Informing the Nuclear Debate

Asad Khaliq
March 13, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: The Fukushima nuclear disaster site remains radioactive, with cleanup expected to take many years. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The debate over the use of nuclear power to produce energy has been long lasting and wide ranging. Proponents espouse the reduction in carbon emissions and potential energy security nuclear energy brings; whilst opponents warn of potential threats to health and safety as well as the long term sustainability of nuclear energy. Much of this debate takes place outside of strictly scientific environments - in conversations between friends, on television and social media, and in classrooms. Most of the information on which these discussions are based tends to come from social networks, the mainstream media, and in some cases, education. Without accurate information and awareness of nuclear energy and its associated advantages and disadvantages, reasoned discussion on the topic can be meaningless or misguided at best, and dangerous at worst. [1]

Misinformation And Consequences

Broadly, most people are likely to get information concerning nuclear debates and events from the mainstream media and from their immediate social network. Prior to formal education, which not all students receive, particularly in the field of nuclear energy; beliefs about radiation likely emerge from a confluence of parents, peers, and mass media. According to one study, many of these beliefs can be "naive, contextual, and erroneous" due to the proliferation of misinformation in the mass media, usually as a result of the inherently complicated and ambiguous nature of the nuclear debate. As a salient example, consider that speculative estimates of deaths due to radiation following the Chernobyl reactor incident in 1986 as reported in various widely circulated publications ranged from 30,000 to 15,000,000 - a far cry from the actual death toll of 40 reported by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) in 2000, 14 years after the event. Much of this faulty reasoning could potentially be attributed to a lack of conceptual frameworks on nuclear processes amongst the general public, resulting in an unclear and inconsistent understanding of nuclear issues. [2,3]

A poor understanding of nuclear issues and potentially sensationalist reporting by mass media means that there is a "low regard for public knowledge on nuclear matters". As an example, the name for Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging (NMRI) Machines was changed simply to Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to avoid negative connotations, rather than attempting to raise awareness of the potential medical applications of nuclear processes. A study of 11-16 year old students in Australia uncovered similarly negative misconceptions amongst adolescents, reporting a dissonance in the minds of children between the idea that radioactivity is harmful, and the idea that it has therapeutic uses or occurs naturally. [2,3]

These misconceptions have tangible effects - in Australia, for instance, state governments have rejected proposals to locate nuclear waste repositories in remote regions; irradiated foods are not widely accepted; and there has been vocal and physical opposition to the entry of nuclear-powered submarines into Australian ports causing political discord. That is not to say or imply that these proposals were rejected incorrectly or misguidedly - rather, we cannot expect reasoned and logical discussion if misinformation and inaccuracy concerning a topic are rife. The variance in risk perception can also have personally debilitating effects. In the instance of the Fukushima disaster in Japan, the radiation dose to the public was relatively low and had no discernible physiological health effects. However, psychological and social problems stemming from differences in risk perception had significant impacts - The Fukushima Health Management Survey indicates that segments of the population involved in evacuation procedures were five times more likely to experience ongoing psychological distress versus the rest of the population, fears not necessarily grounded in reality. [3,4]

Potential Avenues For Improvement

The problem of misinformation and misinterpretation appears to be twofold. Firstly, dissemination of information about nuclear energy and disasters through the mass media appears to be unreliable and occasionally misleading. Secondly, perhaps the general public - particularly those who live in areas with a high concentration of nuclear facilities - do not receive appropriate education and guidance to make cogent judgments concerning nuclear process. With that in mind, lessons can be learned from media reporting on nuclear power and nuclear disasters; as well as the potential for educational initiatives to help guide more nuanced debate.

In 2011, 1560 residents of the Fukushima Prefecture participated in radiation information seminars. Participants were administered a questionnaire before and after the seminar to assess their levels of concern about radiation, and information on media consumption preferences collected. Those who used rumors as a source of radiation information were more worried about effects on health than those who did not. In addition, those who read national newspapers were less worried about the future, as compared to regional newspapers. This might be because regional newspapers tend to lack the strong and authoritative information disseminated by the government in national newspapers, and may fall victim to the misinformed reporting discussed earlier. In particular, however, the study points to the perils of trusting rumors, particularly keeping in mind the lack of consistent and accurate conceptual frameworks on nuclear issues amongst the general public. [2,5]

