When people express their nuclear hatred, they usually argue about: the dangers from radiation leaks, the risk of weapons proliferation, the nuclear waste problem, that nuclear power is too expensive and in any case we just don't need it!
None of these reasons have solid scientific backing. If they did, countries around the world (like USA, UK, France, Finland, Russia, China, India, South Korea, UAE) would not continue to build new nuclear power plants to supply their growing need for energy.
So what is going on?
I have recently read David Ropeik's book How Risky Is It, Really?, (2010 McGraw-Hill) and it could provide an explanation.
Ropeik is a consultant in risk perception and introduces us to the psychology of fear. He looks at why our fears don't always match the facts. He provides an in-depth view of our perceptions of risk and the hidden factors that make us unnecessarily afraid of relatively small threats and not afraid enough of the bigger ones. He introduces the important concept of the Perception Gap – the potentially dangerous distance between our fears and the facts. We need to recognize this gap if we are to reduce it and make healthier choices for ourselves, our families, and society.
Risk Perception Factors
Ropeik explores a number of what he calls Risk Perception Factors. These factors can make fear either go up or down. Usually more than one factor is involved in our overall perception of a threat. Below I list some of the key factors and provide my examples of how these factors could have impacted attitudes towards nuclear energy over the last few decades.
1. Trust – Who is on our side and who is not. This was clearly lacking in the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident where Tepco, the plant operator, was accused of covering up the extent of the accident consequentially increasing fear.
2. Risk versus Benefit – A clear example is the trade off between the perceived risks of nuclear energy v. the known ability of nuclear power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the health risks from burning fossil fuels.
3. Control – The more control we think we have, the safer we feel. If there is a radiation leak from a nuclear reactor, then those who are potentially exposed, who typically don't understand the degree of risk and certainly can't control the 'fallout', feel a loss of control which naturally increases their fear.
4. Choice – If the risk is something you've chosen to take then you will have less fear. In Finland, the siting of a nuclear waste facility was at the veto of the local communities – they made the choice. It was very different at Yucca Mountain. So the Fins welcomed the waste facility but the residents of Nevada feared for their safety.
5. Is the risk natural or man-made? – solar radiation is natural, nuclear energy radiation is man-made so we fear nuclear radiation and welcome solar radiation. In fact solar radiation is more dangerous than nuclear radiation.
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