In a previous blog post on small modular reactors (SMRs) in Saskatchewan1, I noted the evidence that SMRs have enormous potential to provide clean energy across a range of applications and in a variety of contexts, some of them, such as very small reactors in rural and remote communities, especially relevant in Canada. Nevertheless, there are many challenges to a successful scale up of SMRs from the current one-off designs and experimental models to a fleet of reactors large enough to make business sense. First among the challenges, and one that is receiving surprisingly little attention, is the small matter of public acceptability. The available survey evidence suggests that there are strong opinions about nuclear builds of any kind, leading some researchers to describe the situation as “polarized”. I received a reminder of this phenomenon a few weeks ago while I was attending a conference on social science research on nuclear issues2. Whiling away the moments before the first session as usual by tweeting out a picture of the venue accompanied by a neutral comment about how much I was looking forward to the proceedings, I received an almost instantaneous reply from an account completely unknown to me: “Lies, Lies, All Lies”.
What can SMR advocates do to tackle polarization?
As JSGS MPP student Larissa Shasko reminded us at a recent CSIP lunchtime research forum, polarized public opinion is partly an artificial construction of surveys that ask binary questions such as “do you support or oppose nuclear energy?” More nuanced questions and data from focus groups and other interactive venues suggests that while there are strong advocates and strong opponents at either end of the spectrum, the bulk of public opinion is inclined to align with categories such as “somewhat opposed”, “somewhat in favour”, or neutral. Far from being polarized, opinion is actually quite fragmented, a conclusion that was also reached in the large research project on energy infrastructure in Canada “Positive Energy”3.
Second, in order to build a winning coalition, it is vital to listen to those who have not already adopted unshakeable opinions. In the past, there has sometimes been a complacent tendency to refer to them as “the silent majority”, on the assumption that they share the views of project proponents but are just too busy to express them. They don’t and we know what these concerns are from surveys: waste disposal, the potential for proliferation of nuclear weapons, and radiation safety. On waste disposal, Canada still does not have a long-term off-site storage facility. Blithe assurances that SMR vendors will deal with their own waste products (in some designs, quite high-level waste) will be met with entirely justifiable scepticism. Comparisons are sure to be drawn with the problem of orphaned oil wells.
Concerns about proliferation, on the other hand, usually elicit blank incredulity but it was one of the more interesting outcomes of the Perrins consultation that this concern was front and centre for the religious groups who often provide the organizational backbone of anti-nuclear movements and the critical network connections outside of the usual environmental and anti-corporate activists. SMR advocates need to take proliferation issues seriously. A good first step is trying to understand where this is coming from through more intensive and more dialogical public engagement instead of talking at and over people.
Finally, there is “radiophobia” and the sharp divergence of opinion between many experts and public opinion about the risk from accidents. In addition to well-designed engagement that helps people understand how SMR designs work and addresses the risks and benefits of SMRs, this concern raises the vexed question of the relationship between regulation and innovation. There is already a constituency within the industry that is asking regulators to fast track approval of SMR designs. While the motivation for haste is understandable—SMRs look a lot less interesting if they aren’t going to appear in large numbers until the end of the decade, by which time storage solutions for intermittent renewables may have changed the clean energy landscape—nothing could be more disastrous for SMRs than pressuring regulators into premature approvals. In addition to protecting consumers and citizens, regulators exist to protect corporations from themselves. Ask Boeing.
A general conclusion from many decades of work on public engagement is that relatively few people actually want the opportunity to decide contentious issues. They want their concerns to be heard, to be responded to, and to be taken into account in the eventual decision. That’s the role of what I have called “well-designed public engagement”, a process with room to elicit and respond to the actual concerns of the somewhats and the neutrals, not what experts consider should be their concerns or what decision makers rule as within or outside the scope of an inquiry or an assessment. So long as SMR advocates continue to demonstrate that they have not absorbed these conclusions, public acceptability will remain the elephant in the room.