Nuclear reactors can provide low-carbon energy, and advanced nuclear technologies could play an important role in moving the United States toward a zero-carbon future. Next-generation nuclear reactors have the potential to be smaller, safer, less expensive to build, and better integrated with the modern grid. However, the technical, economic, and regulatory outlook for these technologies remains uncertain. The Committee on Laying the Foundation for New and Advanced Nuclear Reactors in the United States was convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to identify opportunities and barriers to the commercialization of new and advanced nuclear reactor technologies in the United States over the next 30 years as part of a decarbonization strategy.
To support its information gathering, the committee convened a workshop on September 1–3, 2021, titled Understanding the Societal Challenges Facing Nuclear Power. Speakers and participants from industry, government, and academia discussed the nature and extent of the societal challenges facing nuclear energy as well as lessons from past experiences in the nuclear industry, from analogous industries, and from the social sciences. The workshop had three aims: First, to hear from experts in the social sciences on the underlying roots of social attitudes and opposition to nuclear power. Second, to outline how engagement with the public ought to be done so that low-carbon infrastructure projects stand a higher likelihood of successful execution. Third, to determine whether the current wave of new and advanced reactor developers have internalized the failures of the past and are
now approaching public engagement more effectively.1 Several key challenges emerged across the 3-day workshop:
- The challenge of rigorous and honest public discourse to identify and respond to the concerns of multiple communities: Citizens have legitimate concerns about where and how nuclear reactors generate power, whether they are safe, and what will happen to used fuel. Those in the industry have concerns about safety, economic viability, and profitability. The potential role of nuclear power in the future energy mix and in the context of climate change is a consideration for all sides. Many workshop participants emphasized the essential role of public engagement in the future of nuclear energy. Drawing from previous examples of public engagement around siting nuclear facilities, along with lessons from other industries, workshop participants discussed strategies for productive, meaningful exchange with a variety of stakeholders.
- The challenge to reconcile the unpopular aspects of nuclear power: These include the connections of nuclear power to weapons and warfare, nuclear waste, uranium ore extraction, and past reactor accidents.
- The challenge to build, keep, and regain trust: Examples from the nuclear industry, nuclear regulators, and other fields demonstrate that trust is hard to win and easily lost. Workshop participants examined how factors such as polarization, uncertainty, and inequity undermine trust, in addition to the particular challenges stemming from the nuclear industry’s various negative associations listed in the preceding list item.
Many workshop sessions focused on lessons from previous experiences in nuclear energy. Speakers examined how public perceptions of nuclear technology have evolved over the past 70 years in response to cultural shifts, economic drivers, and events, such as accidents, that have shaken public confidence in the nuclear industry and associated regulatory structures. They also reviewed recent successes in gaining support for siting nuclear waste facilities in Europe and investing in new nuclear energy facilities in the United States. These explorations revealed some common themes—for example, the tendency for people to be most accepting of nuclear facilities in places where nuclear facilities already exist. Speakers also offered cautions, particularly regarding the risks of overstating any of the potential safety or economic advantages of nuclear
power. These issues can undermine trust—for example, if a plant turns out to cost more than anticipated—or contribute to an inflated sense of confidence and lead to weakened safeguards, especially in developing countries.
Other sessions drew insights from experiences with other contentious or highly scrutinized fields. In particular, speakers detailed strategies that have been used to navigate public distrust or debate in the aviation industry and in the siting of wind and solar farms. In the discussions, participants also identified potential lessons from examples in other areas such as nanotechnology, fracking, and COVID-19 vaccination campaigns. One key theme, illustrated especially in the context of aviation, is the notion that demonstrated safety through long periods of safe operation in conjunction with low probabilities of accident is key to earning public trust. Often, the effort to build and maintain trust faces substantial headwinds, including the high impact of any missteps or accidents and active opposition and even disinformation campaigns that polarize communities. Participants discussed approaches for the nuclear industry to facilitate productive exchange, even with staunch opponents of nuclear technologies, by investing in meaningful engagement rather than relying on the expectation of acceptance. Speakers explored how giving critics opportunities to learn more about the issues, such as through independently funded research, can help to bridge divides, as can prioritizing justice in the processes used to gain community buy-in and inform decisions.
Participants also examined theory and scholarship from the field of science and technology studies that can help enhance understanding of public perspectives regarding nuclear energy, as well as the inextricably political nature of public perspectives. Speakers explored how the public’s perceptions of nuclear energy tap into deep-seated feelings such as a revulsion to pollution, the fear of annihilation, and the challenges of interpreting risk. The history of nuclear power is entwined with that of nuclear warfare, and opposition to nuclear technologies is also entwined with movements to fight pollution. While nuclear power represents a low-carbon energy solution, there are long-standing tensions between groups that support nuclear power and groups that support efforts to mitigate climate change. Participants discussed the insufficiency of the knowledge deficit model—the notion that skepticism about science or technology can be overcome with more information—in addressing disconnects between nuclear engineers and the public. Several speakers asserted that skepticism about nuclear technologies cannot be addressed by simply providing more information, or by better marketing, but instead requires a responsive process of listening to communities and addressing what people care about. Participants also noted that public opinions are not immovable but can evolve in response to changing conditions—for example, people who
previously opposed nuclear power out of a fear of pollution may become more open to the idea if they value climate mitigation and see nuclear energy as a means to achieve that.
Given the complex history of nuclear energy and perceptions of it, participants throughout the workshop stressed the need for effective strategies for science communication and public engagement. Speakers pointed to insights from the social sciences and the discipline of science communication for conveying complex or emotionally charged scientific information, including the value of identifying the facts people need to inform decisions, understanding what they already know, filling knowledge gaps, and evaluating impacts to support continuous improvement. Participants also explored the importance of good leadership to help communities grapple with difficult issues, create a culture of respectful collaboration, and build a strong, trusted social infrastructure.
However, several participants posited that better communication about nuclear technologies does not solve the core question of where nuclear energy fits in the broader picture of choices about the energy system. Several speakers urged a focus not only on how or where to deploy advanced nuclear technologies but also on whether to deploy them at all, including an examination of their advantages and disadvantages relative to other energy options. Participants stressed that when the siting of a nuclear facility is being explored or pursued, public engagement should be a crucial part of the process, and that this requires being willing to listen and respond to communities’ concerns. There are no shortcuts to cultivating inclusivity, building trust, and respecting community voices; speakers stressed that public engagement takes a large investment of time, resources, processes, and leadership. Last, speakers discussed the interaction between national policy, regulatory structures, and public engagement. While the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is clearly a key stakeholder in ensuring the safety of nuclear energy, participants expressed a range of ideas regarding the organization’s role in advancing community engagement around nuclear energy.