Ben Heard

Ep 202: Ben Heard - Founder, Executive Director, Bright New World
00:00 / 01:04


Growing up in anti-nuclear Australia (2:47)
2:47-8:22 (Ben discusses how growing up in Australia shaped his views on nuclear energy from an early age. He also speaks about following his passion to work on a climate change team.)

Q. Tell me where it all began for you.
A. Ben held an anti-nuclear viewpoint while growing up in Australia. Because Australia never adopted nuclear power, Ben had no positive point of reference for nuclear energy nor did he know much about it. Additionally, Ben’s Catholic community was active in the Peace Movement, which increased his exposure to anti-nuclear content. During this time, Britain tested nuclear weapons on Aboriginal land, which strengthened Australia’s general anti-nuclear position. As a teenager, Ben supported his growing interest in environmental ethics by donating money to GreenPeace, which in turn provided him with more anti-nuclear information. Ben’s anti-nuclear position stuck with him through his 30s. Because Ben’s views on nuclear power were so ingrained, he was not ready to change his position when he began hearing pro-nuclear facts.

After working in occupational therapy, Ben changed careers to pursue his passion for environmental sustainability. He joined an engineering consulting company and worked with the climate change team. Here, Ben worked on climate change adaptation and mitigation work, helping Australian capital cities understand what it means to become carbon neutral. One project Ben worked on was a carbon neutral desalination plant in Victoria.

Desalination as a catalyst for exploring nuclear energy (13:07)
13:07-18:24 (Ben discusses Australian attitudes towards water conservation and how working on the desalination project prompted his initial consideration of nuclear energy.)

Q. How do water restrictions during drought affect people’s daily lives?
A. Because Australia had been plagued by drought, people were water conscious. Taking short showers and decreasing the amount of water spent on lawns was common. Even after restrictions were lifted, the behavior change that occurred stuck around.

After the drought, desalination plants were built. Desalinated water takes a lot of energy to produce so the Victorian desalination plant project focused on carbon neutrality. When calculating the amount of energy needed to power the plant, Ben realized that wind and solar solutions were inadequate. It became clear that Ben needed to explore an alternate solution and began looking into nuclear energy.

Adopting a pro-nuclear identity (18:25)
18:25-25:59 (Ben discusses his slow progress towards adopting a pro-nuclear identity. He mentions the importance of taking a gentle approach when attempting to change someone’s identity.)

Q. Did you explore what colleagues thought of using nuclear to power the desalination plant?
A. Not really. Ben spent the following year listening but not talking much about nuclear power. Ben notes a colleague at the Victorian Department of Sustainability & Environment had once suggested nuclear as a solution, but Ben remembers finding the process of talking about nuclear to be uncomfortable.

Ben points out that the process of getting people to support nuclear requires more than just a change of mind, but a change in identity. This can be challenging, because it requires people to change how they view themselves. This notion applies to any concept where we have created a strong paradigm in our minds, including climate change. People often define themselves by what they believe and how they view the world. For example, being environmentally conscious is often a large part of someone’s identity.

Attempting to change someone’s identity requires understanding identitarian politics, or the alliances someone builds based on their identity. Rather than engaging in measured conversations where people are open to letting go of their opinions, people are reluctant to change. Approaching conversations of this type requires people to be gentle and truly understand what they are asking of the other person.

Following Barry Brook’s Brave New Climate blog was critical in changing Ben’s identity. Barry focused on tackling climate change deniers but also wrote pro-nuclear energy articles. Barry showed Ben that believing in climate change and being pro-nuclear were not mutually exclusive, enabling Ben to begin altering his identity. Attending a nuclear debate cemented Ben’s position on nuclear energy when he preferred to align his identity to the measured arguments of the pro-nuclear speakers rather than the cherry picking behavior of the anti-nuclear activists.

The gentle approach to changing identity (26:00)
26:00-36:30 (Ben discusses the importance of value alignment prior to presenting facts when helping someone be open to a change of mind. Ben also discusses the challenges of scaling his actions.)

Q. In order to convince someone of something, value alignment is more important than getting facts in front of them, right?
A. Facts and information matter, but only when people are ready to hear them. No one has the ability to change someone’s mind. The only thing someone can do is help somebody reach the position where they are open to having a change of mine. This can be achieved through behavioral and value alignment.

Ben aims to condense his multi-year pro-nuclear journey into 45minute talks with the goal of accelerating this journey for others. Scaling this approach requires a strong team with the resources to support this kind of activity. Unfortunately, Ben has been unable to secure the funds to take on this task full-time.

