What's behind our conflicted feelings on nukes?
Thursday, March 24, 2011; 3:26 PM
WASHINGTON -- Nuclear radiation, invisible and insidious, gives us the creeps. Even before the Japanese nuclear crisis, Americans were bombarded with contradictory images and messages that frighten even when they try to reassure. It started with the awesome and deadly mushroom cloud rising from the atomic bomb, which led to fallout shelters and school duck-and-cover drills.
On screen, Bert, the ever-alert turtle of the government civil-defense cartoons, told us all we needed to do was shield our eyes when the bomb exploded and duck under our desks. Jane Fonda in "The China Syndrome" told us to be worried about nuclear power accidents, and just days later, Three Mile Island seemed to prove her right. Now bumbling nuclear plant worker Homer Simpson, Blinky, the radiation-mutated, three-eyed fish, and evil nuclear power plant owner Montgomery Burns make us giggle and wince.
The experts tell us to be logical and not to worry, that nuclear power is safer than most technologies we readily accept. Producing and burning coal, oil and gas kill far more people through accidents and pollution each year.
But our perception of nuclear issues isn't about logic. It's about dread, magnified by arrogance in the nuclear industry, experts in risk and nuclear energy say.
"Whereas science is about analysis, risk resides in most of us as a gut feeling," said University of Oregon psychology professor and risk expert Paul Slovic. "Radiation really creates very strong feelings of fear - not really fear, I would say more anxiety and unease."
Some experts contend that when a disaster has potentially profound repercussions, we should pay attention to emotions as much as logic.
Nuclear energy hits all our hot buttons when we judge how risky something is: It's invisible. It's out of our control. It's manmade, high-tech and hard to understand. It's imposed on us, instead of something we choose. It's associated with major catastrophes, not small problems. And if something goes wrong, it can cause cancer - an illness we fear far more than a bigger killer like heart disease.
Thirty years ago, before the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Slovic took four groups of people and asked them to rate 30 risks. Two groups - the League of Women Voters and college students - put nuclear power as the biggest risk, ahead of things that are deadlier, such as cars, handguns and cigarettes. Business club members ranked nuclear power as the eighth risk out of 30. Risk experts put it at 20.
The only fear that Slovic has seen as comparable in his studies to nuclear power is terrorism.
A Pew Research Center poll after the Japanese nuclear crisis found support for increased nuclear power melting down. Last October the American public was evenly split over an expansion of nuclear power; now it's 39 percent in favor and 52 percent opposed.
"Nuclear radiation carries a very powerful stigma. It has automatic negative associations: cancer, bombs, catastrophes," said David Ropeik who teaches risk communications at Harvard University. You can't separate personal feelings from the discussion of actual risks, said Ropeik, author of the book "How Risky Is it, Really?"
But Ropeik, who has consulted for the nuclear industry, said those fears aren't nearly as justified as other public health concerns. He worries that the public will turn to other choices, such as fossil fuels, which are linked to more death and climate change than the nuclear industry is. He cites one government study that says 24,000 Americans die each year from air pollution and another that says fossil fuel power plants are responsible for about one-seventh of that.