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Let’s stop focusing on beliefs and really start communicating

By Milton Caplan, President, MZConsulting Inc.
Originally published at mzconsultinginc.com, August 23, 2018

How many discussions have you had today where either you or the other person thought carefully, and then said “here is what I believe….”? Believe is a strong word. It evokes personal values; and when something makes it to the level of a belief, it is often unshakeable.

There was a time when we didn’t talk like this. We gave our opinion, or our view on a topic. This was developed through learning, by listening to (hopefully) an expert or reading relevant information. An opinion meant this is what we think at the moment, and that should we learn more, we may change or evolve our position. Now our views on almost every topic need to be elevated to the level of “belief”. And as we know, we don’t change our beliefs easily.

In our world of nuclear power, we know that many have strong views on whether this technology is worthy of being a path to a better world with clean economic abundant energy, or as others believe, is a path to our eventual demise. We have written before about the need to ramp up our communications and work hard to increase support for nuclear power. The facts are on our side, but negative beliefs stand in our way. We are happy to see even more young people come out with supportive communications, from Jarrett Adams, to Eric Meyer at Generation Atomic and Bret Kugelmass with his podcast series, Titans of Nuclear; each using their own unique method to promote a nuclear future.

As it is the middle of summer, this is when we love to be a bit more philosophical. It is a time to do some deep thinking while enjoying the sunshine and sharing some more esoteric views based on our reading list so far this year. I have read a few books that I think are useful to both better understand the current environment for communications and provide some useful insights on how to better communicate going forward.

You may think these three books have nothing in common, but I see a common thread that should contribute to our thinking as we move forward.  They are “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters” by Tom Nichols, “Is Gwyneth Paltrow wrong about everything: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash” by Timothy Caulfield and finally, “If I understood you, would I have this look on my face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating” by Alan Alda.

The first two books provide us with two different but complementary views of the environment we live in. Tom Nichols, in his excellent book, makes the case that America has taken freedom and liberty to an unrealistic extreme – that there is a common belief that everyone is equal and thus, so are their opinions. In fact, he goes so far as to suggest that it is cool to be ignorant. Experts are no longer respected and in fact, he states that “we actively resent them, with many people assuming that experts are wrong simply by virtue of being an expert.”

He talks about the changes to higher education, where young people think they are customers buying a service rather than students given an opportunity to learn. He talks about the changing news media, from provider of unbiased news to “infotainment” and notes that too many people approach the news not to seek information but rather confirmation of what they already know, avoiding sources they disagree with because they believe they are mistaken or even lying (“fake news”).

This book is a must read, with more good quotes than I can use in a short blog post. But if I can summarize in one quote, it would be as follows. “The death of expertise, however, is a different problem than the historical fact of low levels of information among laypeople. The issue is not indifference to established knowledge; it’s the emergence of a positive hostility to such knowledge. This is the new American culture, and it represents the aggressive replacement of expert views or established knowledge with the insistence that every opinion on any matter is as good as every other.” For everyone in the nuclear industry – sound familiar?

If we don’t listen to experts, then who do we listen to? That is answered in the next book. In his fascinating book on celebrity culture and how it influences us, Timothy Caulfield explores the massive power that celebrities have over our decisions and beliefs. This ranges from using beauty products endorsed by your favourite celebrity (costly but not likely harmful), to using their favourite health care products (costly and may be harmful), to taking bad decisions that can negatively impact the health of our children like avoiding vaccines (definitely harmful).

In summary, we have replaced “experts” who we no longer believe in, with celebrities, who are the ones we look up to. We long for fame rather than accomplishment and dream of achieving it without necessarily working to get there. Anything to be like our idols. Unfortunately, the outcome is often nothing more than an empty wallet and little in terms of being able to take decisions that positively impact our lives.

This takes me to the third book of the bunch, Alan Alda’s book on how to better communicate science. Of course, if we shouldn’t listen to celebrities, then why listen to Alan Alda? It tuns out that he has been involved in communicating science to laypeople for over 20 years, having hosted a show by Scientific American and then starting the Alan Alda Center for communicating science at Stony Brook University. So, what does this book have to say that you may not have heard before? It makes a strong case for communicating, which means having a conversation noting that “real conversation can’t happen if listening is just my waiting for you to finish talking.” It talks about the importance of having empathy for your audience, consistent with many who talk about better communications; but he goes further, saying empathy is not enough; we need to be able to “relate” to our audience. Only then are you really communicating. The book then makes the case for using theatrical improvisation techniques as a means to break down barriers to learn to relate to others.

What can we learn from these books that we can apply to the nuclear industry? Our objective is to change the paradigm on nuclear power and raise awareness of the many benefits it brings to society. To do that let’s first work to improve our approach to communicating. We need to avoid trying to change others’ deeply held beliefs nor try to impose our own beliefs on others. This is a path to nowhere.

Rather, we need to focus on communicating, i.e. having an open and productive conversation with others while working hard to keep open minds. It is a willingness to consider new information that is important for life long learning. Go beyond empathy and truly try to relate.  Developing a relationship is hard work but hopefully the outcome will be that we both understand each other better and learn something new.

Moving the needle on public opinion on nuclear power is important and also very challenging. Hopefully some of these perspectives will help us think of new and better ways to have the conversation.

Afterword

For those of you that are interested, the following are a few more quotes from The Death of Expertise. Powerful stuff.

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way throughout political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.””