Unlike in the US, Australian billionaire philanthropists that support identity change actions are not high profile. Those that support climate action quietly fund activities, but climate action has become synonymous with the renewable energy lobby in Australia. Unfortunately, those that are pro-nuclear tend to be climate change deniers, making it difficult for the pro-nuclear community to accept their support. However, Ben has seen conservative people who traditionally oppose climate action begin to alter opinions when engaging in nuclear power discussions. His goal is to gently nudge conservatives towards the middle, increasing their willingness to change.

Centering the nuclear argument (36:31)
36:31-45:59 (Ben notes the difficulty in engaging in the nuclear discussion. He also discusses the importance of avoiding conflict to achieve nuclear goals.)

Q. The real climate change conversation comes down to conservative values versus nonconservative values. Do you find this to be true in nuclear conversations?
A. We have to be forgiving of people because what comes out of our mouths is a smokescreen for the real thought process. The nuclear and climate conversations are difficult and it is easy for people to believe something is a hoax because they do not want to identify with the person on the other side.

It is also important to remember that nuclear is not everyone’s mission. Some people are just minimally motivated by the climate and energy discussions and focus on other issues in the world instead. This means that the nuclear conversation relies on those in the know to consistently bring the argument back to the center.

Conflict is a winning tactic for the anti-nuclear community because it deters people from joining a conversation. It is therefore important for nuclear proponents to avoid engaging in this conflict to ensure people stay in the conversation. The goal is not to make somebody lose, but to achieve a vision of sustainable clean energy. Ben recommends a careful approach to Twitter when discussing nuclear power.

Dramatizing nuclear reporting (46:40)
46:40-57:11 (Ben discusses nuclear reporting in Australia and his experience on 60 Minutes.)

Q. Can you speak about the opportunities you’ve had to scale your message across broader audiences?
A. Nuclear power for Australia was the focus of a 60 Minutes episode. While Australian media tends not to focus on nuclear power because the onenote story of discussing if Australia will overturn the ban is repetitive, the 60 Minutes producer took a pragmatic view on nuclear as a solution to climate change.

The episode includes a discussion on Fukushima, which involved filming inside damaged Reactor 2 for 15 minutes, exposing the crew to a high radiation dose rate. This created a sense of drama, but the time limit was actually based on regulation constraints, including risk of dehydration from the personal protective equipment (PPE) worn by the crew. Ben acknowledges that the sense of urgency created good television, but was also keen to comply with the time limit to ensure the future possibility of filming inside the reactor.

Accepting the true risk of radiation (57:12)
57:12-1:10:30 (Ben states that he believes radiation risk has been overinflated. He discusses the steps that must be taken to reduce the money spent on minimizing radiation exposure and why this may be a slow process.)

Q. What are your thoughts on the way nuclear radiation risk is presented?
A. While Ben would love to see the presentation of nuclear radiation risk undergo a reform, he thinks this process would be slow. People are reluctant to deviate from the accepted truth despite existing evidence. Additionally, the nuclear industry is insular and does not participate in safety conversations that occur in other industries. This lack of diversity in opinion has created the idea that radiation requires more attention that it actually needs. Part of the problem stems from the detectability of radiation, meaning people want to control radiation exposure to the same degree of detection. Another problem stems from the jobs, careers and research directions that would be at risk if the true risk of radiation exposure was lowered.

Changing the acceptance of radiation risk begins with academia through research and publications. Organizations must then understand how much value has been gained from the money spent on safety. This will require comparisons outside the nuclear industry, such as looking into the value gained from gun safety initiatives or medical research. We must keep in mind that the primary goal of nuclear power is to reach a stable climate and therefore requires an understanding of the most cost efficient way to achieve this goal. Moving in this direction, however, requires the public to ask why so much money is spent on radiation safety. This question is difficult to answer and adopting a new approach to radiation requires a change in identity.

Changing identities at the leadership level (1:10:31)
1:10:31-1:14:39 (Ben reiterates the issue of a lack of resources when approaching members of Parliament.)

Q. Have you considered approaching members of Parliament to generate more nuclear acceptance?
A. Ben has considered approaching members of the Australian Parliament to influence a change of mind at the leadership level. However, Ben reiterates the need for financial support in this type of activity, which is hard to secure in Australia. He focuses instead on capitalizing on the high value opportunities that arise, such as the Titans of Nuclear podcast.

  • Spotify
  • iTunes
  • YouTube
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn

© 2020 Production of the Energy Impact Center