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Communicating about Nuclear Energy and Climate Change

Summary and Keywords

In comparison to fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases, nuclear power plants are a cleaner energy source that could help to mitigate the problems of climate change. Despite this, the general public often associates nuclear energy with risks that include nuclear accidents, nuclear waste contamination, nuclear weapons proliferation, and many others. People’s experience with the 1979 Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania and the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine have caused a sharp decline in public support for nuclear energy over the past few decades. In addition, media images of the 2011 Fukushima-Daichii nuclear accident are still fresh in the minds of the public. These now iconic media images and portrayals have perpetuated a perception of nuclear energy as a risky technology.

Against these backdrops, scientists, communication practitioners and other key stakeholders increasingly face an uphill struggle to communicate about nuclear energy as a possible strategy for addressing climate change. Though the general public may reluctantly accept nuclear energy for climate change mitigation, research suggests that messages emphasizing the benefits of nuclear power for energy security and economic growth appear to have greater impact on public acceptance of the technology. Furthermore, public perception of nuclear energy is shaped by a host of other factors such as trust in nuclear governing institutions, knowledge, political inclinations, geographical proximity, and socio-demographic variables. At the same time, nuclear experts and the general public differ in their perceptions of risk, in nature and strength, relative to nuclear energy. Understanding these key differences between the experts and the public, and how beliefs, values, and perceptions influence public acceptance of nuclear energy is necessary to formulate effective public communication and engagement strategies.

Keywords: nuclear energy, public opinion, climate change, media, risk perception

Nuclear Energy: A Controversial Technology

Since a nuclear reactor first powered a light bulb in Tennessee in the United States, on September 3, 1948, this controversial technology has sparked heated and often polarized debates worldwide over whether the benefits of the technology outweigh its risks. Today, proponents of nuclear energy often highlight major benefits, such as low carbon emission, economic competitiveness, and stable prices as the basis for the development of nuclear reactors (International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA], 2014). Unlike fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases, nuclear power plants provide a clean source of energy and are considered by many experts to be a solution to global climate change (IAEA, 2014; Lovelock, 2004; Monbiot, 2009). At the same time, nuclear energy can enhance energy security and lessen the impact of unpredictable fossil fuel prices. Economies can become more competitive when nuclear energy mitigates the effects of climate change (IAEA, 2014). By offering reliable electricity at stable and predictable prices, nuclear energy can provide a secure energy supply and promote industrial development (IAEA, 2014).

Despite the benefits, critics of nuclear energy have highlighted the risks that are associated with the technology, such as concerns about nuclear accidents, links to proliferation of nuclear weapons, the high upfront costs of nuclear power plants, as well as possibility of nuclear waste contamination (IAEA, 2014). Major nuclear accidents, such as the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi event in Japan have triggered major shifts in public support for nuclear energy. There are also concerns over the safety and peaceful uses of nuclear energy, as the technology has been harnessed for military purposes. The general public is also concerned about the handling of radioactive waste, which can create long-term health hazards for humans and the environment.

A nuclear power plant is a thermal power station in which the heat source is a nuclear reactor. Nuclear power plants “convert the energy released from the nucleus of an atom via nuclear fission that takes place in a nuclear reactor. The heat is removed from the reactor core by a cooling system that uses the heat to generate steam, which drives a steam turbine connected to a generator that produces electricity” (IAEA, 2007, p. 37; IAEA, 2009). Nuclear energy has come a long way since 1942 when researchers at the University of Chicago first demonstrated a man-made self-sustaining nuclear fission reaction. In 1948, the X-10 Graphite Reactor in Oak Ridge, Tennessee in the U.S. was the first nuclear power` plant to provide electricity to light up a bulb (Smith & Krause, 2013). In 1954, the Soviet city of Obninsk welcomed the first nuclear power plant in the world that generated electricity for a power grid (Armaroli & Balzani, 2011).

Since then, nuclear power has become a key source of energy for many countries. All of the power reactors in operation worldwide are situated in 30 countries, with 442 nuclear power plant units with an installed electric net capacity of about 383 GW (IAEA, 2016a). The 30 countries where nuclear power plants are in operation include: Argentina, Armenia, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Iran, Japan, Korea, Mexico, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States (IAEA, 2016a). The largest number of power reactors resides in the U.S. (99 power reactors), France (58 power reactors), Japan (43 power reactors), Russia (35 power reactors), China (31 power reactors), and Korea (25 power reactors) (IAEA, 2016a).

Regionally, most of the reactors are concentrated in Northern America (118 reactors produced a total net electrical capacity of 112,208 MW), followed by Western Europe (115 reactors produced a total net electrical capacity of 112,061 MW), and Asia-Far East (105 reactors produced 95,031 MW of total net electrical capacity). Currently, there are a total of 64 reactors under construction. When these new reactors are completed, it is estimated that they will produce an additional 62,859 MW of total net electrical capacity (IAEA, 2016b). Future nuclear generating capacity points to a continued dependence on nuclear power in the longer term. However, internationally, the situation is mixed. While countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and India are planning new nuclear plants in their future energy policy, countries such as Germany, Japan, and Switzerland are phasing out nuclear power (Goodfellow, Dewick, Wortley, & Azapagic, 2014). This variation is due, in part, to the nuclear accidents that occurred and that raised serious questions about health and safety issues, opening opportunities for longstanding political opponents to push for an end to reliance on the technology.

