represented the best opportunity yet at an ANS Annual Meeting to learn about communicating in nuclear fields. It provided the why and the how of communications, and all who attended were thankful.
Will Davis is Communications Director, historian, newsletter editor and board member for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. He is a consultant to the Global America Business Institute, a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is also a consultant and writer for the American Nuclear Society, and serves on the ANS Communications Committee. He is a former US Navy reactor operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.