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Facing Nuclear Fear

Renewing public support after Fukushima Daiichi.

Fortnightly Magazine - October 2011

come to accept nuclear power as a tool to lower CO 2 in the new battle against climate change. Here, nuclear power is seen to be an ally rather than an enemy. In France, where nuclear reactors generate 76 percent of the country’s electricity, voters support nuclear power because they view it as necessary to maintain their way of life and their independence from imported power fuels.

Fears that arise from these factors, and which aren’t mitigated by need or familiarity, are then reinforced by three additional factors, according to DuPont.

First is media focus. The popular news media have tremendous power to identify, reinforce and feed fears. The post-Fukushima media focus streamed a drumbeat of danger, threat and disaster. Media intensity fuels public fear, which can aggravate stress. Ironically, some studies find that stress about nuclear incidents—even as serious as the Chernobyl meltdown—can have a greater impact on public health than the incident itself. 7

The second factor is political focus. Political talking points can reinforce fears, and drive voters into a politician’s camp if there’s perceived voter sensitivity to the nuclear issue. As noted earlier, in Germany, following Fukushima, Prime Minister Merkel called for an end to nuclear power, while French President Sarkozy stood by France’s commitment. Once nuclear power becomes “the issue,” it rises to join the top political talking points. But the talking points might have nothing to do with the real technical challenges and issues involved.

The final factor is the blame game. When people’s fears are reinforced by the media and politics, it’s natural for people to seek out scapegoats and enemies.

According to DuPont, the problem is “not an enemy but our own psychology—a psychology of fear.” When we aren’t in control, we are less prone to accept risks that are scary and unfamiliar. Industry reaction to incidents can exacerbate this by scaling back communications efforts just when people most acutely need reassurance that experts are on the job. Some companies become averse to bad publicity and withdraw their media presence, canceling advertising and other outreach efforts, seeming to hide out until the crisis ends. Others scale up their outreach and take creative approaches to reassure the public, as BP did after the Gulf oil spill. Communication strategies and results differ.

The French Experience

Because France has no significant resources of coal, natural gas or oil, the French people generally have a common perception of the critical need for nuclear power, which provides more than 3/4ths of the country’s electric power. More than 40 years ago, political leaders in France established nuclear power as the dominant generation resource specifically to ensure the country’s energy independence; specifically, they didn’t want to rely on imports from Libya to fuel oil-fired power plants. As natural gas replaced oil as a primary electric power fuel in Europe, France’s reliance on nuclear has allowed it to avoid reliance on insecure gas supplies from Russia—and to avoid building liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminals as many other European countries have done. To achieve additional energy independence and reduce its waste stream,