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.
The experts tell us to be logical and not to worry, that nuclear power is safer than most technologies we readily accept. 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.
Japan Earthquake Nuclear Crisis
In this image made off Japan’s NTV/NNN Japan television footage, smoke ascends from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant’s Unit 3 in Okumamachi, Fukushima Prefecture, northern Japan, Monday, March 14, 2011. The second hydrogen explosion in three days rocked Japan’s stricken nuclear plant Monday, sending a massive column of smoke into the air and wounding 11 workers. (AP Photo/NTV/NNN Japan)
“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.”
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 expanding nuclear power; now it’s 39 percent in favor, 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.
At the same time, health researchers have not tied any U.S. deaths to 1979’s Three Mile Island accident. United Nations agencies put the death toll from Chernobyl at 4,000 to 9,000, with anti-nuclear groups contending the number is much higher.
Since 2000, more than 1,300 American workers have died in coal, oil and natural gas industry accidents, according to federal records. Radiological accidents have killed no one at U.S. nuclear plants during that time, and nuclear power has one of the lowest industrial accident rates in the country, the Nuclear Energy Institute said.
Ropeik calls this mismatch between statistics and feelings “a classic example of how public policy gets made — not about the numbers alone, but how we feel about them, and it ends up doing us more harm.”
Alan Kolaczkowski, a retired nuclear engineer, faulted his own industry.
“Those in the industry believe it is so complex it cannot be explained to the general public, so, as a result, the industry has a trust-me attitude, and that only goes so far.”