Earthquakes and a tsunami that caused thousands of deaths, a destroyed nuclear center endangering the surrounding populations and ecosystems…Since March 11th 2011, Japan has being going through a tragedy that reminded the international public opinion of the dangers around nuclear energy. This brutal reminder is a particularly sensitive issue in France since it is the country that uses the most nuclear energy in the world.
Will the after-Fukushima change things? Will the public opinion turn against nuclear energy? Will the State, Areva and EDF, the principle leaders of the French nuclear system, stay credible to the eyes of the French public opinion on this topic? Will they manage to establish a reassuring image on the nuclear energy system? Those are the stakes of their crisis communication around the Fukushima event and of their future communication campaigns about nuclear energy.
To stay credible at the heart of the crisis, the main stakeholders of the French nuclear system – public authorities, industrials, scientists and experts – spoke up very quickly in the media in order to prove they were transparent and reliable. They wished to separate themselves the fastest as possible of the Tchernobyl disaster by insuring they were not engaging in the same type of false communication. First presented as a “serious nuclear accident”, Fukushima became quickly a “disaster”. The French government was very open to speak about it, specifying along the way they were dependant on the information provided by Japan. This rather successful strategy was very soon adopted by Areva who serves both the French and the Japanese with their expertise (to inform on the technical details of the disaster). Were these arguments heard by the public opinion? They were in any case perfectly audible. The French nuclear stakeholders managed in the high point of the crisis to position themselves as essential interlocutors of the debate around nuclear energy, and therefore did not leave the entire choice of topics to the greens and the anti-nuclears.
Thanks to the good media management of their fast-communication, the French nuclear industry and stakeholders have well prepared their future communication campaigns that will serve to restore the idea of “nuclear safety”. However, being audible will no longer be sufficient in this new communication phase. Areva’s future communication campaigns for example will no longer look like its last campaign, “the nuclear epic”, launched a few months before Fukushima. Nuclear energy was then presented as a clean energy and associated to the care-freeness of a roof-party on the top of a nuclear reactor.
The very positive speeches on nuclear energy must now change to a more sober and careful speech… reaching away of the current association of ideas between “nuclear energy” and “risks”. The nuclear stakeholders will need to clear away certain tensions and confusions on which the media focalized during the Fukushima crisis. They will need to demonstrate pedagogy in their communication to reassure on their capacity to control nuclear energy risks. The questions about the production and work conditions have been put on the table again, especially regarding social tensions in the industry (redundancies, precariousness of wages, etc.). This will force the industry stakeholders to rework as much on their communication regarding their risk management processes as on their employer image. They will need to show they are able to provide a highly controlled energy for lack of being totally controllable, but not all other sources of energy are either …