Facing Nuclear Fear


Renewing public support after Fukushima Daiichi.

Fortnightly Magazine - October 2011

Three Mile Island, 1979; Chernobyl, 1986; Fukushima Daiichi, 2011—most who follow world news know the stories of these ill-fated nuclear power plants. But what about Honkeiko Colliery, 1942; Courrieres, 1906; or Monongah, 1907? These mining disasters led to 3,010 fatalities among them, but they’re seldom mentioned in the public forum today.

Nuclear accidents, in spite of fewer immediate fatalities, stimulate far greater long-term negative public reaction than mining incidents do, and they create greater fear. After mining incidents, mining improvements are made, new regulations are set in place, and mining begins again. After nuclear incidents, however, nuclear proponents and investors reduce their public profile, cut back on development and promotion efforts, and even cancel or delay nuclear projects. The news media create a maelstrom of crisis, fear and uncertainty. Anti-nuclear groups gain new strength and marshal their efforts. An incident can set back investment for a generation or more.

Since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster ensued, two European leaders have taken different and highly public stands on nuclear power: French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited the nuclear plant at Gravelines, and was photographed looking over a spent fuel pool, to express solidarity with France’s nuclear power program. Meanwhile, German Prime Minister Angela Merkel announced plans to shut down eight old reactors immediately, and nine remaining plants by 2022. Many countries have put nuclear expansion on hold until the lessons from Fukushima are better understood—Japan and China among them.

In the United States, the reactions have been just as diverse; while New York Governor Andrew Cuomo asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to close the Indian Point reactor, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg supported relicensing the same reactor, saying that its closing could cause blackouts in the city.

In response to bad press and deteriorating public perception of nuclear energy, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) worked to publicize the U.S. nuclear power industry’s 90 percent availability record, its stringent operating standards, and the billions of dollars that have been spent to improve safety. NEI observed that there have been no major abnormal occurrences in U.S. nuclear power plants in the last eight years. Yet fears about nuclear safety have persisted. An unusual earthquake on the East Coast, centered in Richmond, Va., raised questions about the Lake Anna plant’s vulnerability to temblors. Flooding of the Missouri River focused attention on the safety of Nebraska nuclear plants. And a deadly industrial accident near France’s Marcoule spent-fuel processing center served to intensify fears about nuclear power around the world.

In the wake of the disaster in Japan, the U.S. nuclear power industry is taking stock of its status and outlook for the future. What will the industry and regulatory authorities learn from Fukushima Daiichi, and what direction will they take as a result? How does the nuclear industry deal with fear and reality when it comes to explaining risks and opportunities of nuclear power? What education and outreach strategies can make a difference to public perception?

Incidents and Reactions

In 2010, 62 percent of the U.S. public supported nuclear power.1 Since the Fukushima disaster, support for nuclear power in the United States has dropped to 43 percent.2 On the other hand, another poll indicates that 60 percent of respondents say there’s no difference in their support for nuclear power since Fukushima,3 and 59 percent express support if new plants are located in earthquake-free zones, and away from large populations.4 In Congress there’s a split between Republican support (52 percent) vs. Democrat opposition (65 percent) to more nuclear power plants.

Regional support for nuclear power differs. Nuclear industry media experts point out there continues to be strong local support for nuclear power plants from New Jersey to the South and Southwest, where the economic benefits are tangible. These plants provide jobs, and many people know someone who works at a nuclear plant. 82 percent of Americans living in close proximity to nuclear power plants favor nuclear energy, and 71 percent are willing to see a new reactor built near them, according to a public opinion survey of more than 1,100 adults across the United States conducted for NEI in July and August, 2011, by Bisconti Research Inc. with Quest Global Research Group. That contrasts with strong local opposition in Vermont and parts of New York.

In 1979, when the Three Mile Island incident occurred, there were other concerns that offset fears about nuclear risks. A revolt in Iran threatened oil supplies and raised concerns about dependence on foreign oil—just six years after OPEC had imposed an oil embargo and sparked a global energy crisis. In that context, public support for nuclear power remained high. It took three years after the Three Mile Island incident for public support for nuclear power to drop from 52 percent at the time of the accident to 38 percent in November 1982. By then, the energy crisis was off the front pages, and support for nuclear power had eroded.

Then came the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, raising new fears about nuclear safety. Six months later, however, support for nuclear actually increased from 44 percent to 52 percent because environmental critics and proponents alike had educated the public that U.S. reactors were safer than those in the Ukraine, with strong containment structures, and that the industry had benefited from the lessons from the TMI incident.5

After TMI, which was caused by human error, the nuclear industry responded by improving its training practices and launching an educational and promotional campaign on the safety of nuclear power plants. The industry also formed the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), which instituted better training methods for operators, regular evaluations of plant operations, and assistance to help nuclear plants improve their performance.

INPO also helped operators establish more efficient maintenance procedures that have increased capacity factors of 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 come to accept nuclear power as a tool to lower CO2 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, France recycles its spent nuclear fuel.

To support the country’s nuclear power strategy, the French government and power utilities work systematically to educate citizens about nuclear power, and to provide familiarity with the technology through a policy of transparency. In an interview, Laurent Pernot, the director of communications for Areva in the U.S. and former head of the visitor center at Areva’s La Hague reprocessing facility in France, described the mandated program requiring transparency in communications with the French public. French nuclear operating firms publish environmental and safety reports on their websites, especially if an incident occurs. Operators of French power plants meet monthly with local information committees to share everything that has happened, including corrective actions. France’s nuclear power operations are located in easy view of nearby residents, not hidden away in remote locations. Many local residents work at the plants, and each plant has a visitor center that provides education to the public about nuclear power, radiation and plant operations.