For example, in Germany, political coalitions such as the Social Democrats and the Greens (who were formed out of the original anti-nuclear movement in the 1970s) gained the upper hand by taking the opportunity of the Fukushima accident to stage anti-nuclear protests on the street and on social media. The political and social pressures propelled Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to declare that Germany will be the first developed country in the world to renounce nuclear power and that all power plants will be phased out by 2022. This is a big U-turn for the CDU because prior to the Fukushima accident, Merkel had decided that all nuclear power stations in Germany should be in operation until 2035 (Appunn, 2015; World Nuclear Association, 2016). In Switzerland, the Fukushima accident triggered a large anti-nuclear rally, and the Swiss government reacted with a suspension of its approval process for its three new reactors (Kanter, 2011). The combined efforts of political parties, environmental groups, anti-nuclear organizations, and trade unions such as the Green Party and Greenpeace Switzerland landed strong voice for the early phase out of nuclear energy in Switzerland (World Nuclear News, 2013).

Historically, three major accidents that occurred in commercial power plants have featured prominently in public and media discourse: the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania; the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine; and the 2011 Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear incident in Japan. Measuring Level 5 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), the Three Mile Island incident was a partial-core meltdown that released little radiation. Although no casualties were reported, the nuclear plant was closed down, causing its investors huge losses (IAEA, 2014). For the Chernobyl incident (measuring Level 7 on the INES, the highest possible rating), an uncontrolled steam explosion occurred at the plant that caused a large amount of radiation to escape into the environment.

In 2011, the Tohoku earthquake, with a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale, triggered a tsunami that struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Although the Fukushima Daiichi power plant was successfully shut down, the tsunami led to power outages that caused the cooling systems to malfunction. This then triggered radioactive leakage and contamination. The event was given a level 7 rating of major accident on the INES due to the release of radioactive material, which puts the Fukushima incident in the category of accident (World Nuclear Association, 2015a). (The INES rates nuclear events at seven levels: levels 1–3 are classified as nuclear “incidents,” and levels 4–7 as nuclear “accidents.” For each increment in the level of the scale, the severity of an event is about ten times larger.) Despite the high rating on the INES, official reports indicated that no death or case of radiation poisoning has been associated with the Fukushima Daiichi incident (World Nuclear Association, 2016).

The Fukushima accident caused many governments to change or redirect their investments in nuclear energy. Some countries have even suspended the construction of various nuclear power plants (Ramana, 2011). In Japan, the government thoroughly reviewed its energy policy and suspended its plans to build additional nuclear power plants. All 17 operational nuclear power plants in Germany were ordered to cease operation, with 8 reactors shutting down immediately (World Nuclear Association, 2015b). In addition, five aging nuclear power plants in Switzerland that were reaching the end of the life cycles were scheduled to be phased out by 2034 (World Nuclear Association, 2015c). The Italian government made a decision to remove nuclear energy from its future energy mix (Schneider, Froggatt, & Thomas, 2011). Even though the United States government appears determined to retain nuclear energy as part of its national energy mix, some officials have cautioned that the country must learn from the Fukushima nuclear accident (Ehreiser, 2011).

Along with these major nuclear accidents, media coverage has been heated and overwhelming. While proponents argued for the continued use of nuclear energy mainly based on its long-term benefits for energy security and climate change mitigation, opponents have tried to make their voices heard in mainstream media based on major arguments that nuclear energy is hazardous and risky to personal health and the environment. At the same time, coverage of nuclear energy has evolved over the last decade with the rise of social media.

News Coverage of Nuclear Energy and Its Relation to Climate Change

A number of comprehensive media content analyses focusing on nuclear energy have been conducted over the years, often centering on key incidents such as the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accidents (e.g., Friedman, Gorney, & Egolf, 1992; Friedman, 2011; Gamson & Modigliani, 1989; Yang, Jin, Li, & Fang, 2015). Based on the agenda-setting theory (McCombs & Shaw, 1972), traditional media can shape the perceived salience of an issue in the minds of the public. Similarly, the way in which an issue is framed and packaged in the media can shape how the public perceives the issue (Scheufele, 1999). Given that the media is a contributing factor to public perception of nuclear energy (Gamson & Modigliani, 1989), a considerable body of research exists evaluating media coverage. This is particularly the case relative to the U.S media, but in recent years studies have appeared assessing coverage across other countries.

Focusing on U.S. media discourse about nuclear energy between 1945 and 1989, Gamson and Modigliani, (1989) analyzed television news (ABC, CBS, NBC), newsmagazines (Time, Newsweek, U.S News & World Report), editorial cartoons, and syndicated opinion columns. From the 1950s to the years prior to the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, social and economic progress was the most prominent frame in the news media. The energy crisis of the 1970s stimulated a second pro-nuclear energy independence frame. However, the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents generated negative frames, such as the “runaway” frame (i.e., fatalistic view about the unknowns of nuclear power) and the “public accountability” frame (i.e., concerns about domination by profit-making corporations that minimize accountability to the public). These frames quickly overshadowed the prominence of the more positive “progress” frame.

With a focus on news objectivity, a study was conducted to compare the U.S. television and newspaper coverage of nuclear energy in the two weeks immediately after the Chernobyl accident (Friedman et al., 1992). It included five American newspapers (The New York Times, The Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, and Morning Call) and the evening newscasts of three television networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC). Overall, the newspapers and television networks gave a predominantly fair and balanced coverage of the Chernobyl accident, instead of leveraging the accident to criticize the nuclear industry. In addition, the articles did not use scaremongering or excessively negative information that might have induced fear and provoked public opposition to the nuclear industry. However, the newspapers and television newscasts did not provide adequate background information to the public to evaluate the U.S. past and current performances of the nuclear industry.

Likewise, Gorney (1992) analyzed videotapes of the half-hour evening newscasts in the first two weeks after the Chernobyl accident on the three major U.S. networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC. The study found that, although the amount of U.S. network coverage of the Chernobyl nuclear accident suggests some sensationalism in coverage, with abundant use of words such as “radiation” and “meltdown” that could evoke fear, news coverage also contained a large number of innocuous graphics, reassuring statements, and neutral words. Across Western Europe, media coverage of the Chernobyl accident was rather balanced, with media intensifying public concerns without distorting the gravity of the situation (Renn, 1990). For example, in Italy, content analysis results showed that sensationalization of the effects of Chernobyl and outright distortion of factual evidence was largely absent from print news coverage (Belelli, 1988).