In the aftermath of the Fukushima Disaster, Twitter was an important medium for information dissemination. However, the Japanese Government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which owned the nuclear plant, faced several challenges centering around the communication of risk. The government's potentially calming influence was hampered by conflicting and contradictory statements. For instance, Greenpeace said that data shared by the Japanese government was corroborated by Greenpeace scientists, but public broadcasting network NHK reported the government withheld data about radiation exceeding safe levels in certain areas. The Japanese public therefore began to question whether they could believe the information given by the government. A study conducted on the social media response to the Fukushima disaster suggests that traditional television and newspaper coverage tends to be more reassuring, with the micro-blogging universe expressing more alarm and panic. Government tweets with a reassuring tone eventually tended to be retweeted less (suggesting a loss of influence) compared to more alarmed and controversial reactions, perhaps due to the loss of faith in the accuracy of government information discussed earlier. The study suggests that more consistently reassuring messages are required on micro-blogging platforms, to counter the potentially debilitating impact of an alarmed social media response on safety, stability, and health. [2,5,6]

The troubles faced by the Japanese government suggest that trust in institutions tends to drop significantly after a nuclear disaster. A study on university student attitudes suggest that people who have higher trust in institutions tend to regard nuclear power efficiency highly, and are less fearful of radioactive contamination. Potentially, then, education on nuclear energy might help diminish the drop in trust in institutions and help maintain rationality in distressing times. However, it appears to be very difficult to change ideas, particularly about a scientific subject like nuclear physics where a valid conceptual model might not be easy to grasp. A study found that 16-year old Norwegian students who visited an exhibition on radiation related issues but had strong negative preconceptions about such issues generally retained their original ideas despite scientific evidence contradicting their preconceptions. A further study attempted to educate nearly 80 students on nuclear issues through 25 hours of instruction. At the end of the sessions, beliefs about some issues changed; but students remained resolute on certain misconceptions. For instance, the word "nuclear" in "nuclear powered submarine" was perceived with fear. Many were concerned about the "leakage" of radiation, suggesting an inability to distinguish between radioactivity and radiation. Even after instruction, students expressed a limited conceptual understanding of the processes by which ionizing radiation affects humans physiologically; and it appears unlikely that these students could clearly articulate arguments for or against uses of radioactive materials. The study, which took place in Australia, notes that fewer than 25% of Australian students study nuclear physics at the level of the instruction course. There are, then, significant challenges to countering misconceptions and misinformation about nuclear process even with concerted educational efforts. [2,3]


In the wake of nuclear disasters, fears about nuclear power are always compounded, often leading to controversial and tempestuous debate. It is important, however, to keep this discussion in perspective. At Fukushima, reactors designed half a century ago survived an earthquake many times stronger than they were designed to withstand, shutting down immediately. The actual problem began when a subsequent tsunami took out back-up generators designed to cool the reactors - a safety feature much improved on newer reactors. Radiation leaks are serious and potentially harmful, but background radiation is a normal and everyday phenomenon, particularly for those who live in certain areas, have frequent medical checks, or fly often. [1] Looking to the future, it is important to realize that the radioactive waste and safety issues of nuclear fission are widely acknowledged in scientific discourse. However, care must be taken to ensure the debate around nuclear energy remains levelheaded, as continued political, societal, and financial support might lead to the emergence of fusion power within a few decades. Fusion power is cleaner and safer than current nuclear technology, and could usher in a new era in energy. [1,3]

Evidently, managing education and information around nuclear energy in an unbiased and coherent manner is a difficult task with no clear solution. As a first step, this paper hopes to raise awareness of the potential issues. To safeguard the hope of the brightest possible energy future, we must continue to avoid misinformation and misconception and ensure constructive debate and levelheaded reactions.

© Asad Khaliq. 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] M. Windridge, "Fear of Nuclear Power Is out of All Proportion to the Actual Risks." The Guardian, 4 Apr 11.

[2] A. Honda, J. Wiwattanapantuwong, and T. Abe, "Japanese University Students' Attitudes toward the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster," J. Environ. Psychol. 40, 147 (2014).

[3] S. Cooper, S. Yeo, and M. Zadnik. "Australian Students' Views on Nuclear Issues: Does Teaching Alter Prior Beliefs?" Phys. Educ. 38, 123 (2003).

[4] H. Yabe et al., "Psychological Distress After The Great East Japan Earthquake And Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Accident: Results Of A Mental Health And Lifestyle Survey Through The Fukushima Health Management Survey In Fy2011 And Fy2012," Fukushima J. Med. Sci. 60, 57 (2014).

[5] A. Sugimoto et al., "The Relationship between Media Consumption and Health-Related Anxieties after the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster," PLoS ONE 8, e65331 (2013).

[6] J. Li, A. Vishwanath, and H. R. Rao, "Retweeting the Fukushima Nuclear Radiation Disaster," Commun. ACM 57, 78 (2014).