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Lentis/Popular Perceptions of Nuclear Power

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Cooling towers of a nuclear power plant in Cattenom, France

In 1942, Enrico Fermi created the first nuclear reactor.[1] Soon many countries became attracted to nuclear power due to two main reasons: the amount of energy that can be produced from nuclear fission, and the reduction in air pollutants that are associated with fossil fuels.[2] Support for nuclear power across the world was extremely high through the mid 1970’s when in 1979 and 1986 the Three Mile Island accident and Chernobyl nuclear disasters occurred, respectively [3] Since these incidents, the general population's support and perceptions of nuclear power varies from country to country.

Popular PerceptionsEdit

At the time of Enrico Fermi's work, perceptions of nuclear power were favorable. Nuclear power promised limitless power without the air pollutants associated with conventional electricity generation.[4] In 1945, the nuclear attack on Japan significantly changed the climate for the nuclear power industry. The world watched as the terrifying power of nuclear technology was fully realized. The perceptions following the nuclear attacks can be clearly seen in the popular culture at the time. In 1953, the science fiction film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was released in the U.S. The following year, Godzilla and Them! were released in Japan and the U.S., respectively. All three films echoed many people's fear surrounding the uncertainty, risks, and dangers that nuclear power held.

This negative perception of nuclear power was recognized by President Eisenhower. President Eisenhower establish the Atoms For Peace program, which dedicated the U.S. to peaceful uses of nuclear technology and distributed information and materials to schools, hospitals, and research institutions within the U.S. and throughout the world. Through this program the perceptions of nuclear power gradually began to shift, and these changes were again reflected in the popular culture of the 1960s. Spiderman and the British television show Thunderbirds showed that nuclear power could be used for good, whether it was through fighting evil with powers given from a radioactive spider or powering vehicles with nuclear energy.

The Three Mile Island nuclear generating station

The early to mid 1970's was a favorable period for nuclear power. However, the Three Mile Island incident would once again change the public opinion. On August 16, 1979 The China Syndrome was released in the U.S. The movie depicts a nuclear facility cover-up of safety issues. The movie comments that a resulting meltdown would render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable. Twelve days later there was an accident at the nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, PA. One article claimed the accident showed that, despite 30 years experience, people still didn’t know how to respond to the unexpected. [5] Another news article expresses a growing distrust of experts, claiming that they have the largest stake in the industry.[6] A minority opinion in the press was that of a spokesman for the nuclear power industry, who claimed that the accident proved the safety of power plants since the failsafe system successfully shut down the plant in time to avoid a catastrophe.[7]

In 1985, nuclear power is again depicted in the media as a solution to problems rather than a thing to be feared with the release of the film Back to the Future, in which a time machine is powered by a nuclear core. Yet, the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant would again produce negative perceptions surrounding nuclear technology. In the Soviet Union there was no public outcry against nuclear power, attributed to the communist government prohibiting public statements against nuclear power rather than with a genuine pro-nuclear power sentiment.[8] However, the rest of the world reacted very strongly. Finland and Denmark picked up increased radiation levels, the latter indicating that radiation blew suddenly from Ukraine over much of Scandinavia. Sweden was the most outspoken about the event, criticizing the Soviets, and demanding that the Soviets improve their safety standards.[9]

Perceptions regarding nuclear power again changed in the late 1980's through the early 2000's. Safety surrounding nuclear technology was viewed as a non-issue. One example of this perception can be seen in the 1989 U.S TV show The Simpsons. In 1994, the media pointed out that nuclear power had never caused any harm in the U.S. It added that nuclear power was the most cost effective energy source available. This showed that the fear over safety wasn’t prevalent anymore. [10] Referring to Three Mile Island, the news in 1999 claimed the tragedy was the resulting public opinion, and not any harm caused by the accident itself. [11] In 2006, there was a similarly retrospective report. Looking back at the accident at Chernobyl 20 years earlier, it was noticed that none of the predicted catastrophes occurred. Only 56 people died as a direct result of radiation. New research suggested that low radiation levels actually boosted genes that protected people from cancer, as opposed to the prevailing public belief that all radiation was carcinogenic. [12] The popular opinion of nuclear power has changed frequently since its invention, but the current opinion is that the environmental risks of traditional power generation greatly outweigh the safety risks of nuclear power.

