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Letters to the Editor

Fortnightly Magazine - December 2011

Overcoming Nuclear Fear

John Bewick’s October article “ Facing Nuclear Fear ” struck the perfect balance between concise and comprehensive in reviewing public acceptance challenges faced by the U.S. nuclear industry. With both historical and global comparisons to today’s situation, his piece compels us not to repeat past mistakes in taking for granted public understanding of nuclear energy need.

I have long concluded that the greatest enemy of a sound, diverse national energy policy is apathy. Americans want reliable, affordable, clean electricity, but often admit in our interactions with them that they have no idea where their power comes from or how plans for meeting future needs are made. Significant events such as those in Japan trigger their interest, creating opportunity to provide the public with answers to welcomed questions and to shape misperceptions about risk. But we must remain relentless in keeping interest in this crucial subject high, even when other hot topics lull the general public back into ambivalence about nuclear power’s role in U.S. energy policy.

— Kelle Barfield, Vice President, Advocacy Communications Entergy

 

In “ Facing Nuclear Fear ,” Fortnightly Contributing Editor John Bewick did a superb job capturing not just my work but the major issues in play in the tumultuous story of nuclear power. Many people see so much controversy and complication that they can’t see the relatively simple facts of what is going on. Bewick’s article presented the central issues related to the media and the unique fears of nuclear power with great clarity, giving readers the recognizable forest without the distracting jumble of endless trees.

The March 2011 tsunami in Japan and subsequent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant demonstrated anew a tenacious paradox of public perception—the exaggerated fears of nuclear power. The disparity of the scale of the damage from the tsunami compared to the damage and deaths from the nuclear accident was the mirror image of media coverage.

Specifically, media coverage, including my interview on March 22 on NPR’s Morning Edition , focused more on the nuclear power accident than on the far greater damage from the tsunami and earthquake. This distortion of risk has led, predictably, to renewed calls to abandon nuclear power because of its uniquely dreadful danger. To put it simply, how many news stories contrasted the zero deaths from the Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdown to the 18,000 deaths from the tsunami?

What is to be done about this remarkable and persistent distortion of fear and risk?

After more than half a century of nuclear power worldwide, the power plants remain remote from most people’s experience. My estimate is that 90 percent of what the public has heard about nuclear power over that half century relates to the coverage of three accidents: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi. Media obsession with these accidents and political opposition to nuclear power are intertwined and deeply entrenched. It helps to line up the facts of relative risk, but I never saw a person with a deep seated fear of flying who was helped by data on relative risk, however compelling

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