In the wake of Fukushima, a number of scholars sought to compare how coverage differed across the three accidents. Analyzing media coverage and discussion of nuclear energy across the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima accidents, Friedman (2011) pointed out that the 2011 Fukushima incident generated an outpouring of social media coverage and commentaries from the public that substantially changed the way traditional media covered the accident. Given the recent adoption of social media as a technology, this impact was a novel finding compared to the other older accidents. Friedman found that, although social media was helpful in increasing public access to information, it was harmful in the lack of oversight and quality control. During the aftermath of the three incidents, traditional media coverage focused on the risks and hazards of nuclear waste and radiation, and downplayed the mention of the benefits of nuclear energy as a form of green energy to fossil fuels in combating climate change.

Koerner (2014) examined how media coverage of the Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima accidents overshadowed the evidence for support of the technology’s safety and security as provided by the scientific community. He content analyzed newspaper headlines from the two weeks following each of the three major nuclear accidents across five newspapers: The Globe and The Mail (Canada), The New York Times and The Washington Post (U.S.), and The Guardian (U.K.). The proportions of positive, negative, and neutral headlines were calculated for each newspaper. The analysis showed that slightly more than two thirds of the newspaper headlines put nuclear energy or reactions to nuclear accidents in unfavorable positions. Chernobyl produced the most media coverage of all the nuclear incidents, and reporting was consistently high throughout the investigation period. While fear and politics were common headline themes for all incidents, the economics theme featured less prominently than the others. The author cautioned that the volume of headlines for fear and politics could fuel the generation of reactive policies. The findings further highlighted the need for scientists and agencies to carefully communicate information about the current status of nuclear power technologies without framing them in institutional or political contexts.

Bell and Yang (2015) conducted a content analysis of three major U.S. newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today, to examine the shifts in media coverage of nuclear energy from 2010 to 2013; the analysis captures the pre- and post-Fukushima accident period. The study found that media portrayal of nuclear energy was more negative in the immediate aftermath of Fukushima, but media coverage soon became more balanced and remained a little more negative in tone than pre-Fukushima. More importantly, the results showed that there was the lowest number of mentions of nuclear energy in relation to climate change during the immediate aftermath of Fukushima.

These findings suggest that the media emphasized nuclear risks and hazards, and were less concerned about its relation to climate change risks. However, in 2012 and 2013, nuclear risks became less prominent and climate change risks re-entered the discussion of news coverage. This indicated that media discourse had entered a period where they have unwillingly accepted nuclear energy when confronted with climate change risks. Concerns over nuclear waste and contamination of the environment were dominant news angle in 2010 and remained dominant in 2011, but declined in 2012 and 2013. The findings suggest that media discourse about nuclear energy highlighted the outcomes and consequences of the accident and subsequent disaster, such as contamination of the environment.

Outside the United States, a content analysis of two Belgian newspapers was conducted between March and May, 2011 (Perko, Turcanu, & Geenen, 2012). The content analysis found that media coverage gradually decreased following the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, and the most cited focus of the articles was crisis management. Along the lines of previous studies, they also found that articles were mostly neutral toward nuclear energy in the aftermath of Fukushima.

A study in China examined 422 media articles on nuclear energy that were published in two mainstream Chinese newspapers, The People’s Daily and The Guangming Daily, between 2004 and 2013 (Wang, Li, & Li, 2014). The results showed that 77.5% of the articles were informational, 21.8% of the articles were pro-nuclear, and 0.7% of the articles were anti-nuclear. These results suggest that reporters tended to focus on providing information to the readers, as most Chinese citizens held limited information about nuclear energy. Among the pro-nuclear articles, benefits to the environment and the economy, as well as safety, were the most commonly discussed. The anti-nuclear articles discussed environmental risks or safety risks involved. The following three informational themes were most recurring: commercial nuclear power information, nuclear engineering technology, and planning licensing and supervision. Wang et al. (2014) further pointed out that the number of relevant articles peaked in 2008 and 2011. This may be due to the approval of nuclear power policies in 2007, and inspection of the safety of all nuclear plants in China after the Fukushima incident in 2011.

In sum, media discourse about the benefits of nuclear energy as a form of clean energy to alleviate the issue of climate change have been greatly overshadowed by the risks and hazards of the technology, an emphasis in coverage that seems to have been triggered and reinforced by the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima incidents. Likewise, when such accidents occur, polling evidence suggests that the public becomes more suspicious of the safety of nuclear energy and less likely to trust nuclear programs generally and as strategy for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions (Melber, 1982; Renn, 1990; Rosa, 2001; Rosa & Dunlap, 1994). Public perception influence the direction of future energy markets (Goodfellow et al., 2014), and in many countries, including the United States and Germany, nuclear power programs have been delayed or even terminated in reaction to a perceived public opposition (Bhanthumnavin & Bhanthumnavin, 2014).

Variations in Public Support for Nuclear Energy

One crucial factor for the establishment of a nuclear energy program in most countries is public acceptance of nuclear power. Historically, public opposition has resulted in stalled plans for local siting of nuclear power plants in many parts of the world, partly due to the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) syndrome. For instance, in Canada, a plan to build a nuclear power plant outside Peace River, Alberta, was dropped in December 2011 due largely to the resistance from residents about the site’s impact on water and wildlife in the area (CBC News, 2011). A large number of protestors participated actively with signs and staged sit-ins to oppose the nuclear development in Alberta (Walton, 2009).

