Skip to main content

'Nuclear Dread' Lingers In the Minds Of Americans

Cover image for podcast episode

A five-part dramatization of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl 30 years ago starts Monday on HBO. The series may enhance the American public's fear of what can go wrong with nuclear power reactors. Yet carbon-free nuclear power has been part of the U.S. energy grid since the 1970s.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 A horrific explosion occurred at a Soviet Union nuclear reactor, a Chernobyl in April, 1986 the blast spread radioactive material across Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and as far away as Scandinavia and western Europe, a five part dramatization of the tragedy starts Monday on Hbo and the series will no doubt enhance the already considerable fear of nuclear power reactors and what can go wrong. Yet carbon free nuclear power has been part of the u s grid since the 1970s even now, one in every five kilowatt hours of electricity in this country comes from nuclear power plants joining me by Skype as part of our coverage from the KPBS climate change desk. Joining me as a med up Doula, a fellow with the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and strategy, a med welcome, a pleasure to speak with you, mark. The names Chernobyl, three mile island Fukushima become almost synonymous with nuclear fallout disaster here in San Diego. Many feel the same way about the ill fated Santa, no free plant, and these cases show what can go wrong, but start with the factual risks. How dangerous has it really been to generate nuclear power in the U S and around the world compared with other major sources of energy?

Speaker 2: 01:15 It has actually been remarkably safe and peer reviewed studies suggests that nuclear power has been among the safest ways of generating electricity. Obviously saying that it has led to fewer deaths and less illness than many other forms of electricity generation is not meant at least to dismiss or diminish the consequences of a potentially catastrophic accident. So there is a rich menu of challenges that lead to negative perception of nuclear power among the public, but there are also persistent misconceptions about the technology and both of these limited Zeus

Speaker 1: 01:51 and perception and public policy and politics of course is vitally important. Explain how you set about determining how this sense of dread among Americans is affecting decisions about maintaining or building new nuclear power facilities.

Speaker 2: 02:05 While we recruited a large sample of Americans more than 1200 and we asked them all to build a national electric power system that could cuts emissions in half by the year 2050. We gave them a number of technologies to do this and we gave them information about the risks and the emissions of each technology. However, only half of them were given the names of the technologies and question the other half got the information, but they didn't get the names. And we do this precisely to separate public attitudes to nuclear power and to two components. What we in the paper and you and your question just called the Greg components that is tied to the name of the technology and the associations that evokes and then a statistical component that we can reduce by building safer nuclear power plant.

Speaker 1: 02:54 Okay. And what did your survey reveal regarding Americans' attitudes? Uh, about nuclear power? We get

Speaker 2: 03:00 a very strong results. Respondents who saw the names of the technologies chose to deploy less nuclear power, 40% less in fact, and remarkably those who saw the name of the technology deployed nuclear power at about its current level, while those who didn't see the name, um, deployed systems where one in four kilowatt hours of electricity, so a quarter of American energy or electricity came from that technology. So pretty dramatic what people feel about nuclear power when they know they're talking about nuclear power. Quite ts. No. How much do you think people really know about nuclear technology and how relatively safe it is? Well, there's an enormous literature on attitudes to nuclear power and opinion polling on the subject stretches back decades. But we live in a moment in history where these results have started to change not only because of climate change, which is a genuine crisis, but also because of people's attitude to governments, to expertise and to a number of other relevant factors.

Speaker 2: 04:00 Previous work has shown that people living next to nuclear power plants tend to support the more than the general population. This could be because they know more about the technology. And, and people who are trained in stem fields such as engineers also seem to support nuclear power more than the general population according to one recent study. Okay. Well tell us what your research shows regarding of the challenge of changing public opinion enough to allow new nuclear power facilities to be built. Well, our work shows that promising to address, address the statistical risk of nuclear power is unlikely to automatically reduce, let alone eliminate the dread. For example, parts of the industry proposes that we develop a new generation of reactors that are even safer than the ones we currently have. But if the problem is in the perception and the name alone can dramatically limit the use of nuclear power, then it's unclear the extent to which this strategy could work.

Speaker 2: 04:56 So our research diagnosis, the extent of the problem, and although we discussed potential prescriptions that ought to be investigated in a serious scientific manner, we don't claim to offer a solution. And, uh, don't experts say that climate change and clean energy a, that it's got to rely on nuclear power gotta be part of the portfolio. Right? Yeah. There has been a growing recognition over the past decade or so about the sheer scale of the challenge. So it's not just climate and energy experts who are in favor of deploying a nuclear power, but also some environmental groups have become not pronuclear but more ambivalent towards nuclear than opposed to it. Um, and it's good that there's this awareness, but at the same time there's a need for self reflection among climate and energy experts because our results suggest that experts need to better represent reality when they're determining whether a technology can be deployed or the limits of its use. In the real world right now, the community uses either simple models to claim that nuclear is necessary or the imposed carbon prices to make nuclear more competitive. And it's important to integrate insights from the social sciences, things about public acceptance, um, concerned about specific issues related to nuclear power that transcend just energy and economics. When you're dealing with this question

Speaker 1: 06:19 and the sense of nuclear dread that we've been talking about. Do we know if that extends in other countries that rely on nuclear energy some more than us? Actually,

Speaker 2: 06:27 yeah. I'm the exact study we're talking about here hasn't been undertaken elsewhere, but he asked the gap between Greg and statistical risk does exist in different countries, and it all depends on the institutional context and how people interact with government, how people view the climate, how strong the environmental movements in those countries are. So it would be actually interesting to compare these things across forms of governments and across populations.

Speaker 1: 06:54 Right. Well, I've been speaking with Ahmed Abdulla, a fellow with the UC San Diego schools of global policy and strategy. Thanks Ahmed.

Speaker 2: 07:02 Thank you, mark.

KPBS Midday Edition podcast branding

KPBS Midday Edition

KPBS Midday Edition is a daily talk show hosted by Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon, keeping San Diegans in the know on everything from politics to the arts.