Nuclear Power: Closing the civility gap

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On Feb. 19, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission public meeting held in Brattleboro descended into chaos. Protesters who were bent on disrupting the proceedings bullied and threatened people who wanted to speak at the meeting. The disrupters' tactics included shouting at speakers, thereby interrupting their remarks, and making verbal threats against those who sought to speak in support of either the NRC's proposed action or the utility that was the subject of the meeting.

The objectives of the disrupters were to prevent the NRC from having a credible public process and to attack the diligence and compliance of the nuclear utility, which is regulated by the agency.

The facts are not open to debate. The disturbing details of this meeting were captured on video and were broadcast the next day on a local cable TV channel.

Ineffective outreach and failure to control large public meetings aren't a new problem for the NRC. In May 2014, a group of protesters at a meeting regarding Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon interrupted the session by shouting that the NRC officials at the meeting were "lying and incompetent." Considering the technical credentials of the staff and their extensive experience as nuclear regulators, these assertions were unfounded and insulting.

Why hasn't the NRC taken a more proactive approach to preventing its meetings from running off a cliff? The issue is that like ill-informed parents deciding not to vaccinate their children against the measles virus, this kind of antisocial behavior could spread to public meetings and licensing hearings across the country. In fact, a pro-nuclear group in California raised exactly that issue in a recent letter to the NRC about public meetings on seismicsafety at the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant.

The legitimacy of the agency and the diligence and compliance of the nuclear utilities it regulates are being challenged by people who disrupt its meetings. So how much of a problem does the NRC have and what does it intend to do about it? It turns out that the NRC appointed a task force to look into the problem. The task force produced a report on the issue in late January 2015, just weeks before the public meltdown that occurred at the Brattleboro meeting.

The task force report acknowledges that the NRC is "inconsistent" in its efforts to conduct public outreach. Further, the report notes that there are problems with the "attitude" of the NRC civil servants who conduct the public meetings about how useful the meetings are to the agency.

The report states that leaving the management of public meetings to technical staff not skilled in the subject of managing public meetings is a problem, and adds that the NRC's engineers and their managers have given public meetings a low priority relative to their other safety-related regulatory duties.

The report provides a number of recommendations — some useful, and some just wishful thinking — to remedy the situation. Nowhere in the document does it commit to providing funding to carry them out. Without hard dollars behind the recommendations, this report could wind up keeping company with prior versions just like it that hark back more than a decade. We've seen this movie before.

What's astonishing is that the task force decided not to ask the public what it thinks of the NRC's performance in regard to the conduct of its public meetings. This seems to be clear evidence of the "attitude" problem cited in the report summary.

According to the report, NRC management does not believe that the meetings do any good, which means that those running the meetings have no incentive to do much beyond the bare minimum. The result is that where there are large crowds and a controversial issue is at stake, NRC technical staff are frozen in place on their chairs and are unlikely to say anything beyond the most basic statements about the meeting process.

People who are determined to disrupt these meetings say and do outrageous things, taking advantage of the staff's obvious reluctance to assert control over the process. Examples include throwing what they claim are organic waste products onto the podium, and brazenly and repeatedly interrupting speakers.

The report cites several models of successful public engagement. Clearly, the task force understands what constitutes effective outreach and management of these meetings. What the NRC needs more than practical advice on techniques is a cultural shift, and it needs to hire people who are expert at dealing with large public meetings on controversial subjects.

The agency gets a plus for its candor in the report, but the space it must travel — the delta — to close these self-reported gap sremains as wide as the Missouri River in "flood stage."

One of the issues that seems to fall by the wayside is that the nuclear utilities regulated by the NRC have sometimes taken a hands-off approach when it comes to maintaining control of public meetings about their licenses or operations. Part of the problem is a desire to hold the regulator at arm's length, and part of it is a view that the control of a public meeting is the NRC's problem.

Here is why change is needed.

To respond to disruptions, bullying, and threats at public meetings, both the NRC and the nuclear utilities it regulates must change the way they communicate and collaborate. Neither can limit their engagement with the public to the single channel of a public meeting.

A public meeting is one of the few places where the public can interact with a utility's managers and the NRC's engineers and hear what they have to say. A disrupted meeting casts a negative shadow over the utility's message, however positive that message may be, about plant safety. The reason is that people will remembert he disruption and not the safety message. The news media will certainly report the disruption, and the substantive issues that are at stake second, if at all.

