Dump ‘Nukespeak’ to Reach Broader Audiences

Washington, D.C. – A recent editorial in the industry news service World Nuclear News struck an intellectual and emotional chord for me. The editorial argues that the nuclear industry must “ditch the jargon” of the nuclear industry in order to reach out more effectively to the financial community.

I agree completely and would broaden the call for the nuclear industry to begin speaking plain English in order to make a more understandable appeal to the general public in the U.S. and elsewhere. Indeed, a 1983 book, “Nukespeak: The selling of nuclear technology in America,” long ago made the same case, although it is over the top in its anti-nuclear rhetoric.

Nukespeak, dedicated to my journalistic lodestar George Orwell, opened with this incontrovertible sentence: “The language we use has important influences on our thinking.” Referencing Orwell’s influential 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” the book notes that much of the language of the nuclear industry has been designed to obfuscate, misdirect, and dumb-down discussion.

I won’t go entirely that far, although the critique is valid. Many years ago, when writing about nuclear waste disposal, I consciously used the term “nuke waste dump” to describe what the industry and the Department of Energy were seeking for used-up reactor fuel. I did that because I knew it drove the industry crazy – and it was true. When the nuclear lobby protested to my use of that phrase, offering “spent fuel repository,” I countered with a suggested formulation of “retirement home for fatigued nuclear fuel.” That didn’t gain much traction in the industry.

Specialized language develops in many fields to facilitate communication among insiders. That’s valid. It also develops to keep outsiders outside of the club and not understanding the discussion. That’s bad. And it doesn’t take long for smart folks to figure out just what the jargon really means.

The WNN editorial by George Borovas of Shearman & Sterling’s Global Nuclear Group, has some splendid examples of how nukespeak gets translated by the folks who must come up with the money for nuclear projects. His focus is on how financial analysts hear and interpret nukespeak. Here are a few examples:

* Nukespeak: “Latest technology.” Translation: “First-of-a-kind risk.”

* Nukespeak: “Peaceful use.” Translation: “Nuclear proliferation.”

* Nukespeak: “Proven safety record.” Translation: “Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima.”

* Nukespeak: “With government support.” Translation: “Political risk and a German-style phase-out.”

There is a useful distinction between technical language and jargon. Technical language allows shorthand communication among insiders. Technical language is acceptable among technicians. Jargon, on the other hand, is often designed to conceal meaning. It’s the language of the club. It should have no place in discussions outside the industry. The nuclear power industry should learn to eschew jargon in favor of open, understandable communication in plain English.

Much nuclear industry jargon is what Orwell described as “political writing,” as all of the above examples illustrate. Orwell wrote, “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” As a result, he said, “political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer, cloudy vagueness.” Sound familiar?