Case StudiesEdit

United StatesEdit

Popular perceptions of nuclear power in the U.S. are very closely tied to the historical context in which it has developed.[2] Nuclear power was expected to bring about the cheapest form of energy, to replace coal as the primary source for electricity generation, and to provide a substantial share of the electricity needs in the world. The early years of nuclear energy in the U.S. was characterized by rapid growth of power plant construction but was accompanied by expanding concerns for reactor safety. Nuclear power grew steadily until the mid-1970s, at which point a number of forces began to slow it's progress. These forces included accelerating costs, siting challenges, and construction delays, and were driven by unanticipated public resistance. This public resistance was heightened in 1979 by the partial nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, and was tied to perceptions of reactor safety, nuclear waste disposal, and distrust in the nuclear establishment. [13]

While the U.S. is currently the largest producer of nuclear energy in the world, with 104 power plants producing over 800 billion kilowatt hours [2] no new U.S. nuclear plant has been ordered in the U.S. since 1978 and no U.S. reactor has been completed since 1996. Several companies have announced plans to apply for license for a total of 34 new nuclear power plants. In addition, substantial federal nuclear incentives were included in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT). These include $3 billion in R&D, more than $3 billion in construction subsidies for new nuclear plants, $6 billion in operating tax credits, a 20-year extension of liability caps for nuclear accidents, and federal loan guarantees for nuclear plant construction."[14]

In a study conducted by Bisconti Research, Inc. 2101 people that lived within 50 miles of a nuclear power facility were surveyed and compared to the opinions of 600 people from a national random sample. This study found that with the exception of Idaho, populations near nuclear facilities are more likely to worry about accidents than the national population. Additionally, the national population and those located near nuclear facilities noted nuclear accidents as a concern less often than six other environmental issues. The study also found that there is a great deal of trust in regulatory parties amongst all populations. [15]


Perceptions in Sweden surrounding nuclear technology have changed drastically overtime. In 1972, the Association of Swedish Power Companies proposed a plan to build 26 by 1990. The majority party, the Social Democrats, were in favor of this plan. They believed that nuclear power was an environmentally beneficial and a less expensive source of energy, as compared to other sources. By 1975, large opposition to nuclear technology emerged. The Centre Party strongly advocated for the abandonment of nuclear power. They argued that nuclear technology posed a large-scale disaster threat and no system to handle the radioactive waste existed. These fears ran deep with rural and environmentally-minded urban middle class voters.[16] The Three Mile accident in 1979 increased the public’s fears. Hypothetical concerns surrounding large-scale disasters had become a reality.[17]

Afraid of losing more power to the Centre Party, the Social Democrats proposed the 1980 nuclear power referendum. As a result of the referendum, the Swedish government set a goal to have all reactors closed down by 2010.[18] [19] The Swedish government passed energy bills in 1991 and 1997 that continued to show support and plan for the phase out of nuclear plants. However, an independent study conducted by the Energy Commission in 1993 showed that it was economically feasible for four plants to be shut down by 2010 but the closure of all twelve nuclear plants by 2010 would result in “grave repercussions” for the Swedish economy. [16] While the Swedish government pushes for phase out, the public pushes to halt the phase out. Since Chernobyl in 1986, the public’s support for nuclear power has steadily increased [19] [16] and the number of people who support the early decommissioning of existing power stations has decreased. [19] The public no longer fears the certain safety issues that it once did in the 1970s. Since 1980 the numbers of individuals who feel that Sweden does not have the means to safety manage and properly dispose of nuclear waste has decreased from a moderately high risk to a moderately low risk. Many Swedes currently feel that there is a moderately low risk of a major nuclear accident occurring at a Swedish power plant.[20]

A survey conducted by Hedberg and Holmberg [20] indicated that in 2009, 25% of individuals felt that it was neither a good nor a bad idea for Sweden to phase out nuclear power in the long term. The number of individuals who felt that this was a good idea and a bad idea were split almost equally— 37% and 34%, respectively. These percentages echoed what Hedberg and Holmberg found in 2006 through 2008 as well. In addition, the number of individuals who feel that phasing out nuclear power in the long term was a good idea has gradually decreased since 1998 when 47% of individuals shared those sentiments. Hedberg and Holmberg also reported that only 52% of individuals in 2009 had confidence in the Swedish government regarding information concerning energy and nuclear power. While this number is low it has gradually increased from 2005 when only 28% of individuals had confidence in the government. Even more shocking is that only 46% of individual in 2009 also had confidence in the nuclear industry regarding information concerning energy and nuclear power. This is compared to 63% of individual who had confidence in environmental organizations and 84% in researchers. The surprisingly low levels of confidence in the government and nuclear industry and the high levels of confidence in environmental organizations and researchers have held steady since the early 1990s. [20]

Due to the growing support and interest in nuclear power the Swedish government has decided that while new sites may not be developed for nuclear power plants, new reactors may be developed on an existing site. When faced with the question as to whether to build a new nuclear plant or extend the life of an existing one, regulatory constraints and the lower costs of maintaining and existing plant make building new nuclear plants not a current economically viable option. [19] The current Swedish policies make hydropower and wind power the cheapest alternative to fossil fuels. [19] [16]

Conclusion and Generalizable LessonsEdit

Examining popular perceptions of nuclear technology throughout the world has lead to three conclusions. Firstly, public perceptions of technology can often have a larger global impact than the technology itself. Secondly, popular culture can be a reflection of the public opinion regarding a technology. Finally, media and popular culture can be used to shift the balance of power between social groups. These lessons are very valuable to understand when examining the interface of society and technology.


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