Pernot explained that before the September 11, 2011, terrorist attacks, about 10,000 people visited Areva’s nuclear facilities each year. After 9/11, Areva changed its security policies and its plants now receive about 6,000 invited visitors and officials each year. Nevertheless, visitor centers at Areva’s nuclear plants are open to the public, and continue to be well-visited by students, officials and tourists.

Similarly, EDF’s visitor centers had 200,000 visitors last year, while the Gravelines power plant, where President Sarkozy visited in May, welcomed 7,000 visitors.

France’s visitor centers are now shifting their focus from adults to schoolchildren in grades 7 through 12. Visitor centers are equipped with training simulators, providing a hands-on understanding of how reactors are operated.

In the French model, transparency, necessity, familiarity, local involvement and employment opportunities all contribute to strong political support for nuclear power.

The Japan Scenario

In contrast to France, Japan’s nuclear industry has a history of secrecy and interconnectedness with the government agencies that both promote and regulate nuclear power. The Fukushima Daiichi incident has revealed this opaque culture, and seems to be driving a major change toward more openness, sharing of data, and a more rapid response to protecting public health with bans on occupancy in contamination zones—unlike the Soviet response to Chernobyl, where policy makers were slow to relocate residents away from the area.

Specifically, Japanese regulators have gained greater independence and authority to require information-sharing from nuclear operators.

Despite being a terrible accident, the Fukushima Daiichi disaster killed only two workers. At this writing, no deaths due to radiation exposure have been documented.8 Nevertheless, each day brings new information about the plant failures and continuing uncertainty about control of problems, such as spent fuel rod storage, and the short- and long-term impacts of radiation. And turmoil in Japan’s government has exacerbated the problem; as this issue was going to press, Japan’s Energy Minister Yoshio Hachiro resigned after just eight days on the job, after coming under fire for referring to the no-go zone around the Fukushima Daiichi plant site as a “town of death.”9 Perception of the absence of 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 with programs at vocational schools and a nearby junior college. PSE&G donated its exhibit designs to NEI, toward an effort to make visitor centers more standardized and affordable throughout the industry.

Interviews with sources at Duke Energy and Southern Nuclear Co. about their visitor centers are also revealing. Both companies have made significant commitments to public education through their centers, with different approaches and different outcomes. Duke’s visitor center in North Carolina sees about 30,000 visitors per year. Southern Nuclear, with 3,000 visitors a year at its centers, also has developed a comprehensive and informative media package to support its overall outreach efforts.

In addition to visitor centers, nuclear operators can improve public perception through media relations and direct communications efforts, including advertising. In the 1980s, the Atomic Industrial Forum (AIF) invested $20 million in a national ad campaign to educate the public about nuclear power when members realized that media coverage of the TMI nuclear accident was heightening public fears. Initially the advertising campaign was opposed by the major networks, which refused to accept the advertising. Eventually, two networks were convinced the message was acceptable and non-biased, and ran the ads.

Mark Mills, who led AIF’s communications efforts at the time, recalls that the ads were effective in reaching the public. Then, in the mid-1990s, several Frontline programs on nuclear power brought out the facts about safety and risk, and confronted critics like Ralph Nader with positive evidence from the industry. It seemed like a major turnaround in the media.

Today, after Fukushima, the media is focused on public fears again, but the global energy context is different today from what it was in the 1980s. Concerns about energy independence have peaked in the wake of the Arab Spring, and in the midst of global economic turmoil. Additionally, concerns about climate change remain potent despite retrenchment on federal legislative efforts. Drought-stricken Texas is literally on fire, after the hottest summer on record. The Atlantic coast has been battered and flooded in the most active hurricane season in recent times. And Midwestern floods, tornadoes and generally changing weather patterns have Americans on edge across the country’s breadbasket.

In this context, leaders of the environmental movement have become supporters of nuclear power as an important and essential power option for reducing GHG emissions. They include Stewart Brand, publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog; Stephen Tindale and Patrick Moore, formerly of Greenpeace; Mike Childs, of Friends of the Earth in England; and Steve Cochran, vice president of climate and air for the Environmental Defense Fund.

These trends create a strong foundation for the industry’s communications and outreach efforts (see “Nuclear Outreach Checklist”).

Restarting the Renaissance

Whether nuclear power is seen as a bridge to alternative green energy technologies, or as a permanent participant in the mix of energy sources, it’s here to stay for the foreseeable future. The anticipated nuclear renaissance is on hold at the moment for a variety of reasons—from the new availability of an abundant supply of natural gas, to a renewed sense of fear in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. However, the fundamental drivers for new nuclear construction remain strong, and the nuclear renaissance can resume in the future—but only if it’s supported with public awareness of the truth about nuclear power, its comparative risks, and America’s need for more secure and environmentally friendly energy resources.

The nuclear industry bears an important responsibility for alleviating the fear of nuclear energy and creating a bridge to public understanding and acceptance.



1. Gallup poll, 3/22/2011.

2. CBS poll, 3/15/2011.

3. Quinnipiac University, March 22 through 28, 2011.

4. Harris poll, March 23 through 25, 2011.

5. National Surveys by Cambridge Reports for NEI, 1,500 adults.

6. Robert L. DuPont, “Understanding the Fear of Nuclear Power: An Example of the Contemporary Fear of Technology,” presented at the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, Washington, D.C., December 3, 1985.

7. Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts, The Chernobyl Forum, p. 36.

8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fukushima_Daiichi_nuclear_disaster

9. “Minister’s Gaffe Hits Japan,” Wall Street Journal, Sept. 12, 2011.

10. “US nuclear groups band together for Fukushima response,” Nuclear Engineering International, June 14, 2011.

11. “Fear Stokes Discussions on Nuclear Plants,” Morning Edition, National Public Radio, March 22, 2011.