A utility's brand value depends on a positive view of the utility by the public. An NRC meeting that becomes contentious will color public perceptions of both the utility and the NRC, even though both are blameless regarding the cause of the disruption. When the NRC and the utility do nothing to stop disruptive tactics, they become passive enablers of the disrupters' objectives.

While publicly traded nuclear utilities have signicant fiduciary responsibilities to stockholders that limit what they can say and do in public, informing the public is never a poor choice, and that action goes along with its branding and marketing strategies to boost the value of its stock.

The NRC and the nuclear industry need to collaborate to and find new ways to ensure that when people show up at a public meeting, they can feel safe and secure, knowing that a civil process will take place. The utility needs to conduct outreach to the community no less so than the NRC when it comes to these kinds of public events.

This advice is counter to the current practice of some nuclear utilities that counsel their employees not to attend a meeting unless they are assigned to support it. Or, if they do attend, they are instructed not to speak on the utility's behalf.

Utilities say that they don't want the appearance of "packing" a meeting. They may also feel that one or more employees,speaking on their own responsibility, may reveal information that will be misunderstood, will be deliberately misconstrued by antinuclear activists, or that may confuse the NRC staff. What the utility misses is that its employees and their families and friends are already communicating about the plant on social media. Anyone who has watched a Twitter message or YouTube video "go viral" readily understands that an enormous audience can develop over a short period of time and can be drawn into a report about a specific event, even if the report doesn't have the facts right.

For example, in June 2011, despite the NRC's successful efforts to get the Fort Calhoun nuclear station to develop flood abatement measures, Business Insider, a major social media site, published a report saying that the plant had blown up. This produced a brief but intense frenzy in the mainstream news media, resulting in the dispatch of helicopters to take photographs of what they expected to be a nuclear disaster. Instead, the pilots had their knuckles rapped for violating the Federal Aviation Administration's Notice to Airmen not to fly over commercial nuclear power plants.

And yet, the answer to problems with communication at public meetings is more communication. A utility that views social media as a liability, or as just a new set of outlets for its press releases, will fail to satisfy its outreach objectives. Using social media prior to public meetings, along with mass media channels, can do a lot to set public expectations and perceptions and to "inoculate" the public against individuals' efforts to disrupt these meetings.

Social media, with its instantaneous feedback loops, is about dialogue. Mastery of social media means engaging in dialogue in social media channels. This is a daunting challenge for some utilities, which already have executives, legal counsel, and the chief financial officer all scrutinizing even the most routine of press releases. Asking some utility executives to consider dialogue on Twitter or Facebook is simply an invitation to seeing them, metaphorically speaking, blow their gaskets.

The urgency of the problem of disrupted meetings requires that the NRC and nuclear utilities spend less time trying to control the message — for example, via one-to-many PR methods with the mass media. They need to spend more time engaging in dialogue with various "publics" in many-to-many social media channels. The payoff is that entities with the best ability to mediate dialogue and participate in it effectively will make far more progress in getting their message across than those who don't do these things.

While it is true that some people seem to think that political theater is a substitute for establishing a meeting record in a regulatory decision-making process, the fact is that the NRC knows that it is likely to be challenged in court. That's why its rigor in establishing a meeting record matters. People in the nuclear industry know that, but the public isn't always cognizant of the boundary between protest and process.

Meeting records and hearing records are equally important elements of the public'sinput to the NRC's decision-making processes. While NRC public meetings are less formal than its quasi-judicial hearings, both types of forums have suffered from problems caused by a lack of civility and engagement, especially when they have been conducted away from the agency's White Flint headquarters building in Rockville, Md.

People who opt for protest may feel powerless, and that fuels disruptive behaviors. People who feel that they are being heard are not as likely to create distractions at a public meeting.

Civility and safety in public meetings, or on social media,still depend on appealing to reason, engaging respectfully with people who hold divergent views, and recognizing that the public brings all kinds of perceptions about power and persuasion to social media forums.

The more dialogue there is that is civil and safe, the less influence people with an agenda to disrupt public meetings will have over the outcome of the meetings.

This article can also be found at ansnuclearcafe.org/2015/11/18/27778. Reprinted with permission from the November 2015 issue of Nuclear NewsCopyright ©2015 by the American Nuclear Society.

Dan Yurman is the Publisher of NeutronBytes.com, a blog about nuclear energy.To contact Yurman, email dan.yurman@usa.net.


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