Nuclear Power Needs New Dreams

The nuclear industry is haunted by symbols of fear. Is it time to dream up some new ones?

Written by

David Watson

July 16, 2020

Symbols save time

Civilisation is a complex thing. There are 8 billion people out there, and almost everything we do involves others. We work in teams, we negotiate with clients, we move in crowds.

Imagine if every time you wanted to collaborate with someone, you had to explain what you wanted them to do from first principles. Take driving: what if every time you came to a T-junction, someone had to be there to tell you to stop?

That would be ridiculous. Instead, we use symbols.

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We know what to do when we see this.

Symbols are everywhere

Symbols are often used to draw attention to something, but not always. Some symbols, like wearing business attire at a meeting, are meant to do the exact opposite. And not all symbols are visual; some are behavioural (buying fair trade to show you care for poor farmers) or linguistic (using fancy adjectives to sound smart).

But all symbols share one thing in common: they are simple representations that act as shortcuts to deeper meanings. Symbols are everywhere, and they’ve been with us since the beginnings of civilisation.

Take an organisation like the Catholic Church. It is incredibly complex. There is disagreement within the movement on the interpretation of certain scriptures and on the morality of things like abortion and genetics. These opposing forces threaten to pull the Church apart at times. The Church relies on symbols to keep the movement together. The monumental architecture of churches and cathedrals is symbolism, as is the ritual consumption of wine and bread as the embodiment of Christ. The cross, symbolising an act of selfless sacrifice, is a simple and unifying symbol, even when the layers of meaning underneath are complex.

Modern organisations use a whole range of symbols collectively referred to as “branding”. Brands save a company like Apple from having to explain to every potential customer what it sells, what its values are, what kinds of people use its products, what its market position is in terms of quality and cost, and so on. The Apple logo does all that in an instant because Apple has spent decades (and billions of dollars) cultivating its brand.

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Symbols have been used throughout human history.

A smart company doesn’t just show you what their product does, it shows you what kind of lifestyle it enables. Put another way, it wants the customer to look beyond what the product is and instead look at what it symbolises. It does this by attempting to tie their product to the public’s (and investors’) desires and values. A company will also use symbolic story telling techniques like the Hero’s Journey that place the customer at the centre of the product’s story.

Symbolism in renewable energy

Many nuclear advocates wonder at the success of renewable energy, particularly wind and solar. By this I don’t mean their technical success in terms of their share of energy (around 4%), but rather their popularity (check this recent IMechE research).

Here’s the thing. The renewable energy industry understands the power of symbols; the nuclear industry doesn’t.

Let’s play a game. What do you get back when you search for “renewable symbol” on Pinterest?

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We get a calming palette of natural greens, images of leaves, recycling, hearts, wind turbines and shiny solar panels in a field (and Budweiser, for some reason).

These are mostly logos, but the renewable industry’s success with symbols goes way beyond that. Although they sell industrial-scale energy, renewables branding always includes: a) something to suggest their product is natural, e.g. trees, sunlight, running water, b) something to show renewables in harmony with nature and how they integrate into the world around us, e.g. solar panels on the roof of your home, and c) something to denote innocence, e.g. a child chasing butterflies.

The renewables industry didn’t create desires for nature, harmony and childhood innocence. The clever bit was tying their product to these desires.

Although renewables companies capitalise on this imagery, they don’t fully control it. It has entered into the public conscience, the zeitgeist. This works in their favour, and we’ll see how the same effect works against the nuclear industry.

Nuclear symbols are problematic

Now let’s play the same Pinterest game with nuclear. Here, we get danger yellows, warnings about radioactivity, gas masks, meltdowns, skulls and a biological hazard sign. Symbols of nuclear in popular society are of the terror of nuclear war, fallout and apocalypse.

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Even though the nuclear industry uses more neutral images for their logos (typically plays on electrons orbiting a nucleus), the dominant symbols in the public’s mind are those thrown up by Pinterest. Is this the industry’s fault? Not entirely, but saying the nuclear industry hasn’t been successful at deploying symbols is probably giving them too much credit. They haven’t really even tried (at least since the “golden era” of the 50’s and 60's).

Of course, branding isn’t just about logos. The nuclear industry hasn’t been successful at creating positive associations with nuclear power. When you think about it, a nuclear reactor has just as much to do with trees and childhood innocence as does a solar panel. In fact, nuclear power is much better than solar at decoupling energy use from environmental destruction thanks to its tiny land footprint.

Why has the nuclear industry’s branding sucked so badly up to now? That question requires a long answer I don’t have space for here. I liked energy comms expert Jeremy Gordon’s summary: the nuclear industry stopped dreaming.

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A selection of renewable company logos vs the logo for Hinkley Point C nuclear plant.

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Taking control of your imagery

Nuclear people do a lot of complaining and defending, spending all their time on the back foot. This needs to stop. The nuclear industry needs to starting telling its own story, instead of letting its opponents do all the talking. Hiding in the dark means that people only hear about the industry when something goes wrong.

Focus on the benefits the technology brings, not its problems. Paint a picture of a better future where your product plays an important role. Tell stories about nuclear where the public is the hero. Link your product to existing desires.

Here are just a few possible angles:

There are some people who get it. Third Way came up with some really cool imagery for advanced nuclear a few years back.

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Third Way’s vision for an off-grid micro reactor in the Arctic.

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Small modular reactors (the glowing orange thing) creating electricity and hydrogen to power our transport (Third Way again).

More recently, Oklo have released the design for their Aurora powerhouse, a 1–2 MW microreactor with solar panels on the roof. It looks more like a high-end chalet in the Swiss Alps than it does a nuclear plant. Even better, the public will be welcome to visit the powerhouse, perhaps to escape a cold, winter’s day thanks to clean heat from the plant.

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The design and concept for Oklo’s Aurora powerhouse ticks all the boxes.

New ideas, anyone?

I’m no designer, but I threw together (using Canva) a few ideas for nuclear branding:

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They’re rubbish, I know. The nuclear industry should be paying actual, qualified designers to do this for them. For some reason, they are hesitant to do so.

How about imagery beyond branding? The images below paint one possible future for the industry: Nuclear infrastructure as temples to modernity rather than industrial eyesores; Dreams of a tomorrowland thriving on abundant, clean energy; Always-on cities that never sleep.

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While nuclear could follow renewables down the “appeal to nature” route, it is uniquely capable in differentiating itself in this future-forward way. If successful, it might even leave renewables looking somewhat quaint. Perhaps a YouTube ad could end with shots of nature how it should be: wild, rather than exploited for energy.

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Nature how it should be: wild, rather than exploited for energy.

Even if one or two companies do create better imagery and branding, it won’t be enough. It will take a concerted effort over many years by the whole industry. Only when the public start sharing positive images of nuclear instead of haunting ones can we consider there to have been a lasting change.

Take this as a challenge, nuclear industry. Tell your story. Find your symbols.

The old dreams are dead. It’s time to make some new ones.

WRITTEN BY

David Watson

Ecopragmatist, clean energy advocate, believer in pedal power. Editor @Generation Atomic. All views strictly my own.

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