“These are dangerous times. Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learning anything. In the United States and other developed nations, otherwise intelligent people denigrate intellectual achievement and reject the advice of experts. Not only do increasing numbers of laypeople lack basic knowledge, they reject fundamental rules of evidence and refuse to learn how to make a logical argument. In doing so, they risk throwing away centuries of accumulated knowledge and undermining the practices and habits that allow us to develop new knowledge.”

“Rather, Americans now think of democracy as a state of actual equality, in which every opinion is as good as any other on almost any subject under the sun. Feelings are more important than facts: if people think vaccines are harmful, or if they believe that half of the US budget is going to foreign aid, then it is “undemocratic” and “elitist” to contradict them.”

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MZConsulting New Year’s Message 2017

By Milt Caplan
President
MZConsulting Inc.

Originally posted at http://mzconsultinginc.com/.

2016 was another tumultuous year for nuclear power. Decisions to close units in the USA early due to economic pressures in deregulated markets and the slow pace of restarting nuclear units in Japan continue to negatively impact the uranium market. However, the tide has now turned as the benefits to the environment and system reliability are being more broadly accepted with both New York and Illinois having taken decisions to keep marginal plants running.

Uranium producers continue to struggle due to low prices

The stock prices of Cameco in Canada, Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy in the US and Paladin in Namibia, along with uranium holder Uranium Participation are once again in negative territory in 2016. That is symptomatic of a current supply-anddemand imbalance. However, some Juniors such as Forsys, Mega and UEX, with highly prospective properties not in production, have done better in 2016. This is perhaps indicative that, while the immediate problem is falling uranium prices, the market recognized that new supply will be required in the longer term.

The spot price of uranium continued to fall throughout 2016 going as low as $18/lb in November before ending the year at $20.25/lb. Has the price finally hit bottom? Probably yes. The long-term price, only at around $30/lb, is finally in a place where even the low-cost producers are slowing production as they focus on cost cutting to remain viable. While more positive trends for the longer term continue, prices are likely to stay soft in the short to medium term until demand recovers.

Production in 2015 shows that of 19 producing countries, Kazakhstan (39%) is by far the largest uranium producer followed by Canada (22%) and Australia (9%). These three countries produce over two-thirds of the world’s uranium. Cameco’s McArthur River (12%) and Cigar Lake (7%) in Saskatchewan are the two largest uranium mines in the world, supplying some 19% of world production while eleven companies marketed 89% of the world’s uranium production with Cameco ranking second behind KazAtomProm.

Crisis creates clarity in the role of nuclear power

Economic pressures in dysfunctional US electricity markets as a result of very low gas prices and subsidized renewables, have put some 15 to 20 nuclear plants at risk of early closure. This has forced reluctant law makers to address the issue with many coming out in support of maintaining the nuclear fleet as an essential part of the mix based on nuclear’s low carbon footprint and its contribution to system reliability.

The result was an agreement in New York and in Illinois to keep struggling nuclear plants afloat. That being said, there is still more work to be done to solve the larger problem of markets that need reform. It was a pivotal year in the US, as the country’s first new nuclear plant in more than two decades, Watts Bar 2, came into service. Four more units are under construction, and NuScale has recently submitted the first application for design certification for an SMR. While support for nuclear is expected to continue, uncertainty remains as the new administration shows little interest in climate change and embraces fossil fuel development.

In Switzerland, the early closure for their nuclear plants was strongly rejected in a referendum while in Britain, there was a final commitment to the Hinkley Point C project with more new units to follow.

On the other hand, as another plant closed in Germany its carbon emissions continued to rise in 2016 as this plant was replaced with a combination of coal and gas. This was in spite of another 10% increase in new wind capacity and 2.5% of new solar capacity; and shows that trying to manage carbon while removing nuclear from the mix is extremely challenging.

Supply is finally responding to prices

One of the biggest issues facing the uranium market actually stems from the 2011 tsunami that resulted in the Fukushima reactor meltdown in Japan. That event caused Japan to shut all of its nuclear power plants and led Germany to accelerate its plan to shift away from the nuclear option. The swift shutdown of so many units pushed supply and demand way out of balance.

While it remains Japan’s intention to restart many of its shuttered nuclear facilities, progress continues to be very slow so that demand will be impacted for some time to come.

As a result, major producers like Cameco have been directing their efforts to cost-cutting and refocusing around its best mines. For example, the company reduced its capital spending projections for 2016 by around 10% and plans to cut operating costs further in 2017. Despite the downturn, it has continued to invest in its Cigar Lake mine because it’s relatively low cost to operate. The recent opening of that mine helped to cut Cameco’s cash costs of producing uranium by more than 20% through the first nine months of 2016.

Kazakhstan, the world’s largest producer, has been continuing to increase production year over year but now has announced it will cut production by 10% in 2017.

However, China will be entering the big leagues in uranium supply this year as the Husab mine in Namibia ramps up production. This elephant is expected to add about 15 million lbs to the market each year once it reaches full production. With mining costs above the current uranium prices and the world in oversupply, it will be interesting to see how China chooses to move forward.

Nuclear sector growth

In spite of all this apparent gloom and doom, the nuclear industry remains strong. 10 new units were completed in 2016, while three were closed. Of interest, only half of these completions were in China with the other half coming from Korea, India, Pakistan, Russia and the USA. With 60 reactors under construction world-wide; led by China, this is the largest nuclear new build construction in more than a quarter century. As China continues to meet their stated objective of 58GW by 2020, this period of weak uranium prices presents an opportunity to further build strong inventories for the future.