Public opinion can also shape national policy and decisions about investments and expansion in nuclear power as a strategy to combat climate change. A case in point is Germany, in which public opposition has contributed, in part, to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ambitious decision to decommission all nuclear power by 2022, and to expand the country’s share of renewables (i.e., wind, solar, and biomass) in electricity from the current 26% to 40–45% by 2025, and to 80% by 2050 (Rankin, 2015). At the same time, by 2020, Germany pledges to cut carbon emissions by 40%. This energy transition has funneled increased amounts of private and public investments into renewables and may spell the demise of nuclear power in Germany (Smedley, 2013).

Public opinion can have varying influence in democratic systems like Germany and in other political systems around the world. In a democracy like India, the Fukushima accident has fueled the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) to oppose the completion of the nuclear power plant that began 22 years ago in Koodankulam. Protesters faced charges of sedition and war against the state, and some of them were arrested in the name of civil disobedience (Udaykumar, 2012). Such strong public protest has helped create strong resistance to India’s nuclear energy policy (Bhadra, 2013).

Even in a more authoritarian system like China, where the government is determined to turn the country into the largest producer of nuclear energy in the world by 2030, government still faces challenges in managing rising public opposition to nuclear power (Buckley, 2015). For example, in 2013, after a large number of residents protested in Guangdong province, officials in southern China canceled plans to construct a nuclear power plant. This incident was a rude shock to the Chinese government, which had thought that its plans would be free from public resistance (Jacobs, 2013). Hence, public opinion plays a key role in national and societal decisions about nuclear energy across countries with different political systems.

Public attitudes toward nuclear energy have waxed and waned over time. Surveys that gauged public perceptions of nuclear energy have been conducted across the world in the past 40 years. Some of the earlier surveys investigated issues related to public support for building nuclear power plants. Public support for nuclear energy was slow to recover from the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents (Stoutenborough, Sturgess, & Vedlitz, 2013). In the United States, a trend study showed that public support for nuclear energy was on the decline from the mid-1970s through 2000 (Ansolabehere, 2007). On the contrary, the Japanese were more supportive of building more nuclear power plants during this period, while the public in Europe held mixed views about the expansion of nuclear energy (European Commission, 2007).

Just when public opinion appeared to turn favorable toward nuclear energy, the Fukushima disaster occurred, which resulted in a decline in public support for nuclear energy (Stoutenborough et al., 2013). A global public opinion study was conducted to examine the effect of the Fukushima disaster on public support for nuclear energy in 42 countries (Kim, Kim, & Kim, 2013). The results show that in 41 out of the 42 countries, public support for nuclear energy dropped significantly after the Fukushima accident, compared to before the accident. This was echoed by an international comparative study of 24 countries in June 2011, which found a sharp decline in public acceptance of nuclear energy, with almost two-thirds of the respondents opposed the future development of nuclear energy (Carrington, 2011).

Likewise, several longitudinal studies conducted in Switzerland examined public opinion before and after the Fukushima accident finding that public acceptance and trust in nuclear energy declined appreciably (Siegrist & Visschers, 2013; Visschers & Siegrist, 2013). In a longitudinal study conducted in Italy, Prati and Zani, (2012) showed that public acceptance, nuclear trust, and environmental organization trust declined right after the Fukushima accident, but pro-environmental beliefs increased post-Fukushima. The results showed that major nuclear accidents could influence pro-environmental beliefs as well, probably because they are the basis of public attitudes toward nuclear energy. Compared to before the Fukushima accident, the Japanese lost almost all trust in nuclear safety and regulation post-Fukushima, and were less supportive of nuclear energy even if it would mitigate climate change or ensure energy security (Poortinga, Aoyagi, & Pidgeon, 2013). The Japanese tended to prefer renewable energy sources and lifestyle changes over nuclear energy when it comes to climate change mitigation.

Despite the sharp drop in public acceptance of nuclear energy immediately after the Fukushima incident, public support worldwide has since returned to similar levels observed previously (Ipsos Social Research Institute, 2012). In addition, other studies that investigated public reactions to Fukushima (e.g., Siegrist & Visschers, 2013) and other previous nuclear accidents (e.g., Bolsen & Cook, 2008), demonstrated that sharp drops in the favorability of nuclear power can ensue after major accidents, but in the longer term, opinions typically return to their pre-accident levels. For example, according to Gallup polls conducted among the U.S. public, the 57% who indicated support for nuclear power in March 2012 was the same as the percentage measured in early March 2011, just before the Fukushima incident (Newport, 2012). In France, when asked about whether the decision to produce 75% of the French electricity production with nuclear power results in advantages or drawbacks, 44% and 48% of the public chose “advantages” in 2010 and 2013, respectively (Foratom, 2014).

Members of the U.K. public generally see nuclear energy as risky and express a “reluctant acceptance” of nuclear energy as a means to mitigate climate change (Pidgeon, Lorenzi, & Poortinga, 2008). In other words, people accept nuclear energy with an aloof attitude in certain countries, mainly because there are no alternative energy choices, and they must depend on nuclear energy (Corner, Venables, Spence, Poortinga, Demski, & Pidgeon, 2011; Kim, Kim, & Kim, 2014). Given this backdrop, policymakers and scholars alike are interested to find out factors that shape public attitudes toward nuclear energy and whether there are differences between public and experts’ perception toward the technology.

Differences in Public and Expert Views

Several studies have been conducted to evaluate the differences in risk perception of nuclear technologies, radioactivity and radioactive waste between nuclear energy experts and the general public. Some of these studies were conducted across various countries, including Belgium, Kazakhstan, the United States, and Finland (Flynn, Slovic, & Mertz, 1993; Meyer, 1996; Perko, 2014; Purvis-Roberts, Werner, & Frank, 2007).

