Changing the Connotation of Nuclear

Maggie Steffens
February 18, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: The possibilities to impact the connotation of "nuclear" can be simple. The image above is part of a campaign to influence a more positive outlook with the concept of "nuclear". (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

By learning to control fire, man was able to harness energy and use it for the development of our world. Fire was once a scary thing to man, something unbeknownst. But once it was controlled and harnessed into a fuel, it became a staple of our world and an incredible discovery. Nuclear energy seems to portray that same fear in humans. As our technological world advances and our awareness of environmental issues increases, nuclear power comes into play as it provides an additional option for an energy source, although controversial. [1] Because of this controversy, nuclear power advocates need not to focus on the conversion itself, but rather on the connotation of the word "nuclear". By simply changing the way the word nuclear is framed, it will help open up the minds of skeptics and the possibilities of a positive nuclear future.

Changing the Connotation of Nuclear

In 2001, the per capita consumption of energy for industrialized countries such as France and Japan was about 14 times that of India and almost 50 times that of Bangladesh, whereas it was only about one-half that of the United States. [2] Also, although nuclear power's share of the electricity supply is about 75% in France, it still only remains at 20% in the United States. [1] However, the U.S. Department of Energy has begun to stimulate research and designs for future reactors; this could help bridge the large gap of nuclear energy use between the U.S. and countries like France. [1] These disparities amongst countries showcase the possibilities behind the use of different energy sources, especially as our world continues to grow at a rapid rate. To accommodate an increasing population and an increased per capita demand in much of the world, world energy production may have to more than double over the next 50 years, which as of now is looking to be from fossil fuels. [3,4] But in order for these possible changes to come to action, the world needs to be more open to these opportunities. Former New Jersey Governor, Christine Todd Whitman, has been doing her part to help change the connotation of nuclear. Whitman insists that nuclear power is a useful counterpoint to push back against dirtier energy sources and that it is a mistake to push nuclear power out of the picture, although it has grand investment costs and risks in terms of contamination, those should not outweigh the possible positives as an energy source. [5] She now co-chairs the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition (CASEnergy), an advocacy group funded by the Nuclear Energy Institute, and believes in the future of nuclear energy as a positive addition to our world. If this is to become a viable option for our world's future, it is vital that our world begins to look at nuclear in a new light. Like in the "Yes Please" photo referring to nuclear power, simple stickers or campaign ads can help shine this light of nuclear power/energy. This is just one simple ad to make people wonder what are the positive possibilities of nuclear power. For example, it is emission-free energy, there is less waste, and it helps preserve earth's climate. [3] These are just a few benefits to nuclear energy which can help stimulate a new connotation for nuclear. Like fire, can the fear be diminished? Can our world learn to think of nuclear in a new light? Only time will tell, but this is the time to make a change.


If world energy and global change is on our radar, we should stop associating danger and negativity with nuclear and look deeper into the possibilities as Whitman suggests. [5] The two nuclear possibilities for alternative to fossil fuels are fission and fusion, although developing effective systems in such are hopeful, yet challenging. With this, there could be replacements of present coal-fired power plants with nuclear plants for baseload generation [1] as well of nuclear power rather than natural gas, in association with natural gas replacing oil or coal for applications such as heating. [2] To do so, one may consider how there are 65 nuclear power plants with 104 operating reactors in the U.S., according to the Energy Information administration, which generates nearly 800 billion kilowatt-hours of electric power. [4] Now imagine if this could be spread. Although expensive, it is a long term investment. One way of investing in this is by changing the connotation of the word nuclear. There are plenty of benefits to nuclear energy and nuclear power, but there is a step that needs to be taken first before people will buy-in. Campaigns like the photo to the right as well as a better understanding of what nuclear power can do for the good and not just the bad are simple ways to change the way people think. Once people change the way they think, a whole new door will be open.

© Maggie Steffens. 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] "The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle," Massachusetts Institute of Technology, April 2011, pp. 1-19.

[2] "Monthly Energy Review," U.S. Energy Information Administration, DOE/EIA-0035(2003/08), August 2008.

[3] D. Bodansky, Nuclear Energy: Principles, Practices, and Prospects, 2nd Ed. (Springer, 2008).

[4] N. Nakicenovic, A. Grübler & A. McDonald, eds., Global Energy Perspecitves (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[5] J. E. David, "Christine Todd Whitman Making a Case for Nuclear Power,"CNBC, 14 Feb 14.