To set the stage, the first workshop session, moderated by Ahmed Abdulla, Carleton University, focused on describing past and present public associations and perceptions of nuclear energy in the United States and globally. The speakers were Thomas R. Wellock, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC); Spencer R. Weart, American Institute of Physics (retired); and M.V. Ramana, University of British Columbia.
STRATEGIES OF TRUST IN THE FIRST NUCLEAR ERA
Thomas R. Wellock, Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Wellock described three distinct strategies the nuclear industry and regulators have pursued to gain public trust since the beginning of the nuclear era, which he characterized as “trust the experts,” “trust the numbers,” and “earning trust.”
Trust the Experts (1950s–1970)
The early part of the nuclear era was characterized by a general assumption that the American public recognized the expertise of nuclear industry experts and trusted their judgments. However, there was an inherent conflict in the two main roles of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) during this period: promoting nuclear energy while ensuring reactor safety. Nuclear energy was promoted through one-way public education campaigns that stressed the safety of nuclear power and emphasized
how reactor designs prevent most accidents and contain any mishaps that occur (Hogerton 1964).
Initially, public hearings for new nuclear reactors were rare because they were not required. This changed after a construction permit was issued for the Fermi 1 liquid sodium fast breeder reactor near Detroit, a facility whose design had been criticized, leading to public outcry. After that, more of the licensing and construction process was made public, but industry and pro-nuclear elected officials welcomed public hearings, believing that more information would only reassure the public. However, the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards in the mid-1960s concluded that scaled-up plants had the potential to release radioactivity outside the existing containment strategies in the event of a core meltdown. This forced the AEC to admit that a nuclear disaster—while statistically unlikely—was, in fact, possible, causing public trust to decline as critics of nuclear power highlighted this vulnerability (Mazuzan and Walker 1984; Walker 1992; Wellock 2021).
Trust the Numbers (1970–1979)
In response to the public’s declining trust in nuclear experts, and against a backdrop of broader social upheavals during the tumult of the 1960s, industry and government leaders shifted to a focus on statistics to convince the public of the safety of nuclear power. The AEC widely promoted statistics demonstrating that the risks associated with nuclear power were much lower than the risks of other, more widely accepted activities, such as air travel (NRC 1975).
The public did not respond favorably to this approach, an attitude that was further cemented when the study methodology behind the statistics was later shown to be problematic. At the same time, the AEC’s messages were being undermined in public debates and licensing hearings, which were giving those opposed to plant construction more opportunities to air their concerns over safety. Politicians began to grow wary of building new plants against the wishes of their electorate. At the same time, the National Environmental Policy Act forced the AEC to take environmental responsibility much more seriously.
In the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, the AEC was replaced by the NRC, whose role was not to promote nuclear power to a skeptical public but to ensure reactor safety. However, by this time those opposed to nuclear power had shifted away from lobbying federal officials, preferring instead to convince local and state officials to either erect barriers against new nuclear facilities or allow the public to decide via referenda. These campaigns were often successful, and many planned facilities were scrapped.
Earning Trust (1979–Present)
The Three Mile Island accident in 1979 further harmed public trust and sparked a transition from asserting safety claims to earning back trust. This phase has been characterized by an emphasis on safety, efficiency, and competence. During this period, Wellock said, the nuclear industry has prioritized strong regulatory compliance and high-level operational performance—as opposed to public education campaigns—as the best way to earn the public’s trust. For its part, the NRC established its Principles of Good Regulation: independence, openness, efficiency, clarity, and reliability. Essentially, the present strategy is to hope that the industry’s long, documented safety history can rebuild public trust in a nuclear energy future, Wellock concluded.
DEATH RAYS: THE HISTORY OF NUCLEAR FEAR
Spencer R. Weart, American Institute of Physics (Retired)
Upon its discovery in 1900, radium immediately became a worldwide sensation. Framed as a sort of modern-day alchemy, the element was said to give scientists unlimited power and offer an “elixir of life” that was incorporated into many consumer products (The New York Times 1911). Soon, however, people perceived a dark side to this seemingly all-powerful force, leading to associations with the trope of the “mad scientist,” a figure corrupted by the power of atomic energy who uses it to unleash terror on the world. Books and movies explored the notion that exploiting atomic energy for weapons would lead to the apocalypse.
