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Facing Nuclear Fear

Renewing public support after Fukushima Daiichi.

Fortnightly Magazine - October 2011

control heightens public anxiety and fear.

The U.S. Scenario

Since Fukushima Daiichi, the U.S. nuclear industry is once again on the defensive in responding to safety and radiation fears. While nuclear plants enjoy strong local support, general support in U.S. polls has dropped below 50 percent for the first time in years. Meanwhile, project sponsors have cancelled or delayed several projects in the development pipeline.

Today, 104 nuclear power reactors are operating in the U.S., providing almost 20 percent of our electricity. Since the TMI incident in 1979, no new nuclear plants have been built in the U.S. While some reactors are in the licensing process, major utilities are also canceling or delaying new nuclear plants in the United States. The NRC is showing only 18 new reactor licensing applications in its queue, down from more than 30. The dramatic decrease in the price of natural gas has affected the market, as has the declining likelihood that the United States will regulate GHG emissions for control of climate change. However, development plans are strongly affected by national media coverage of nuclear risks and weakening political support for new reactors.

Media reports of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan focused heavily on the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, despite the tiny numbers of casualties related to the Daiichi plant incident, compared to the 23,000 fatalities attributed to the earthquake and tsunami, and the hundreds of thousands left homeless. A frightening specter of unknown radiation consequences has left its shadow on the American psyche.

Responding to Fukushima, a consortium of U.S. power associations has gathered to focus on lessons learned, and to strengthen training, emergency response, accident management guidelines, spent fuel management, containment protection, safety, and communications efforts in the nuclear industry. 10 These include INPO, NEI, and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Recognizing the problem arising from media focus on uncertainty, one goal is to coordinate an improved response to future scenarios, and to develop outreach campaigns to “recover policymaker and public support for nuclear energy.”

Prioritizing Public Outreach

As a way to reduce fears, DuPont continues to propose educating the public about nuclear power so people become familiar with its operation. 11 Specifically, visitor centers like those in France have become an effective tool for public education.

Several years ago, NEI organized a task force on visitor centers to promote their use and to update some centers that were established when plants were first built. At present, there are only 23 visitor centers at the 65 nuclear plant sites in the U.S. However, more are being developed.

Intrigued by the potential role of visitor centers, Bill Levis, the head of PSE&G’s nuclear operations, toured visitor centers around the world, and launched the most recent U.S. center at the Salem plant in New Jersey. Contemporary visitor centers like the one at Salem are professionally designed to be interactive and educational. Such a center focuses on energy overall and the environment, and includes a display of the power core of a nuclear power plant. The PSE&G center also promotes education of future nuclear technicians