Inspiring and mind-expanding ideas were centre stage at the comeback of the PIME 2019 conference for communicators in the nuclear industry. My role was to present and comment on a case study on the Olympic Games' use of symbols and dreams to manage its image. It got me thinking about how the nuclear industry has abandoned its dreams, and how it must learn to work with artists and creatives if it wants to recover them.
The case study prepared for me by the excellent agency Nocom looked into how the Olympic Games has always used humanist dreams and icons to motivate people, and how the Games' current custodians have used icons and dreams to recover from reputation damage done by human failures of corruption, cost overruns and cheating.
The details of the case study revealed numerous parallels to the story of nuclear energy and its assorted problems, but the one I want to focus on here is the symbolism.
There was a very definite 'Atomic Dream' during the industry's beginnings in the 1950s. It was an intoxicating vision in which science leads to progress and abundance, and it was surrounded by incredibly strong and enduring icons. Marie Curie. Albert Einstein and E=mc^2. For 100 years the symbol of the atom has represented pure science and genius itself.
The PIME audience saw in another case study how IBM brought its invisible and highly complex Watson artificial intelligence 'to life' using an atom-like animation.
Why doesn't the nuclear industry use its own icons? Did it, at some point, actually give up on its own dream?
That could be why the leading icons for nuclear energy are the ones given to it by popular culture – cooling towers, the radiation symbol and its three notorious accidents.
Today the atomic age icons seem stale. Industry doesn't know how to connect to them and it hasn't developed any replacements. But are the values of nuclear energy really so different now to what its icons used to represent? Doesn't nuclear energy still sometimes still trade on science, progress and abundance? Aspiration to development is a very strong motivator in the many countries bringing in nuclear energy for the first time.
So, is there a case for framing nuclear energy conversations around its icons? In general I would say yes, although if you want a futuristic image then black and white images of scientists from 100 years ago will not be a lot of help. However, given the homogeneity of nuclear technology and safety culture, I think industry could probably settle on some common human values – like professionalism, accuracy and environmental protection. To me it seems possible to build a concise set of symbolic references that a global industry, and its audiences, could relate to.
This is a lot of fun to think about, but to get real for a moment I have to note that the use of symbols to communicate your values would amount to nothing without continuous investment in their expression. To leverage the power of this kind of communication, investment in art and design needs to be a widespread normal thing, not a nice-to-do thing. It would require many more players in the nuclear industry to begin seriously investing in people, things, time and space to co-produce some social good with independent and creative people. And creative people, remember, don't tend to do things according to the predictable rule-based ways of the incumbent industry, so some bravery will be required too.
And to be honest, I think those are the biggest challenges for the nuclear industry in its efforts to improve its image: making real investments in things which are not ‘nuclear’, and letting go of control.
PIME 2019 was held on 12-13 June in Paris. It was organised by Société Française d'Énergie Nucléaire (SFEN) in collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the European Nuclear Society.