The psychology of nuclear power: Stop saying it's safe

At the end of this year’s Nuclear Industry Forum, talk turned to the psychology of nuclear propaganda, including why - as Imperial University fellow Malcolm Grimston explains -calling it safe is not always a good thing.


The aircraft industry amongst others learnt a long time ago that you do not lead your advertising with your weak points. That is why it does not often emphasis safety on its adverts but instead focuses on the joys of the holiday you are flying too.

Imperial University Centre for Environmental Policy senior research fellow Malcolm Grimston believes that this is something the nuclear industry needs to learn. Faced with criticism over the safety of nuclear power from charities, groups and individuals, the nuclear industry long ago embarked on a campaign to try and convince the public of its inherent safety. But this approach has been ineffectual according to Grimston.

During his talk “Brexit, Nexit and the psychology of communication” at this year’s Nuclear Industry Forum in London on the 15th of May, Grimston argued that there are parallels to be drawn between the failed 2016 campaign to try keep Britain in the EU, and the industry’s own efforts to remain a part of the energy mix.

“[Brexit is] highly reminiscent of the nuclear industry’s historic obsession with leading with its weak points – full page advertisements on radioactive waste disposal saying ‘safety is the top priority’ as if safety were the product,” said Grimston. “If avoiding the worst consequences of EU membership/nuclear power are the best that can be said for remaining then there is an obvious solution – leave.”

Different types of reactions

Part of Grimston’s argument hinged on how information was shared. Using the Myers-Briggs distribution of types, he demonstrated that the average nuclear scientist will have a very different reaction to information to the population at large. This is mainly due to being driven by reason as opposed to emotion, searching out a rational argument instead of basing their beliefs on the gut feeling the information created.

As such, nuclear propaganda, like Brexit propaganda, is often misplaced. Instead of playing to people’s desire for electricity or fear of a lack of electricity, they just present facts predominantly regarding safety. “It's important to be very open when people do address you with questions of safety and have genuine concerns, but to always lead on that issue is I think been a major reason why nuclear is perceived as being a lot more dangerous than it actually is,” says Grimston.

"It is interesting that the correlation in the UK has been clear that the less that is spent on public information the more confident the public is about nuclear power."

During the 21st century there has been a massive reduction in propaganda produced, due to financial constraints within the nuclear industry. Interestingly nuclear has seen a steady increase in popularity since then.

“It's a very complex area and I wouldn't wish to suggest a single factor could explain all of this by any means but it is interesting that the correlation in the UK has been clear that the less that is spent on public information the more confident the public is about nuclear power,” says Grimston.

By simply not mentioning its safety, the nuclear industry may have improved it reputation.

What is the best type of propaganda?

So how can the nuclear industry really convey its importance and use, as well as safety to the masses in an effective way? “It's not a matter of trying to play up problems that are out there, it’s a matter of saying this is something that has some very positive points that can contribute towards finding the solution to some of the difficulties out there,” suggests Grimston.

As nuclear new build Hinkley Point begins construction in the UK, it will be interesting to see if the nuclear industry leads with the old safe message, a more emotive take, or nothing at all.