Nuclear energy could play an important role in moving towards net-zero carbon emissions, but societal acceptance is a critically important factor. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine held a workshop in September 2021 to explore societal challenges facing nuclear power. The workshop examined the nuclear industry’s history of public engagement, lessons learned from siting facilities in other industries, and best practices for community outreach from the social sciences.
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This workshop explored the different strategies the nuclear industry and regulators have pursued to gain public trust since the beginning of the nuclear era.
Thomas Wellock, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 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.”
Spencer Weart, American Institute of Physics (retired), discussed the evolution of the public’s perception of nuclear concepts as revealed by popular culture from the early 20th century through the present day.
M.V. Ramana, University of British Columbia, argued that the nuclear industry, governments, and institutions 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.
Nuclear vs. Low-Carbon Alternatives
While some feel the public would be more willing to embrace nuclear energy to address concerns about climate change, others feel that the decision between nuclear energy and fossil fuels is a false choice given the availability of other low-carbon energy alternatives. The impacts of renewable technologies related to waste, land use, raw materials, and heavy manufacturing are often overlooked, giving them a “free pass” in terms of public discourse.
Implementing Small Modular Reactors
Small modular reactors (SMRs) are being designed in developed countries largely for implementation in developing countries that may not have the expertise to ensure safe operations. There may be little appetite for testing these emerging technologies unless they’ve been first been safely deployed in U.S. and Canada.
Social and decision sciences play a critical role in how nuclear power is perceived and can strongly influence acceptance and decision making.
Baruch Fischhoff, Carnegie Mellon University, described that how someone encounters nuclear energy—whether through the news, their work, or a social movement—shapes their opinion of its risks and, with it, the shifting level of overall public goodwill.
Nick Pidgeon, Cardiff University, discussed the evolution of public views toward nuclear power and lessons from community engagement experiences, particularly in the U.K.
Seth Tuler, Worchester Polytechnic Institute, discussed how experiences in nuclear waste siting decisions shed light on effective strategies for meaningful public engagement.
During the discussion, the speakers agreed that there is no one attitude toward nuclear power; demographics, values, or context can shift perceptions and create “reluctant acceptance.” For example, in the early 2000s, proponents in the U.K. and U.S. sought to reframe nuclear power as important for fighting climate change and achieving energy security, arguing that nuclear energy could be a path to self-sufficiency, reliability, and sustainability. This effort successfully, if slowly, raised the public’s acceptance of nuclear power, although qualitative interviews revealed the public continued to be skeptical that the experts truly understood the risks.
Speakers noted that it can be particularly challenging to engage the public around emerging technologies that still have many unknowns. In these cases, it is important to anticipate designs, use, consequences, and public acceptance to start a respectful discussion. Insights from the social sciences can help to craft policies, decisions, and communication, and added that it is important to establish shared definitions for terms like “opposition” and “acceptance.” Just as there is no public consensus on nuclear energy, there is also rarely public agreement on where to site nuclear facilities. However, engaging the public in a meaningful, deliberate process may improve acceptance, even in the face of broader unresolved questions of what types of energy society wants.
As new technologies emerge, so too does scholarship around their consequences for society. The field of STS, which is the study of how societies understand themselves within a world informed by and dependent on science and technology, has evolved in close parallel with the nuclear energy field itself.
Sheila Jasanoff, Harvard University, described how nuclear risk can be viewed through two distinct analytic lenses: the technocratic approach (risk quantification) and the social-cultural approach (considers how culture and variety of other factors affect risk recognition).
Andrew Stirling, University of Sussex, described how the field of STS has demonstrated that information about nuclear power that is presented as sound, evidence-based science and policy is in fact quite political. For example, he said that estimates of reactor reliability or energy costs have often been overly optimistic, and uncertainties have been seriously downplayed.
Benham Taebi, Delft University of Technology, discussed how ethical considerations inform discussions and decisions around nuclear energy. He stressed that ethical frameworks for nuclear energy exist to facilitate nuanced discussions, not create a wholesale endorsement or rejection. No energy source can be studied in isolation, and so nuclear energy must also be viewed relative to other options.
Pierre-Benoit Joly, French Institute for Research, and Innovation in Society, discussed how the field of nuclear energy represents a prime example of “technical democracy”— when experts and non-experts collaborate to address socio-technical controversies.
The panel worked to address what the field of STS tells us about the issues facing nuclear power. A significant topic of discussion was the knowledge deficit model, which posits that people are skeptical about technology because they do not understand it, and whether this can be overcome with more information.
Public opposition is not unique to nuclear energy. Other industries provide opportunities to better understand how to engage with the public.
David Victor, University of California, San Diego, shared lessons from his experience as chair of the volunteer community engagement panel Southern California Edison set up for the decommissioning process for its San Onofre nuclear power plant. He noted that even before a public engagement process begins, the makeup of the bodies involved can affect the effort’s success.
John Downer, University of Bristol, discussed how civil aviation and the civil nuclear industry are both reliant upon highly complex technical systems that are only safe when they are functioning exactly as they should. Therefore, both industries require ultra-high reliability that must be proven before the systems are even built, which is why their regulatory structures have co-evolved.
Sarah Mills, University of Michigan, described that while renewable energy projects in general are very popular, when it comes to getting local installations approved, there is often a lot of community debate that can result in projects being rejected. Mills described insights from studies of these debates that could offer lessons for nuclear energy.
Participants discussed the need for and nuances of ensuring procedural justice when siting facilities. In the case of wind and solar projects, it is often difficult to disentangle the effectiveness of actual community engagement from the reality that in many cases the landowners involved are being paid for their land and have a direct relationship with the developer.
