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Leadership Lesson with Florie Knauf, Director of Supplier Relations, The Nuclear Energy Institute

 

What significant trends do you foresee in the industry for 2024? 

I’ve worked in the nuclear energy industry for about 17 years, and things have changed pretty drastically over this time. The “nuclear renaissance” in the United States was supposed to happen over a decade ago and it didn’t take off – there was a big lull in the industry. 

But with all the new nuclear reactor technology that’s out there, alongside the growing social awareness of climate change and its effects, nuclear is experiencing a very exciting resurgence. We’re seeing hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in the US and the UK, with that money going toward both the reactors and the fuels. There was a big uptick in nuclear presence at COP 28 as well – several countries pledged to triple nuclear investment and reliance by 2050. 

In terms of this year specifically, I can only imagine this continuing. We’re working to decarbonise not just electricity, but entire industries, and nuclear power has to be an integral part of achieving these goals. 

Do you think this decade will be more progressive than the last one? 

I do. I think a lot of countries’ climate pledges will hold them a lot more accountable to these initiatives, but it’s also becoming easier to go down this path. The newer generations of nuclear reactors are a lot smaller than the old ones. They’re easier to build, so countries that used to lack the funding to invest in nuclear can now start to consider it as an option. Some reactors will even be manufactured on a factory line, which will speed up deployment and subsequent production. 

Looking ahead to 2024, what are some of the biggest changes you’re anticipating, and what implications will those come with in this sector? 

Public support for nuclear power is massively picking up momentum. Nuclear had people afraid for a long time. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the 2011 Fukushima incident in Japan – these left a bad taste in some peoples’ mouths when considering nuclear power. Even things like the Chernobyl HBO series played a part in fuelling that fear. In reality, while those incidents were tragic, nuclear has a strong safety culture as a result, and it’s now one of the safest energy sources in the world. 

I think we’re going to see countries who were perhaps fearful of nuclear, or even walking back their nuclear investments, now seriously consider nuclear as an option. And it’s not just public investment. Banks and private equity firms are embracing nuclear and putting investment into them as well. 

While nuclear is cheaper than before , it still isn’t cheap, so we still need to act as ambassadors for this industry. We advocate for the industry and elevate leaders in this field in order to give them a broader audience. But luckily, it’s not just us. Climate activists who used to be anti-nuclear have admitted their mistakes and joined the cause. Even some Instagram influencers are pushing the benefits of nuclear, and last year’s Miss America was a nuclear engineer herself, which was great to see. 

Climate change anxiety is also growing every day. It doesn’t matter where you live or who you are – it’s a huge concern for everyone. Having nuclear as a potential fix for this issue really helps unify people under our banner. 

How has your leadership style evolved to embrace the volatility of the past few years? 

My approach to leadership has always been relatively simple – be yourself and empower those around you. I started in nuclear when I was 25 – there were very few women. It was difficult to be at a table full of 70-year-old men as a young woman, so I know it can be daunting. 

One of the most important lessons I learned from that was that you need to ask questions. This field is complicated, and if you’re not an engineer, there are always going to be things you won’t understand. Making sure people under you feel okay expressing a lack of knowledge is key in making them comfortable in their roles. 

No one is an island. I’ve found my success is always correlated to the success of those around me – my teammates, my boss, my colleagues, the people I oversee, and the industry in general. You need to keep people engaged, or they won’t feel involved and will stop trying or look elsewhere. 

How do you think AI will impact the comms/public affairs/policy world? What benefits do you see? What concerns and challenges? 

I have no doubt that AI will have a massive impact on the comms profession, simply because content can be created so much faster. On the surface that’s great, since we can create so much more easily, but it also puts us up against a lot more competition. Anyone can create content now, so your voice has to be quite special to break through the noise. 

One concern is the lack of policy and regulation. There are basically no rules around AI content creation. Even the ownership of the content that AI creates is up in the air. If AI writes something untrue or defamatory, who’s at fault? 

But humans won’t ever be kicked out of the comms space anytime soon; you need the human element in the comms profession. You need to fact-check everything, you need to make sure it’s relatable and human. AI can never really replace style, cultural nuance, or decades of experience in a field. 

How do you think AI will influence hiring practices? 

A lot of organisations have been using technology to sort resumes for a while now. If 6,000 resumes come in for one job and a resume doesn’t include, for example, the word “nuclear,” it gets immediately disregarded. 

While it’s unfeasible to sort through them all, it does have a downside. I feel like operating solely with that method means that you risk missing out on people with those softer human skills that we talked about earlier. Everyone is far more than their resume, so meeting them in person is an irreplaceable experience. 

As an advocacy body, we do need to make sure we embrace those skills. Our cause is more about an experience than just words on a page – we need to make sure people feel and relate to certain issues. AI can’t really pick up on the intricacies and quirks of individuals that give them a leg up in this pursuit, so I think it can be a bad idea to rely solely on an algorithm to run your talent processes. 

What are the top ESG trends for 2024, and what are their implications for public affairs professionals? 

ESG obviously fits very easily into the nuclear field, but we need to be careful. ESG started off as a well-intentioned north star, but nowadays it’s a bit of a political hot potato. We need to pick and choose when and where we talk about it – knowing your audience and when to bring it up is key for progress. 

I think we might see a bit of rebranding around ESG. I don’t think it’s about the principles being bad, but the name “ESG” might need to be reworked to become more palatable to a lot of audiences. 

How do you actively promote diversity and inclusion within your organisation? What lessons and impacts have resulted from those initiatives? 

We represent the nuclear industry, so spearheading DE&I for the industry is very important for us. While this movement predates the past decade’s political sphere, those issues did help bring up a lot of issues we need to think about and nurture within the DE&I realm. 

We spend a lot of time focusing on active listening and bringing in perspectives from loads of different communities. For example, we had one female employee looking to start a group for new mothers, and a male employee heard about it and asked to join. We need to consider that a lot of people are going through the same things, which is maybe one of the more positive outcomes of the pandemic. 

Another key piece of DE&I is the idea that it’s okay to disagree with someone, as long as you do so respectfully. Everyone’s opinion matters, so changing our mindset to effectively communicate with people who don’t agree with us has been a hugely important lesson for us. 

Finally, when looking at younger generations, or perhaps when they’re looking at you – if they don’t see effective DE&I practices at your business, they will not want to work there. Younger people really pick up on these issues, and we can’t expect to recruit and retain people if we don’t have a strong culture of inclusion. 

Are you optimistic about this upcoming year? If not, what challenges are you monitoring, and if so, what are you looking forward to? 

It’s definitely a bit of both. On a global scale we have a lot of issues that we need to be worried about right now. There are conflicts going on globally that are all very different, complicated, and significant. The upcoming US election is going to change everything, and so will all the other elections going on across the world. 

That being said, I am optimistic. 2024 feels like our first year of really being back to normal post-pandemic. It feels a bit more predictable, and like it’s a bit easier to expect the unexpected. Everyone’s here together, and it’s important to remember that. 

Posted on 09.04.2024

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