Origins of Psychological Factors in Nuclear Power Sentiments

Shin-Mei Chan
March 6, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018

Fig. 1: The Nagasaki disaster, an event that caused much psychological trauma and seeded psychological fear towards nuclear energy. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Since the 1950s, nuclear power stations have been used in a variety of conventional ways to deliver power to an ever-growing, energy-hungry human population. And yet, despite the widespread prevalence of nuclear energy, the thought of nuclear energy seems to instill disapproval by the American public. In a survey done by Gallup in 2016, for the first time in Gallup's trend history, the majority of Americans opposed nuclear energy 54% to 44%. [1] Obviously, there are many factors contributing to Americas' perception of nuclear power plants. These are critical for obtaining a comprehensive understanding of nuclear power. It is particularly important to understand psychological factors that contribute to one's support or opposition.

Emotional Psychology in Risk Calculation

Risk calculation is an important part of perception towards nuclear power plants. According to Richard John, associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, people often think about risk from an emotional perspective. [2] In a study conducted at the Center for Risk Psychology, Environment, and Community Resilience in 2011, the most important factors in perceived risk and attitude to nuclear power were emotional factors, followed by epistemic trust. Interestingly, this study demonstrated that the most important emotion factor was anger, not fear. The study concluded that emotions are an integral part of risk calculation, especially with nuclear power as the repository. [3]

Origins of Nuclear Fears

Thus, it is critical to view the history of nuclear power disasters, which have been shown to have a wide range of emotional consequences. The three major nuclear power plant disasters (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima (Fig. 1) all shared disruptions in socio-economic welfare, adverse health effects, the lingering ambiguity about radiation effects, and length and depth of risks. [4] Following each of these three catastrophes, research further suggested the mere threat of nuclear annihilation generated debilitating anxiety that ultimately fostered psychiatric illness in many child and adult populations. [5] Concepts such as "Nuclear madness" allows the negative psychology to perpetuate through generations via images, the media, and narratives. [6]

Closing Remarks

Nuclear power is not just a technology, but a complex subject iwth many facets, including psychology. Understanding how these psychological tendencies arise is a critical component of understanding the potential of nuclear power.

© Shin-Mei Chan. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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] R. Riffkin, "For First Time, Majority in U.S. Oppose Nuclear Energy", Gallup News, 18 Mar 16.

[2] E. Landau, "Why Does 'Nuclear' Scare Us So Much?" CNN, 28 Mar 11.

[3] S Roeser, "Nuclear Energy, Risk and Emotions," Philos. Tech. 24, 197 (2011).

[4] E. J. Bromer, "Emotional Consequences of Nuclear Power Plant Disasters," Health Phys. 106, 206 (2014).

[5] S. J. Kiraly, ""Psychological Effects of the Threat of Nuclear War," Can. Fam. Physician 32, 170 (1986).

[6] I. Chernus, Nuclear Madness: Religion and the Psychology of the Nuclear Age (SUNY Press, 1991).