Notably, these studies concluded that experts had a lower risk perception of nuclear energy than the public; and professionals from other fields held risk perceptions between these two poles. Some factors that affected risk perception included professional experience with nuclear and radioactive technologies, knowledge of nuclear and radioactive technologies, conceptual cues associated with nuclear technology, trust in government and industry, and the professional training of the individual.

A study in Belgium examined the risk perception of various radiological risks, comparing responses derived from a representative sample of 1,020 Belgians and 332 experts working in the country (Perko, 2014). In this case, experts were chosen from among trained individuals who were working for a nuclear research center and who were exposed to radiation within controlled areas in their workplace. The findings showed that experts had a higher risk perception of medical X-rays than the public. However, the public had a higher risk perception of nuclear waste, nuclear plant accidents, and natural radiation. In addition, experts who received a higher exposure to radiation in the previous year tended to perceive lesser risks of nuclear waste and a nuclear plant accident compared to their colleagues with lower exposure.

Based on these findings, Perko (2014) argued that experts and the general public tend to rely on different conceptual cues as heuristics when determining risks from radiation. The respondents from the general public held a common one-dimensional concept when they determined different radiological risks that viewed nuclear waste, nuclear accident, medical use of radiation, or natural radiation all through the same perceptual lens. In contrast, the experts held at least two distinct concepts, with one concept linking nuclear waste and nuclear accidents together, and the other concept associating the medical use of radiation and natural radiation. Perko (2014) concluded that three factors influenced risk perception: professional experience related to nuclear applications, a sense of protection from nuclear power plants, and perceived control by authorities on the safety in nuclear installations. Actual knowledge and control over the events also decreased risk perception. Higher familiarity with the radiation, measured in terms of a regular professional exposure to radiological risks was not revealed as statistically influential for the perception of radiological risks (nuclear waste and accident at a nuclear installation).

In a separate study conducted in Kazakhstan, Purvis-Roberts et al. (2007) administered a survey to 624 villagers, 138 physicians, and 26 scientists in the field of nuclear research. Results showed that risk perception was highest among villagers, followed by physicians and scientists. Risk perception decreased with increased education level and knowledge about nuclear technologies. It was also pointed out that physicians’ risk perception mostly fell in between villagers and experts. However, regarding health impacts caused by radiation, physicians shared a similar view to villagers. The authors suggested that this was because physicians dealt with patients’ negative health effects caused by radiation on a regular basis, while experts only focused on the physics of radiation.

In 1989, a survey was administered to 409 laypeople in the United States, where they were asked to evaluate risks related to a nuclear waste disposal program. Three years later, 40 surveys were administered to experts at the American Nuclear Society meeting (Flynn et al., 1993). Both surveys required participants to rank the likelihood of certain events associated with nuclear facilities and likelihood of accidents that might occur. Participants were then asked to list down three words or images they associated to the term underground waste nuclear repository. The study showed that laypeople were likely to have a heightened sense of risk with regard to radioactive waste disposal. The issues associated with radioactive waste were vastly different for the two groups. Laypeople produced “extremely negative consequences” or concepts related to risk and danger, while experts mostly thought of political and socioeconomic barriers.

In a commentary, Meyer (1996) summarized available literature on risk perception of nuclear power. Meyer noted vast differences in the way laypeople and experts thought about nuclear power. In the United States, laypeople were likely to group all forms of nuclear energy and applications together, without differentiating between different types of technologies or applications. Meyer contended that this could have invoked feelings of revulsion toward nuclear technologies among laypeople, causing them to reject nuclear technologies even if they were aware that it was illogical to do so. The level of trust in government and industry also influenced laypeople’s risk perceptions. In contrast, technical experts took a quantitative approach to determining risks related to nuclear technologies. The types of accidents that may occur, the probability of occurrence, the consequences and frequencies of accidents were calculated to determine risk. As such, technical experts were likely to have a lower risk perception than laypeople. However, experts with different employers varied in their risk perception. In this case, scientists working for the federal government perceived less severe risks posed by nuclear waste compared to scientists in local governments and universities.

Finally, a study was conducted in Finland to help politicians structure a public debate about nuclear energy (Hämäläinen, 1991). Politicians and experts were surveyed to understand their priorities with regard to affordable electricity, foreign trade, natural resources, pollution, accidents and risks, independence, centralization, and political cooperation. The study found that politicians and experts evaluated nuclear energy from different perspectives. Experts considered the cost and environmental impact of nuclear energy, while politicians considered how natural resources were utilized or conserved, the structure of the industry and how capital resources were allocated. However, politicians and experts agreed that to reduce pollution, a nuclear plant was preferred to coal plants or having no big plants.

From the above studies, it can be seen that the results were replicated despite the geographical, political, and cultural differences among the countries where the studies were conducted. In particular, more effort will need to be put into communicating accurate information about the benefits and risks of nuclear energy to the general public, as there is still a large gap between how the nuclear experts perceive the risks of the technology compared to the public.

Factors Shaping Public Opinion About Nuclear Energy

Given the variations over time in how the public views nuclear energy and the sharp contrasts with how experts view the technology, a large body of research has concentrated on identifying and empirically testing the psychological and social factors that shape public attitudes. In general, five key factors have emerged to shape public acceptance of nuclear energy: (a) Risk perceptions (Tanaka, 2004); (b) benefit perceptions (Choi, Kim, & Lee, 2000); (c) trust (Kim et al., 2014); (d) knowledge (Showers & Shrigley, 1995); and (e) other value predispositions and beliefs such as political ideology or environmental values (Van der Pligt, Eiser, & Spears, 1984; Van Der Pligt, 1985). In addition, demographics and geographical proximity have been found to have a bearing on public support for nuclear energy as well (Bird, Haynes, van den Honert, McAneney, & Poortinga, 2014; Ho et al., 2014).

