Out with the old and in with the new? The rhetoric of new nuclear

Kate Pond | 15 May 2013 | Carbon Brief

There might be a new generation of reactors – referred to in industry and politics as ‘new nuclear’ – but the rhetoric used to promote them is strikingly similar to previous generations.

The rhetoric of ‘new nuclear’ is specifically designed to distinguish Generation III (and 3+) reactors from previous generation reactors, or ‘old nuclear’ for the sake of argument. However, closer examination shows that the roots of nuclear rhetoric in the present day can be traced as far back as 1901.

Nuclear Utopia and the ‘Atomic Age’

Ever since nuclear power was first conceived, its proponents have described it in terms of progress and a utopian vision of the future. Back in 1901 one of the pioneers of nuclear technology, Frederick Soddy, said nuclear energy would herald a bright new age. To Soddy, an atomic future would make it possible to "transform a desert continent, thaw the frozen poles, and make the whole earth one smiling Garden of Eden".

Fast forward to the 1950s, and the large-scale expansion of nuclear technology that official journalist for the Manhattan Project, William L. Laurence, called the " Atomic Age". Despite the known effect of nuclear warheads following the detonation of Little Boy and Fat Man over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the rhetoric held: nuclear energy was still being described in utopian terms.

At this point in history nuclear energy was presented by its proponents as the single answer to social and economic problems, credited with advancing medicine and space travel, combating world hunger, and either advancing or preventing the global spread of Communism, depending on the regime of the country in question. (For an interesting, in-depth discussion of this, try Benjamin Sovacool’s book, Contesting the Future of Nuclear Power.)

This rhetoric was grounded in politics rather than technology, and was articulated almost entirely in the future tense to emphasise its potential for a bright new future. In other words, it was described as what it will berather than what it is. Nuclear capacity was a cornerstone of Cold War rhetoric, and its dual roles for defence and energy production were closely intertwined. As the energy of the future and the weapon of the future, they rendered older explosives and forms of energy production obsolete. For both the USA and USSR, keeping ahead in the Cold War was summed up in the dual role of nuclear: it represented both technological and military supremacy.

To consecutive US presidents Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, nuclear was an essential part of foreign and domestic policy. Truman advocated its potential as a weapon, whereas Eisenhower was keen on disarmament and energy production. Despite their opposing stances, Truman and Eisenhower used the same rhetoric to promote nuclear as a progressive, futuristic technology.

To Eisenhower, progress – epitomised by nuclear technology and "the miraculous inventiveness of man" – was peaceful and utopian. He coupled the rhetoric of peace and progress with the presentation of nuclear as "the great solution". We must, he states, "apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities … provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world … serve the needs rather than the fears of mankind".

Truman preferred simpler language and a military context, but used the same rhetorical devices: futuristic technology and "the great solution", albeit the "solution" to global Communism. In the press release that followed the detonation of the first atomic bomb, Truman states simply "It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe".

New Nuclear

As we move into the twenty-first century we are again debating nuclear energy, and again rhetoric is at the centre. This time, it is climate change that prompts a new incarnation of futuristic, utopian rhetoric: in modern energy politics in countries like the UK, the term ‘energy future‘ is used to position nuclear energy at the forefront of ground-breaking technology, and as the best means of meeting emissions targets.

Two particular rhetorical devices can be used to create this effect: the conditional mood and the forensic rhetorical genre. Let’s take a closer look at what these mean.

The Conditional Mood and the Forensic Rhetorical Genre

The conditional mood expresses an event that may cause something to happen: action x might lead to result y. It is marked by the words might, couldand would. This creates a cause-and-effect sequence that promotes a possiblefuture scenario as most likely, and uses this same scenario to justify present actions.

For example, on its website, EDF uses the future tense and the conditional to suggest nuclear is a crucial future energy source: ‘If this energy gap is not filled, the UK’s power stations may not be able to meet the population’s electricity needs’. EDF’s statement is particularly effective because it taps into fears about ‘keeping the lights on’, and promotes nuclear as the best means of preventing the feared scenario from happening.

Forensic rhetoricfocuses on the past, and allows the speaker to distance him/herself from past mistakes and align them with (potential) future successes. Where the conditional always looks to the future, forensic rhetoric relies on the past in order to secure a given position as the ‘right’ one. As an example, let’s look at a speech on energy security made by energy secretary Ed Davey arguing the case for ‘new nuclear’.

Davey’s speech uses the forensic rhetorical genre to carefully distinguish ‘new nuclear’ from the darker elements of nuclear history, referred to as the ‘expensive mistakes’ of the past.

Nuclear advancement has been a lengthy learning process in which "past governments failed to tackle this legacy [of nuclear waste]", says Davey. He puts these mistakes firmly in the past and positions new generation technology and current policy as progressive and responsible: "looking at the next century and beyond".

Combining forensic rhetoric and the conditional mood allows the speaker to position him/herself at a crucial point in history, with the capacity to make the ‘right’ choices to bring about the future scenario indicated by the conditional.

Davey’s language positions current policy at a crucial point between past and future, combining the gravity of lessons learned with the rhetoric of progress. Moving on to the conditional, Davey uses it to present nuclear as essential to future energy production:

"We need to decarbonise our electricity sector to meet our emissions targets and our responsibilities to the next generation … Are there risks? Of course, but the risks to the country and to the planet if we do not meet this challenge are infinitely worse."

Davey consolidates his position by presenting the imagined future scenario as a moral and environmental imperative to act, and by closing with the threat of "risks … [that are] infinitely worse".

The combination of forensic rhetoric and the conditional mood also adds an undercurrent of urgency to Davey’s argument that the new nuclear programme "will ultimately be successful". The cause-and-effect sequence set up in this speech indicates that the only way to achieve emissions targets and avoid the risks is through the proposed programme.

What Futurist Rhetoric can Mask

Through all ages and in all countries, nuclear programmes have been connected with the rhetoric of progress, economic revitalisation, a better future and national pride.

As an industry it is constructed in the collective public mind as inherently futuristic and progressive: the energy of the future – today.The problem with such rhetoric (or its strength, depending on your point of view) is that it can gloss over current controversies, for example, the cost of nuclear, to focus on the prospect of future benefit. Davey’s rhetoric sits awkwardly with the continuing wrangling over subsidies for Hinkley Point C.

Over more than a century, proponents have talked about nuclear power in a surprisingly consistent fashion. The rhetoric of new nuclear relies on two themes that have been used since the early twentieth century: nuclear power is ‘for the benefit of future society’, and ‘the best possible solution’ to identified problems. From a rhetorical perspective, ‘new nuclear’ is no different from ‘old nuclear’.

SOURCE: http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2013/05/the-rhetoric-of-new-nuclear