Public Perception of Nuclear Energy

Vincent Chen
March 19, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016

Importance of Public Perception of Nuclear Energy

Fig. 1: Stewart Brand at 2010 debate, "Does the world need nuclear energy?" (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

With impending concerns about climate change and American energy independence, nuclear energy remains as a viable and scalable energy source. It is the only source of energy that does not produce greenhouse gases and has operated for nearly two decades with accident-free operations. [1] With with a new generation of inherently "safe" reactors, the nuclear energy industry re-emerges in the limelight to face public scrutiny and judgement.

Public trust in nuclear energy infrastructure is critical to its development as a sustainable and long-term solution in the United States. In order to implement policies and large-scale infrastructures conducive to the development of nuclear technologies, the American people must hold values that are aligned with those of our engineers and policy-makers.

Rise of Public Media Discourse

In 1979, the Three Mile Island accident drove conflicting opinions and voices about the role of nuclear energy in the United States. Some sources touted the importance of nuclear in the role of U.S. energy independence, citing the current dependence on Middle Eastern sources for oil, coal, and natural gas. [1] Anti-nuclear-power groups, such as Friends of the Earth, cited the ecological consequences of the disposal methods for nuclear waste:

"Split wood, not atoms. Nuclear energy presents us with a fundamental choice about what kind of society we wish to be. Do we wish to continue a way of life that is wasteful of energy, relies on highly centralized technologies, and is insensitive to ecological consequences? Or do we want to become a society more in harmony with its natural environment?

"Nuclear enegy relies on the wrong kind of technology - centralized and dangerous in the long run to the earth's ecology. We need to pursue alternative, soft paths. We should change our way of life to conserve energy as much as possible and to develop sources of energy that are ecologically safe and renewable, and that lend themselves to decentralized production - for example, sun, wind, and water. Small is beautiful." [1]

Often, anti-nuclear individuals refer to the potential risks involved with nuclear power sources. In many cases, this may not even a direct attack on the technologies, but an uncertainty that prevents any sense of progress.

Modern Demographic Opinions

In predicting individual attitudes towards the nuclear technologies, a 2008 study from Michigan State University found that "trust in environmental institutions and perceived risks from global environmental problems do not predict attitudes toward nuclear power." [2] In fact, it found that nuclear attitudes do not vary by gender, age, education, income, or political orientation. [2] These findings perhaps explain a "general ambivalence" towards nuclear power in modern political circles. [2]

Some explanations on public reactions to potential hazards rely on political theory - where clashing interests may conflict with an individual's position in society. [3] Other theories refer to cultural biases that lead people to selectively direct atention to risks. These decisions are based more on social cues than individual calculation. In any case, Americans face a unique state in which public ambivalence hinders the large-scale development of nuclear energy technologies as a means to a sustainable energy future. To fight this ambivalence, Americans must bring the issue to the public stage, as seen in the 2010 debate in Fig. 1, with clarity and transparency so that it is accessible to all.

© Vincent Chen. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] W. A. Gamson and A. Modigliani, "Media Discourse and Public Opinion on Nuclear Power: A Constructionist Approach," Am. J. Sociol. 95, 1 (1989).

[[2] S. C. Whitfield et al., "The Future of Nuclear Power: Value Orientations and Risk Perception," Risk Anal. 29, 425 (2009).

[3] A. Wildavsky and K. Dake, "Theories of Risk Perception: Who Fears What and Why?" Daedalus 119, No. 4, 41 (Fall, 1990).