In relation to several controversies over food biotechnology and nanotechnology, researchers found that technical knowledge plays only a limited or negligible role in shaping public attitudes (Ho, Brossard, & Scheufele, 2008; Brossard & Nisbet, 2007). But in relation to public opinion about nuclear energy, knowledge along with other factors such as value predispositions (Siegrist & Visschers, 2013; Stoutenborough et al., 2013) can shape public perceptions.

Risk Perceptions

Risk can be categorized into objective risk and subjective risk. Objective risk refers to the probability that a certain event will occur, while subjective risk refers to the perceived risk to an individual, an impression that may be affected by fear, control, seriousness, familiarity, or conviction. Most studies on public support for nuclear power have focused on subjective risk (Cha, 2000; Slovic, Fischhoff, & Lichtenstein, 1979). Risk perception is an important factor affecting attitudes toward nuclear energy (Goodfellow, Williams, & Azapagic, 2011; Pidgeon et al., 2008; Venables, Pidgeon, Parkhill, Henwood, & Simmons, 2012). As nuclear accidents may negatively impact future generations, the general public tends to perceive that nuclear energy involves greater risks than other energy sources (Cha, 2000).

Although the probability of nuclear disasters is low, the belief that there is an unusually high or special risk to nuclear power generation perpetuates a stigmatization of the technology (Gregory, Flynn, & Slovic, 1995). People often rely on the affect heuristic (Keller, Visschers, & Siegrist, 2012), which is the use of affective imagery consisting of spontaneous associations that comes to an individual’s mind when evaluating a specific risk. People then use these feelings and associations to make decisions and guide their judgments. For example, a number of studies have found that people who had a high level of risk perception toward nuclear energy often linked nuclear power plants to undesirable health, environmental, and economic outcomes, excessive radioactivity and safety concerns, possible nuclear accidents, and danger in nuclear waste disposal (Aldrich, 2012; Jenkins-Smith, Silva, Nowlin, & DeLozier, 2011; Keller et al., 2012; Parkhill, Pidgeon, Henwood, Simmons, & Venables, 2010).

Perceptions of risks specific to different aspects of nuclear energy may shape public opinion differently. For example, in the United States, Stoutenborough et al. (2013) examined specific types of risks and found that public perceptions of the risk of a nuclear accident and the storage of nuclear waste negatively influenced their support for future expansion of nuclear energy. On the contrary, the risk associated with nuclear waste conveyance had no impact on public support for nuclear energy expansion, possibly due to the fact that the U.S. nuclear waste conveyance across the country has been rather safe in the past years. In Japan, Tanaka (2004) found that perceived risks were a crucial factor in shaping public support for nuclear facilities, particularly if they were to be located in close proximity to them.

In addition, research had shown the indirect effect of perceived risks on public willingness to take favorable or unfavorable action against nuclear energy, as mediated by personal norms (de Groot & Steg, 2010). Personal norms are feelings of moral obligation to execute or withhold from engaging in pro- or anti-nuclear actions. When people activate personal norms, their inclination to take action will be high. In the Netherlands, a study showed that when opponents of nuclear energy felt that its expansion would pose risks to the public, they would be morally obliged to take action to oppose nuclear energy (de Groot & Steg, 2010). On the other hand, when opponents perceived that nuclear energy had less benefits, they felt a stronger moral obligation to engage in actions that opposed nuclear energy. Likewise, when supporters saw the benefits of nuclear energy, they would feel morally obliged to take action to promote nuclear energy (de Groote & Steg, 2010).

Benefit Perceptions

Like perceived risks, public benefits perception refers to subjective evaluation. Researchers have frequently explored perceived benefits of nuclear energy from the perspectives of secure energy supply and climate change mitigation effect (Choi et al., 2000; Liu, Zhang, & Kidd, 2008; Visschers, Keller, & Siegrist, 2011). While strong associations have been found between perceived benefits of energy supply and public acceptance of nuclear power, the connections between concerns over climate change and nuclear power acceptance have been mixed (Kim et al., 2014; Visschers et al., 2011).

In South Korea, greater perceived benefit of electricity generation enhanced public acceptance of nuclear power (Kim et al., 2014). Likewise, in China, the public who supported using nuclear power to meet rising energy demands were less likely to indicate that nuclear power plants would increase chances of assaults from terrorists (Li, Fuhrmann, Early, & Vedlitz, 2012). In another study, although the Taiwanese public did not support any significant increase or reduction in nuclear energy, they generally supported the notion that nuclear power is an important electricity source and that the current share of nuclear power in the energy mix should remain the same in the near future (Liao, Tseng, & Chen, 2010). For nuclear power stations, people put more weight on the benefits of energy supply than on the benefits of climate change mitigation. A secure energy supply is personally relevant and people notice energy benefits directly—for example, through receiving electricity that powers up all the electrical appliances at home (Lorenzoni & Pidgeon, 2006).

On the other hand, the benefits for climate change mitigation are rather impersonal, and people do not notice it immediately. In Switzerland, Visschers et al. (2011) found that the public perception of benefits of a secure energy supply affected their support for nuclear energy to a much larger extent than their perception of benefits for climate change mitigation. Although nuclear energy is often highlighted as a source that produces zero carbon emission, the public did not deem this as a strong justification for supporting nuclear energy. This is echoed by several studies that demonstrated that people reluctantly accepted nuclear energy for climate change mitigation when they were given the choice to select between climate change and nuclear energy (Bickerstaff, Lorenzoni, Pidgeon, Poortinga, & Simmons, 2008; Pidgeon et al., 2008). Despite this, most of the respondents in these studies preferred renewable energy sources instead of nuclear energy.

