U.S. nuclear industry must face PR challenges

Three Mile IslandAs I watch the news in Japan unfold, I’m certain that executives with the U.S. nuclear industry are huddling around a desk to review a crisis communications plan recently pulled from the back of a dusty file cabinet. There is no doubt that a communications crisis is in full bloom.

The crisis, if not managed proactively, will have dire results for the future of U.S. energy policy. The nuclear industry itself will bear the brunt of the impact.

Historically, America has not been supportive of nuclear power. No new nuclear power plants have been permitted in the U.S. since 1979, the year of America’s worst nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. No nuclear reactors have been constructed since 1996. Until the events in Japan over the past week, Georgia seemed poised to change that fact with a nuclear plant scheduled for construction in Waynesboro.

The Obama administration has been seeking billions of dollars in government loan guarantees to build new nuclear power plants. Today, about 20 percent of electricity in the U.S. comes from nuclear energy. Adding more nuclear plants would reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels, especially foreign oil.

But even before Japan’s nuclear crisis, the debate was hot in the U.S. Critics say nuclear power is too costly and to dangerous to justify expansion.

The quickest way for executives in the U.S. nuclear industry to ensure nuclear expansion is D.O.A. is to remain silent. A close second would be to wait until questions are asked and turn defensive.

As with any unfolding crisis, it’s always good to remember the basics. Here are seven great rules to follow:

    Rule No. 1: Recognize that you have a problem, and it is not going away.
    Rule No. 2: In crisis communications, everything sends a message, whether it’s intended or not.
    Rule No. 3: Facts have a power of their own.
    Rule No. 4: Look for the unanswered question.
    Rule No. 5: When you get your message out, make sure it is one that will resonate with people.
    Rule No. 6: Be willing to put integrity ahead of profits.
    Rule No. 7: Don’t react in just a defensive way.

While all are important, let me call special attention to rule No. 3. Facts are very powerful. One skill that I bring to every crisis for my clients is the ability to find facts that are relevant but overlooked. This is an important part of any crisis drill.

One clear fact from Japan is that the nuclear power reactors were built to sustain earthquakes of 7.9 magnitude on the Richter scale. The earthquake that shook Japan released more than 40 times the amount of energy the plant was designed to survive. Despite this uneven match-up, the plant shut down automatically as designed when the earthquake began. As I write this, the impact of the nuclear disaster in Japan is still tenfold less than the impact of Three Mile Island. There’s still a chance the impact could be contained to this level.

Will the lessons learned in Japan make nuclear energy in the U.S. safer? I would advise someone to in the U.S. nuclear industry to begin saying that it will.

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