The effectiveness of any marketing campaign is how well the target audience remembers the message.
For an entire generation raised during the 1950s and 1960s, one particular message was unforgettable: Nuclear fission is something to be feared."If you lived through it, you remember the civil defense message of duck and cover," said Department of Energy spokesman Brad Bugger. "It was the best, most-effective education program that I have ever come across. They focused on the kids, and they created a generation afraid of things nuclear."
And despite a litany of subsequent public relations campaigns touting the safety of nuclear applications, individuals involved in government and private-sector nuclear programs have generally waged a losing battle for the hearts and minds of most Americans, according to various public opinion polls.
Nevertheless, those failures have not stopped the nuclear energy interests from spending millions trying to counteract the civil defense message of the 1950s. Much of the effort comes from the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry organization with a Madison Avenue-slick campaign.
The message is also being preached by the U.S. Department of Energy, which is borrowing liberally from the basic strategy of the 1950s campaign: Teach the children. In fact, the Department of Energy and the Health Physics Society are now taking the "the atom is your friend" message to Utah public schools.
The public education campaign is focused primarily on junior high and high school science teachers, who are given a 10-period science curriculum that teaches "peace-time" uses of nuclear materials, things like x-rays, cancer drugs, lantern mantles and even smoke alarms. And, of course, non-polluting electrical power.
The campaign also gives teachers a primer on the basics of radiation sciences, things like fission and nuclear waste storage and transportation.
"We do not get into whether or not spent fuel can be stored safely," said Bill Craig, an environmental scientist with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, which also participates in the education program. "We talk about the different forms of waste and what is proposed, but we give them factual information and we allow them to make their own judgments on that."
A RAD experience
The last class of Utah teachers completed the Department of Energy course on April 22. The department also makes regular visits to Utah classrooms with a trailer, called the RAD Experience, loaded with teaching tools whereby school kids can see the beneficial uses of nuclear technology.
"It has become a very effective program," said Ellen Doherty with the DOE's public safety program at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory near Idaho Falls.
"We have seen people in communities that are really against nuclear experiences start to understand the safety of what we are doing. Not that they are turning around, saying bring 'em on. But they are responding positively to the education we are doing."
While the public education is not part of the official Department of Energy mission at INEEL, officials there say correcting public misperceptions about things like nuclear power and nuclear waste will ultimately move the nation toward solving its prodigious nuclear waste problems instead of ignoring them.
Ignorance isn't bliss
Roughly 40,000 metric tons of spent fuel rods are being held in temporary storage in 35 states (Utah is not one of them). Some of those rods are in dangerous states of deterioration that require immediate removal from water storage tanks to dry-cask storage.
But political pressure has thwarted attempts to develop safer storage of nuclear waste at the sites where the waste was generated. Some states have even passed laws limiting the generation of nuclear wastes until a permanent storage site is built in some other state.
Bugger believes lack of public education has led the nation to its current impasse over where and how to permanently store the high-level nuclear waste created by nuclear power plants, research labs and military applications since the dawn of the nuclear age in the late 1940s.
"If you look at science class textbooks, you might find one paragraph about things radioactive," he said. "It just isn't being taught."
And that is why the public generally has no concept about the science behind nuclear power or the methods used to store nuclear waste, he said. And when nuclear scientists say that nuclear waste can be stored more safely than almost any other kind of hazardous waste, the public just doesn't believe it.
"We have an entire generation that was taught very well to be afraid of this stuff," Bugger added, "and it is very difficult for politicians to come out in support of activities like spent-fuel storage and spent-fuel transportation. There is no political constituency for nuclear waste, so it's very easy to be opposed to doing anything about the waste."
Too hot to handle
Teaching good science is one motivation behind the public education campaign, but the Department of Energy certainly has a political agenda, as well. As of Jan. 31, the agency has been in violation of an agreement with the nation's nuclear power companies to accept their nuclear waste - a huge legal liability that could end up costing taxpayers billions.
A permanent government storage site at Yucca Mountain, Nev., is still more than a decade from opening, and suitability studies there have not even been completed yet, meaning the entire project could be shelved for a variety of political and scientific reasons.
All of that combines to create a political atmosphere in which the Department of Energy is under increasing pressure to find sites where the nation's growing stockpile of nuclear waste can be stored until a permanent repository is completed. If the department can convince states, and more importantly the public, that nuclear waste can be stored safely, then temporary storage sites could be built and thereby relieve the pressure on the federal government to find a permanent remedy.
Not in my back yard
It is exactly that kind of thinking that has Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt fiercely opposing a plan by a consortium of nuclear power utilities to build a temporary storage facility at Skull Valley on the Goshute Indian reservation. The facility as designed could accommodate up to 40,000 metric tons of nuclear waste, far more than the amount generated by the utilities in the consortium.
"Let's not kid ourselves by calling it temporary," Leavitt said. By relieving the pressure on the federal government to find a permanent solution, "it will become permanent."
To officials at INEEL, opposition to nuclear waste storage just doesn't make sense. At least not scientifically. Nuclear waste has been stored at INEEL for years, and the Navy is building a new storage site there to accommodate its waste for the next 37 years.
According to documents on the INEEL Web site, the waste stored there is just an example of how Idaho is simply doing its part to address the national problem of nuclear waste storage.
"It's frustrating when we hear people say, `I don't care what you do with it, just don't do it here.' In the long run, that is what has got this country into the pickle it's in right now when it comes to finding a permanent solution to nuclear waste," Bugger said.
"Because it has been much easier politically to not solve the problems and just push them off, ultimately that is irresponsible. It is irresponsible to say, `I won't be a party to your solution.' Society will pay a higher cost for that down the road because they didn't address the issues up front."