In some studies, the impact of perceived benefits of climate change mitigation on public acceptance of nuclear energy were found only under certain circumstances. After interviewing multiple stakeholders from Finland, France, and the United Kingdom, Teravainen et al. (2011) indicated that climate change mitigation and energy security contributed to the justification of new nuclear power plants only in countries that have experienced nuclear power generation. In the United Kingdom, Corner et al. (2011) found that the public, who held strong environmental values, and who were concerned about climate change, would only indicate greater support for nuclear power on the condition that no other alternatives were available. This highlights the reluctant acceptance mentality of the U.K. public when it comes to nuclear energy.

Even though some studies have demonstrated that engagement in environmental issues and environmental optimism were positively related to public endorsement of nuclear energy (Ertör-Akyazıet, Adaman, Özkaynak, & Zenginobuz, 2012), a small number of studies have found a negative association between concern about climate change and public acceptance of nuclear energy (Spence & Pidgeon, 2010). Goodfellow et al. (2014) found that the public indicated greater support than resistance to new nuclear power plants in the United Kingdom; however, this was attuned by a high level of perceived risks and a low level of awareness about issues such as waste disposal and the symbiotic relationship between nuclear energy and climate change. Using spontaneous association as a measurement technique, Keller et al. (2012) found that supporters of nuclear power plants mainly associated them with energy, the way nuclear power plants look, and necessity. However, associations with nuclear power as a limiting factor in climate change did not spontaneously surface to participants’ mind in the study.

Research that compared public opinion pre- and post-Fukushima seems to show a further diminishing impact of perceived benefits of climate change on public support for nuclear energy. In Australia, a survey conducted in 2010 showed that the majority of the public felt that, if nuclear energy can mitigate climate change, they would be more likely to support the technology (Bird et al., 2014). However, a post-Fukushima survey conducted in 2012 showed that most of the respondents were not supportive of nuclear power as a way to help tackle climate change, even though most people in Australia still perceived nuclear power as cleaner and more efficient than fossil fuels (Bird et al., 2014). Using nationally representative surveys from the pre- and post-Fukushima accident, Poortinga et al. (2013) found that the Japanese had been less accepting of nuclear energy than the British public, even if it contributed to climate change mitigation or energy security.

On the whole, evidence pointing out that framing nuclear power as an energy source to tackle the problem of climate change may be less effective than highlighting its benefits to building a secure energy supply. Despite this, a longitudinal study conducted by Visschers and Siegrist (2013) before and after the Fukushima accident shows that the disaster did not change the relations between the predictors of nuclear acceptance. That is, the public may still deem the benefits of nuclear energy as relevant in making decisions about the technology, even after the severe accident.


Trust refers to people’s inclination to depend on the decision-makers who are responsible for the management of technology and policy implementation (Siegrist & Cvetkovich, 2000). With regard to nuclear energy, two sub-dimensions of trust featured prominently in previous studies—trust in government or a company that oversees the actual running of nuclear power plants, and trust in authorized organization in conducting inspection of the nuclear power plants.

In terms of trust in actual operation, one of the reasons that local communities opposed the construction of nuclear power plants and nuclear waste repositories was a lack of trust in government authorities responsible for such decisions (Bronfman, Vázquez, & Dorantes, 2009). In particular, the impact of trust in governmental authorities is key in shaping public perception of nuclear energy. In the United States, Whitfield, Rosa, Dan, and Dietz (2009) found that when the public indicated greater trust in nuclear regulatory institutions, they tended to perceive fewer risks related to nuclear power and, in turn, held more positive attitudes toward nuclear power. Likewise, in Switzerland, Visschers and Siegrist (2013) demonstrated that trust is an important predictor of public risk and benefit perceptions toward nuclear energy.

In China, He, Mol, Zhang, and Lu (2013) found that the Chinese indicated a high degree of trust in governmental authorities, but a low degree of trust in state-owned nuclear power companies, when it came to providing nuclear-related information, responding to nuclear accidents, and making decisions about the future of nuclear in the country. This high level of trust is due, in part, to a proven record of the government in managing risk and a concomitant absence of alternative information sources.

Mah, Hills, and Tao (2014) found that, in Hong Kong, people’s support for nuclear energy was a function of their trust in the credibility of the government, as well as the Chinese government’s efforts to safeguard the well-being of citizens. Their findings suggested people who have a low level of trust toward the government tend to indicate less support for nuclear energy. Relatedly, Chung and Yeung (2013) examined the opinions of Hong Kong residents toward the safe operations of the nuclear power plant in Daya Bay. Their results indicated that, when the public perceived a greater ability of the Hong Kong government and the commercial nuclear power plant company to handle nuclear accidents, they were more likely to be confident about the operational safety of the nuclear power plant. Interestingly, Tanaka (2004) showed that, in Japan, trust in institutions was positively associated with public support for the location of nuclear power plants, but not for public support for the siting of high-level radioactive waste repositories.

In terms of trust in inspection, trust depended on how effectively inspection authorities, such as the IAEA, supervised or controlled the operations of nuclear power plants of a certain country (Bronfman et al., 2009). Based on a public opinion study across 19 countries, Kim et al. (2014) found that trust in inspection authorities was effective in shifting public acceptance from opposition to reluctant acceptance. This finding indicated that trust in inspection authorities was critical for those who reluctantly accepted nuclear power plants. Members of the public did not actually support the use of nuclear energy, but were concerned that the shut down of nuclear power plants would have an adverse effect on the economy. If the public had no trust in the authorities responsible for the inspection of nuclear power plants, they would demand a permanent shut down of the power plants, rather than a restriction to limited operations.

In sum, trust in nuclear governance institutions positively predicted public acceptance toward nuclear energy (Whitfield et al., 2009). This highlights the importance of building and sustaining trust in nuclear governance institutions if policymakers want to continue to include nuclear power in their countries’ energy mix.