After seeing the devastation wrought by atomic bombs at the end of World War II, and later upon the advent of the even more powerful hydrogen bomb, concerns about the dangers of nuclear weapons moved from science fiction to scientific reality. The image of nuclear power was entwined with the death and desolation caused by nuclear weapons. In the 1950s, the U.S. government tried to counter this fear with optimism, emphasizing the safety of nuclear power and promoting the notion that atomic energy could be harnessed for good in energy production, agriculture, and the maintenance of global peace. However, its secretive, “Father knows best” attitude ultimately backfired, Weart said, and the public outrage over nuclear fallout led to widespread distrust of the AEC and fueled global protests against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
In the face of this opposition, the United States reduced the visibility of its nuclear weapons programs. Although the public’s focus
shifted away from nuclear weapons by the 1960s, negative sentiment persisted, and many still fervently protested nuclear energy. This opposition, brought to a head after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, was framed in terms of two factors: safety and pollution. In addition to concerns over catastrophic accidents, the focus on pollution tapped into a visceral sense of revulsion and the idea that a tiny particle of nuclear waste could cause environmental harm across large distances and on long timescales.
In the past couple of decades, the presence of nuclear energy or weapons in popular culture has been characterized by either a distanced, ironic reflection on earlier fears or the serious fear of nuclear terrorism, Weart said. Although the 2011 Fukushima accident raised awareness of the dangers of nuclear power, Weart expressed his view there is an important misalignment between perceptions and reality in the public mind when it comes to weighing the dangers of nuclear energy against the dangers of fossil fuels. The Fukushima accident brought fear of catastrophic nuclear accidents to the fore. It resulted in zero deaths from radiation, but thousands forced to evacuate, and the shutdown of reactors around the world in response to the event led to a dramatic increase in fossil fuel use that is estimated to have contributed to some 30,000 premature deaths from air pollution thus far. In addition to the clear health dangers of air pollution from fossil fuel use, Weart noted that “the policy decisions we make in this decade will determine the planet’s climate for the next 10,000 years.” Yet, perceptions of fossil fuels have not tapped into our fears of unchecked power and apocalypse, or a visceral sense of disgust, in the same way that nuclear energy has throughout its history. Despite the science indicating that climate change has a high chance of causing widespread disruptions and some chance of causing “apocalyptic” changes, Weart said, “we haven’t gotten properly scared of climate change.”
THE NUCLEAR INDUSTRY’S RECORD OF PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT
M.V. Ramana, University of British Columbia
Ramana argued that the nuclear industry, governments, and institutions associated with nuclear power have historically oversold nuclear energy and its safety. He discussed the ramifications of this history in the context of global implementation and emerging nuclear technologies.
A History of Propaganda
Ramana said that the nuclear industry and governments have created propaganda painting nuclear energy—often inaccurately—as essential, cheap, and safe. Since its inception, proponents of nuclear power have framed it as essential to meeting energy needs (Charpie 1995; Dominiczak 2013). More recently, some have argued that nuclear power is the only cost-effective energy alternative that can address climate change (Blix 2019; Spencer 2021). Affordability is another frequent theme. Ramana said that many claims about the cost of nuclear power have been proven false (Fertel 2006; Alexander 2010; EDF 2020), particularly with regard to the costs of constructing new facilities (Clements 2021).
Safety has been a common area of focus throughout the history of nuclear power. The industry and governments have repeatedly stressed that nuclear energy is safe, and Ramana said that when accidents happen, they are often downplayed, denied, or said to be impossible to occur again (Bose 2011; Edwards 2011). Ramana cautioned that such overconfidence can lead to poor design choices, inadequate safety studies, and lax safety practices (Reason 2000), particularly for countries such as India that largely still espouse a “trust the experts” attitude toward public engagement (Hindustan Times 2011; Ramgarh 2021).
Implications for Decision Making
Ramana discussed how these themes play into discussions of small modular reactors (SMRs) as a major direction for the future of nuclear power, as well as how these issues relate to decisions around building new nuclear power plants, particularly in developing countries. Like previous nuclear technologies, he cautioned that SMRs will generate expensive electricity and have safety risks. He noted that they produce more waste than large reactors per unit of electricity generated and also require weapons-level amounts of fissile materials (Glaser et al. 2013). The safety of any nuclear plant depends heavily on the organization running it, which must balance safety needs with cost, speed, and regulatory compliance (La Porte 1996). This can pose particular concerns in places with weaker oversight mechanisms. Last, Ramana stressed that nuclear power plants have complicated structural features and internal interactions that make it hard to identify—and protect against—all conceivable accident pathways (Perrow 1984; Kumar and Ramana 2008; Bilham and Gaur 2011; Ramana 2011; Downer and Ramana 2020).
