Media Coverage of Nuclear Power

Kyle Stowers
May 2, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017

Fig. 1: Cloud made by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

History of Media Coverage

Nuclear power has always resulted in mixed feelings by the media and the public. As scientists were conducting the secret Trinity test in July of 1945, they knew that they were unleashing a force of mythic proportions. [1] Ever since its beginning, nuclear power was the stuff of media myth: displaying a weapon that could potentially destroy the planet, as well as an abundant energy source that could benefit humanity. [1] However, the public did not fear the idea of living in a nuclear age initially. During the "Atoms for Peace" in the 1950s, many civilian articles regarding nuclear power were positive. In 1957, Walt Disney brought out a film called "Our Friend the Atom" that was shown on television and in schools. Even throughout the 1960s there was very little negative press about nuclear power. Early on in the 1970s, nuclear news generally was either neutral or positive. However, a darker image of nuclear power became dominant in civilian minds as the the 1970s wore in.

At this time, the images of the tested H-bomb had surfaced and led to fear of a nuclear fallout. The movie "Red Alert" took this fear to extreme in 1977 by portraying a scenario in which every nuclear reactor in the United States explodes simultaneously. [1] Nuclear energy started to go under strict scrutiny which resulted in the press reporting safety incidents more often. Viewers developed a negative image towards nuclear energy as they became more aware of the negative stories surrounding nuclear power. The accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, which was a partial meltdown of one of the reactors, caused hundreds of TV reports, articles, and a series of books to record this significant event. There was not a significant amount of radiation release, but it still led to the questioning of nuclear power. Experts regard this event as the turning point in public perception. Even worse, numerous TV news segments and articles, several books, and a play were released after the Chernobyl accident. [1] The vivid and relentless coverage swayed public opinion around the world. Although deaths and health issues were reported due to the accident, a twenty year follow-up study found that the greatest effects of the accident were psychological. Many have tried to sway the public opinion back to a positive view of nuclear energy, but they have failed. In the 1990s, the main issue was the question of what to do with nuclear waste. The negative imagery in nuclear media history has proved to be enduring. Today, nuclear fear is present even if people are unaware of the stories surrounding nuclear energy. [1]

Nuclear Media Content and Public Perception

For many years, public perception of nuclear power has become increasingly negative. [2] However, general public opinion of nuclear energy can be best described as ambivalent. Public opinion has a significant impact on state policy regarding nuclear energy. Concerns may result in Utility Commissioners to disallow rate increases needed to finance completion of plants under construction or to simply deny a license entirely. [2] Also, at the local level, public opinion can discourage the planting and financing of other nuclear reactors. Media coverage, along with other factors, have led to the mixed feelings towards nuclear power.

Both the amount and type of news coverage have played an important role in shaping public attitudes toward nuclear power. People tend to overestimate the probability of nuclear hazards because they are discussed frequently in the media. [2] What exactly is reported in the media has a large impact on the public. Negative coverage of nuclear power has the ability to take away from the scientific community's consensus that nuclear energy is safe. [2] This is because media stories of nuclear energy can have experts with opinions outside the general consensus which fails to display the common opinion. However, media coverage does contain both positive and negative views, but seems to favor a negative opinion of nuclear energy.


Nuclear energy has been a controversial topic in the media for many years and will continue to be. Despite the early history of a positive perception of nuclear power, it seems that the risks and problems that could happen have become engraved into the minds of many people. Generally, many just think of the cloud created by a nuclear bomb (Fig. 1). However, the negative image could change in the future as people learn more about nuclear energy. There are measures that can be taken in order to produce a more positive perception of nuclear power. For example, focusing on the benefits of nuclear energy rather than the risks could lead to a higher approval by the public. [2] Similarly, reducing the concerns of nuclear accidents would be very beneficial. This can be done by not only preventing disasters from happening but also answering any concerns that public has. [2] Finally, another step to improve public perception is to detach nuclear power from nuclear weapons. Public perception will not improve until these two concepts are separated.

© Kyle Stowers. 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] J. Palfreman, "A Tale of Two Fears: Exploring Media Depictions of Nuclear Power and Global Warming," Rev. Policy Res. 23, 23 (2006).

[2] "Nuclear Power in an Age of Uncertainty," U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, OTA-E-216, February 1984.