The conversation also explored how the nuclear industry often wrongly sees public conflict as a communication issue, which creates multiple problems. First, it assumes that the public does not have valid arguments and forecloses any potential reconsideration of the plans. Second, it unfairly assumes the public is irrational.
Participants discussed how developers of new and advanced reactors can learn from past experiences with the public when siting waste facilities in Europe, including Sweden’s efforts to overcome opposition and gain the public trust needed to approve a nuclear waste repository site and the central role of public engagement in successful facility siting as illustrated in the example of waste facility siting in Belgium. The panel discussion addressed the challenges of giving up power to gain trust, dealing with uninformed critics, and finding consensus.
Arne Kaijser, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, discussed how developers of new and advanced reactors can learn from Sweden’s efforts to overcome opposition and gain the public trust needed to approve a nuclear waste repository site, using SKB in Sweden as an example. SKB contacted a lot of municipalities and sometimes was met with strong resistance; other times, they got quite far until residents voted against a waste facility in local referenda. SKB only found success with areas that already hosted a nuclear facility, where many locals worked and therefore already had a high level of trust in the industry. To these communities, nuclear was not seen as a new technology.
Anne Bergmans, University of Antwerp, discussed the central role of public engagement in successful facility siting as illustrated in the example of waste facility siting in Belgium. When local communities are not included in the discussion from the beginning, their understandably emotional reactions are viewed as irrational or uninformed.
What can we learn from nuclear waste siting? Successes and challenges
Speakers discussed lessons learned and examined best practices in public engagement and participation from ongoing activities related to nuclear energy.
Doug Hunter, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), offered lessons from the experience of UAMPS, an independent, project-based, voluntary, not-for-profit political subdivision of the state of Utah operating 49 energy utilities in seven states. UAMPS has spent decades informing communities about power production options and operations.
Mary Woollen, Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation, reflected on her extensive experience observing and participating in processes for siting nuclear facilities to draw out some best practices in public engagement. Despite the polarization around nuclear energy, she noted that it is still possible for public engagement to be civil and productive.
Christi Bell, University of Alaska Business Enterprise Institute, described her economic development experience, particularly with a project in partnership with Idaho National Laboratory examining the deployment of nuclear technology to highlight strategies for effective community engagement around proposed nuclear sites.
During the discussion, speakers explored how they have avoided repeating past mistakes. They agreed that there is no one set way to accomplish a goal, but before projects are executed, public meetings need to be thoughtfully planned to envision where the project is going, what the steps will be, where there may be unpredictable events, and what the potential reactions would be.
Nuclear reactors provide low-carbon energy, and advanced nuclear technologies could play an important role in moving the United States towards 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. This National Academies study will assess the future of new and advanced nuclear reactor technologies and identify the opportunities and barriers to commercialization.
This study is co-organized by the National Academy of Engineering as part of a National Academies' effort to explore the future of advanced nuclear energy. To receive the updates on study progress and upcoming meetings, please sign up for the study mailing list at nationalacademies.org/advancednuclear.
Expanding nuclear power generation, which currently accounts for 20% of electricity production in the United States, could play a role in a robust decarbonization strategy. However, many regulatory and economic challenges exist, and there is a need to better understand the risks and benefits of next-generation reactor technologies. The existing regulatory system focuses on light water reactors (LWRs), the only type of reactor currently in use at commercial nuclear power plants in the US. Many companies hope to commercialize new LWR reactor designs -- small modular reactors (SMR) -- within the next decade. Concurrently, many companies hope to commercialize advanced reactor concepts that are fundamentally different from the LWR design. Advanced reactors, sometimes called “fast” reactors, operate at higher temperatures, utilize innovative cooling media (e.g. gas, molten salt), and require different types of fuel. Advanced reactors can also be designed to be SMRs. This study will explore the technical, regulatory, and economic outlook of new and advanced reactors in order to guide further innovation and future governance surrounding these technologies.
The primary goal of the study is to complete a technical assessment of new and advanced reactors, and to identify challenges associated with commercialization and deployment. “New” reactors refer to Gen III+ designs, specifically small modular reactors (SMRs) based on mature light water reactor (LWR) technologies. “Advanced” reactors refer to Gen IV designs; below is a breakdown of the different nuclear reactor classifications and which types will be considered during the study.
The committee will meet throughout the study process. Committee meeting dates will be posted on this website and sent out in email notifications. You can sign up to receive study updates via email at the top of the page.
The study will be completed in early 2023.
All meetings in which the committee gathers information are open to the public. All meetings will be open via the web, and presentations will be recorded and posted to this website.
Yes. At information-gathering meetings, members of the public can present comments to the committee. Members of the public may also submit written statements and relevant information to the committee via the study’s website throughout the course of the study, and through emails addressed to email@example.com. All written comments and submitted materials will be shared with committee members and placed in the study’s public access file.
Selection of appropriate committee members is essential for the success of a study. One of the strengths of the National Academies is the tradition of bringing together recognized experts across many disciplines and facilitating collaboration. Careful steps are taken to convene diverse committees that have an appropriate range of expertise and represent a balance of perspectives. Stakeholders will have the opportunity to nominate potential committee members at the beginning of the study, and all nominations are carefully considered. Provisional committee members are screened for possible conflicts of interest. All committee members serve as individual experts, not as representatives of organizations or interest groups.
The committee will produce a consensus report with findings and recommendations that will undergo a rigorous external peer-review process. The final report will be directed at policy makers, industry, NGOs, the public, and the scientific community. These groups, including the U.S. Congress and the executive branch, will be briefed on the key messages of the report. Other derivative products and educational materials will be designed to communicate the report’s findings to stakeholders and non-specialist audiences.