Following the speakers’ remarks, Abdulla moderated a discussion that covered issues of public trust and future areas of focus.
Regaining Public Trust
Panelists discussed the challenges of regaining public trust once it is lost, and whether there are process improvements that could help. Wellock said that, based on past experience, public hearings have generally not been an effective mechanism for engendering public trust in nuclear energy. During plant licensing hearings, for example, the public often has felt muzzled while the industry felt forced into debating technical issues with unqualified outsiders. Although they have been successful
in raising safety concerns in some cases, the debates are not seen as useful in uncovering “truths” about who was right. Wellock added that the U.S. decentralized system, with local, state, and federal levels of decision making and approval, further compounds the challenges of achieving broad public agreement on contentious issues.
Ramana agreed that regaining trust is challenging, especially when governments approach public engagement with a predetermined goal of building more plants. A better approach, he suggested, would be to narrow the debate to one proposed plant, acknowledge the chance of an accident (even if the likelihood is low), outline the benefits, and then actually listen to public feedback. However, he expressed skepticism that governments will move in this direction. “In many cases, if the government is promoting nuclear power and wants to expand nuclear power fast, they … have no incentive to actually make the process more fair and more deliberative,” he said.1 Alison Macfarlane, University of British Columbia, said that open, public discussion is essential to building public support, and pointed to the Canadian government’s approach to nuclear waste as a good example. There, she said the government is asking the public to share their ideas and opinions with no presumed conclusions.
Asked whether other industries offer examples of how to regain public trust, Wellock noted that the airline industry has been successful in regaining public trust only through long stretches without major accidents. He suggested that extended safe operation is the best way for the nuclear industry to earn public support, although he noted that public trust can be easily lost again when things go wrong. Abdulla suggested that nuclear power may have a higher hill to climb in terms of building public trust compared to other technologies, such as aviation or medical advances, in part because the benefits are less visible in people’s everyday lives, while the risks are more obvious.
The rejection of a new nuclear project is a disappointment for the industry broadly, Abdulla noted. Wellock added that most plants are rejected or closed for economic reasons, and that frequent cost overruns, combined with past accidents such as Three Mile Island and Fukushima, weaken the argument that nuclear power is inevitable or essential. Ramana agreed that economics is important: if plants do not deliver on their promised economic benefits, it undermines public support. On the flip side, Weart said that following through on promises by building reactors at cost and on time can help to build trust and resolve debates.
Richard Meserve, Covington & Burling, LLP, asked what the NRC can do to increase public confidence in its decision-making process. Noting
that the NRC has long grappled with transparency, Wellock stressed the importance of clear, effective communication about decision making and safety assessments. Communicating about low-probability, high-consequence risk remains a particular challenge, but making safety information more accessible to the public could help. Weart posited that the problem arises in part from a communication disconnect between more logically oriented engineers, who focus on statistics, and a more emotionally oriented public, influenced by disturbing photos or disaster scenarios for which the nuclear industry has not offered a satisfying answer. Another issue that has gone unaddressed is the link between expanding nuclear energy and expanding access to nuclear weapons, in particular for nuclear terrorism, about which governments and the public are justifiably nervous, he noted.
Future Areas of Focus
Moving forward, Weart posited that the public’s willingness to embrace nuclear energy will be directly related to the public’s fear of climate change. However, Ramana stated that choosing between nuclear energy and fossil fuels is a false choice when other viable low-carbon alternatives exist. Michael Ford, Argonne National Laboratory, countered that the impacts of other renewable technologies related to waste, land use, raw materials, and heavy manufacturing are often overlooked, giving them a “free pass” in terms of the public discourse.
Abdulla and Richard Cupitt, Stimson Center, asked Ramana about the role of SMRs in the global energy future. He noted that most countries would want to customize SMRs to suit their specific needs and capabilities, but there is a tension inherent in the fact that SMRs are designed in developed countries for implementation in developing countries, which may not have the expertise to make modifications or ensure safe operations. He speculated that there will be little appetite for being the “guinea pig” for these emerging technologies; as such, he suggested that deploying SMRs in the United States and Canada first to demonstrate their safety would increase other countries’ confidence in them.
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