Breaking The Nuclear Jargons Into Dialects

J. Devaprakash, Senior Manager in Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project

2018-12-31 07:22:59

Credit: J. Devaprakash

Credit: J. Devaprakash

Communication is not a rocket science, but not less important either. In this highly competitive communication world, winning the hearts and minds of your target audience is a strenuous task. Today’s common man is clogged with information. He is the ultimate target for every single science, technology and business institutions. Motor companies want him to know the better technology that their product has by which they try to influence the buying decisions. Pharmaceutical companies try to explain their drugs’ chemical combination to the people and want them to understand how enhanced is their drugs than others. Climate scientists want the common man to understand how mankind is making irreversible harm to the environment and urge us to lead an eco-friendly life. The rocket and satellite agencies want the people on the earth to know their extraordinary scientific feat. Besides, it is needless to say how the makers of fast moving consumer goods are targeting the common man to increase the sales of their products and to make a good business. Amidst these, communicating the public about nuclear power generation and making them understand about the science behind it is an eternal challenge.

It was a few years back when I was a fresher to the nuclear industry I told a reporter that a new nuclear reactor attained criticality last evening. Instantaneously, he asked me “how many workers are affected?”. I was taken aback upon hearing this. He actually thought that criticality was something crucially urgent or something wrong happened.  Something like, “a bus met with an accident and 15 people are affected”.

The word “criticality” may be a common parlance of the nuclear community, but it surely is an alien term for the common men. When you say that “in the nuclear reactor the effective multiplication factor of neutrons that is the Keff is equal to one which refers to the critical condition of the reactor”, a layperson will certainly feel dizzy. Instead, tell him that “the continual splitting of the atom has begun in the nuclear reactor, and this process is called as criticality”, you will get your point across.

Criticality, fission chain reaction, radiological emergency, and many more such technical jargons that revolve around in the nuclear industry actually make the public sick. Before communicating, a communicator who is into the nuclear familiarization needs to think in the way his audience thinks.  He needs to match with the frequency of a common man. Moreover, the message is to be as much simple as possible and should be jargons-free.

There are ample ways to communicate about nuclear energy: One-to-one interaction, awareness lecture to a group, through mass media like print, radio and TV, use of social media, etc. We may have to use all of them to reach out different classes of our target group.

Post-Fukushima, public concerns about nuclear energy grew multifold and almost all the nuclear establishments in this world faced a fresh round of challenge. But some projects were badly affected. One of them was the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) of India’s Nuclear Power Corporation. Public staged a prolonged protest against the usage of nuclear energy and KKNPP and as a consequence the project was stalled for about eight months even before the plant began its operation.

It was then realized that public communication is as much crucial as power generation. A special public outreach programme was set off and a dedicated team of communicators was formed to address the concerns of public about nuclear power and to dispel their speculative apprehensions. It took so long to make the people aware of how nuclear power is generated and the complex technology behind it. Slowly, public confidence was built and they began to believe that nuclear power plant was not to harm the people and the environment but to benefit the humankind.

In about one decade of experience, the communication team of KKNPP evolved tailor-made communication methodologies to reach out to the desired audience effectively. Here are some ways to communicate the complex nuclear science to common men that yielded good results:

Interesting analogies

One of the frequently asked questions faced by the Indian nuclear community is when the nuclear power reactor is going to blast like a bomb? One can simply reply that the fuel in the nuclear power contains only a few percent of fissile material whereas the fuel in a nuclear bomb requires more than 90% of fissile content. Perhaps none of our target people might have seen a nuclear bomb or fuel of a nuclear power reactor. So, when we talk about the fissile content of the nuclear fuel, it is really hard to catch on. And you can’t show them one, either. A hard task, really.

Yet, we can make them understand the difference of both by drawing inferences using analogies. A hard to understand technical stuff can be compared with simple objects that are familiar to the audience. For the above scientific explanation of nuclear fuels, I take match stick and fire cracker for comparison. Here is my analogy:

“Both the match stick and fire cracker are fire related things. All of us use them. But there are two major differences between them. One, the control. When you ignite a match stick you have a complete control over the action – you can lit a lamp or blow it off. On the contrary, the moment you ignite a cracker you lose control over the action – it may explode or otherwise, but the control is not your hands. Two, the kind and amount of chemicals.  The amount of chemicals used in a fire cracker is several times more than that of the matchstick, and the kind of chemical used in fire cracker is superior. Same is the case with the fuel used in a nuclear power reactor and a nuclear bomb. In a nuclear power reactor, the process of splitting of atom is totally a controlled action, whereas in a nuclear bomb it is uncontrolled. Secondly, the fissionable content in the fuel of a nuclear power reactor is far less than that of the nuclear bomb.

Analogies help the people to comprehend with the unfamiliar technical subject by drawing inferences from the things that are already familiar with.

Seeing is believing

Human’s imagination capability has limitations. It is difficult to make one visualize about something with verbal communication alone. If the matter is of science, especially the intricate nuclear science, it is even more difficult to secure the message in the minds of the audience. Instead of asking them to see things in their mind's eye, it is better to show them once. Because, seeing is beleving.  That is why the “visit KKNPP” initiative has been started. People, students, policy makers, villagers and many other class of public are taken inside the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant and provide them a chance to glimpse at how nuclear power is produced. In this everyday ritual, people get first hand information about nuclear basics and get a chance to see the reactor building, turbine building and other auxiliary units. A briefing about nuclear power generation and the safety features followed by a field visit actually help the audience understand the concept easily. Certainly, it is an effective way of public understanding of nuclear science.

The telling testimonials

Nuclear power is environment friendly. True. But how many of them buy this idea really? When just statements are made, probably there won’t be any takers of it. That is why, to substantiate the fact that in nuclear power generation no obnoxious gases are released, you need to have strong testimonials. At Nuclear Power Corporation of India, the voluntary Environment Stewardship Programme (ESP) renders testimonials on how nature and nuclear technology can go hand in hand. Through ESP, many scientific studies on birds, butterflies, plants and other forms of life are being done. From time to time, the findings of these studies are published in the form of articles, booklets and photographic books. These reports are endorsed or technically vetted by respective experts in the field of natural history. Such reports strengthen the fact that nuclear power is environmentally benign. NPCIL has so far published four coffee-table books based on the studies of biodiversity in and around its sites, the recent being “Fliers of our courtyards – a book on some birds of Indian nuclear power plant sites”.

Once there were only negative headlines about nuclear power and KKNPP in the local media. But due to the persistent and concentrated efforts, there came a turnaround in the way of reporting nuclear information. The biased news stories turned to be balanced ones. Today a reporter before publishing a story on nuclear does a fact checking with us. And these days many positive headlines on nuclear and KKNPP are appearing, too.

It is easy to create a brand image or to position a product. But, restoring the image of a brand or organization is quite challenging. Secondly, the technology is too complex to understand for a common man. Therefore, communication should be very simple, using a plain language preferably in the language of the receivers.