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Facing Nuclear Fear

Renewing public support after Fukushima Daiichi.

Fortnightly Magazine - October 2011

nuclear plants from the 60 percent range in 1980 to 90 percent in 2010. This was equivalent to expanding nuclear capacity by 50 percent using existing plants. The public is largely unaware of this technological advance.

During the 1990s and 2000s, public acceptance of nuclear power increased and stabilized, as a result of years of outstanding safety performance, the absence of dramatic headlines, new concern about energy independence, and rising awareness about climate change and the need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Psychology of Risk

After Fukushima, public fear and uncertainty about effects of radiation dominate the news again, far out of proportion to the actual risks of commercial nuclear power. What leads to public fear of nuclear power, and what can be done to lessen that fear? Dr. Robert L. DuPont, a psychiatrist and professor at Georgetown Medical School who specializes in phobias, examined what happened to the perception of nuclear power after TMI, and how the nuclear industry responded in France and in the United States. DuPont explored nuclear fears after the TMI incident in a 1985 article. 6 There he elaborated on the four factors he had identified that aggravate the fear of nuclear power:

Risk concentrated in time and space: Many deaths occurring together concentrate a fear response. The memory of the devastation created by atomic bombs used in World War II creates a lingering specter of the awesome power of a nuclear explosion, even if such an explosion wouldn’t occur with civilian nuclear reactors. Many see nuclear power plants as equivalent to nuclear bombs, however, and a nuclear incident leading to loss of life raises a similar fearful response.

Control: If an individual perceives himself in control of risk, almost no risk is too much. But if someone else controls the risk, almost no risk is acceptable. Cigarette smoking, DuPont observes, kills more than 440,000 Americans annually, but this risk is perceived as acceptable partly because each individual chooses to accept the risk. When there are nuclear power incidents, the situation seems out of control, and more fearsome, despite the comparatively miniscule risk to individuals.

Familiarity: If a risk is familiar, DuPont argues, we accept it almost no matter what it is. But if it’s unfamiliar, almost no risk is acceptable. DuPont offers fear of flying as an example; 25 million Americans refuse to fly because they’re anxious about a form of travel that’s vastly safer than their everyday habit of driving on public streets. By comparison, few Americans understand how nuclear power works, and fewer have actually ever visited a nuclear power plant, so they are completely unfamiliar with the technology and therefore more likely to fear it.

Need: If something is perceived as needed, individuals will accept great risks, whereas if a technology or experience isn’t perceived as needed, almost no risk is acceptable. Residents of Carlsbad, N.M., for example, generally accept the nuclear waste repository, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), that provides needed jobs for almost one-third of the local workforce. And some former anti-nuclear environmental figures have