The scientific literacy model or the knowledge deficit model (Miller, 2001) states that the more knowledgeable the public, the more likely it is that they will accept science and technologies. This model has been criticized by numerous scholars who have found stronger empirical evidence for the effects of value predispositions such as ideology or environmental beliefs on public support for emerging science and technologies (Ho, Brossard, & Scheufele, 2008). However, in the case of nuclear energy, empirical studies continue to show that knowledge played a part in shaping public acceptance, alongside individuals’ values and beliefs. In their combined analysis of competing factors in a single study of the U.S. population, Stoutenborough et al. (2013) found that more technically knowledgeable individuals tend to support policies on increased nuclear energy use, along with value predispositions and risk perceptions.

In this case, knowledge refers to the extent to which people are informed about nuclear power, nuclear technologies, and the operation and inspection of nuclear facilities (Assefa & Frostell, 2007). For example, Kim et al. (2014), in a study of public opinion across 19 countries demonstrated that knowledge of nuclear inspection positively affected public acceptance of nuclear power. The results highlighted that a higher level of understanding of inspection activities and education programs, conducted by authorized organizations such as the IAEA, led to a positive perception of nuclear power.

Adopting a quasi-experimental approach, Showers and Shrigley (1995) found that knowledge of U.S. high school students positively affected their attitudes toward nuclear power plants. In Turkey, Ertör-Akyazi et al. (2012) showed that knowledge of climate change, engagement in environmental issues, and environmental optimism were positively related to public endorsement of nuclear energy. Furthermore, Americans who were more knowledgeable about terrorism and nuclear security tend to indicate a lower likelihood that nuclear power plants would increase the chance of terrorist attacks (Li et al., 2012). In a study of the Chinese population, Sun and Zhu (2014) analyzed whether information about nuclear energy could increase public acceptance. Their findings showed that the comprehensive information would reduce public risk perception of nuclear energy and increase public acceptance of nuclear power policies. This suggested that policymakers should ensure that their policies are transparent and will motivate public engagement in nuclear energy decision making.

While knowledge may play a role in more developed countries or cities, people residing in rural areas may have insufficient scientific knowledge to make an informed decision about nuclear energy. Based on an investigation of a rural population in China, Fang (2013) found that the locals have insufficient knowledge about science to comprehend risk from nuclear energy. People did not know much about nuclear risks in part because there was an over-dependence and trust in the government and nuclear experts. Hence, knowledge could have differential impacts on public acceptance of nuclear energy, depending on whether they resided in urban or rural areas.

Gender, Age, and Media Use

In addition to the aforementioned key factors, numerous studies have found other factors that impact on public acceptance of nuclear energy. These include government communication, media coverage, political ideology, and demographics.

The ways in which governments around the world communicate with the public could shape the level of support for nuclear energy. For instance, the U.K. government attempted to use a pro-nuclear frame as part of their 2007 public consultation events to enhance public acceptance of nuclear energy. The frames emphasized climate change mitigation and increased energy security. A series of interrelated experimental studies found that the pro-nuclear frames had negligible impact on public acceptance of nuclear energy (Jones, Eiser, & Gamble, 2012). Instead, the results suggested that this framing actually fueled people’s wishes for investments in renewables and a reduced dependence on coal. After the Fukushima accident, some governments tried to reduce negative perceptions of the accident by controlling media reports about it. However, government pressure on media content actually backfired and resulted in a bigger decline in the level of public support (Kim et al., 2013). Media coverage has also been found to polarize opinions toward nuclear energy, instead of mainstreaming them. Yeo et al. (2014) explored American risk perceptions of nuclear energy pre- and post- Fukushima. The results found that conservatives who paid more attention to media perceived less risk post-Fukushima, whereas this relationship was not found among the liberals and moderates. Even if individuals with differing political ideologies ended up encountering the same news information, they may have attended to that information differently.

Political ideology appears to have differing impacts on anti- and pro-nuclear energy supporters in various parts of Europe. According to Franchino (2014), anti-nuclear left-wingers and pro-nuclear right-wingers are differentially held in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and United Kingdom, in the areas close to nuclear plants. Although polarized public opinion also exists in Italy, the anti-nuclear views of left-wing individuals are more strongly rooted compared to the pro-nuclear views of right-wing individuals in places that are close to nuclear power plants. Despite these differences in political views, there is an overall greater acceptance among individuals living near the vicinity of a nuclear plant in the United Kingdom and in the Netherlands. In France, pro-nuclear support is more strongly rooted in the right-leaning public, especially within the vicinity of a plant.

Among demographic factors, age, gender, education, and income are also often key shapers of public attitudes toward nuclear energy. In Australia, Bird et al. (2014) showed that women perceive greater risks and fewer benefits of nuclear energy, have greater support for renewable energies, and show greater concern about climate change than men. Younger Australians are less likely to accept nuclear energy and are more concerned about climate change than their older counterparts. These results are echoed by other studies, which have shown that Australian men indicate greater acceptance for nuclear power than women, and that older people support nuclear energy more than the younger ones (Stehlik, 2010).

In Japan, studies found that males and the better educated support nuclear power, but people who are older indicate less support for nuclear power (Arikawa, Cao, & Matsumoto, 2014; Honda, Wiwattanapantuwong, & Abe, 2014; Morioka, 2014). In Turkey, males are more likely to endorse nuclear energy than females (Ertör-Akyazi et al., 2012). The results are slightly different in China. A survey conducted in Shandong Province of China showed that the less educated, low-income citizens, and those living further away from nuclear power plants tend to be more favorable toward developing nuclear energy. In addition, people who are affiliated with the government show greater acceptance toward developing nuclear energy in China (Ho et al., 2014). Mah et al. (2014) conducted a public opinion survey in Hong Kong, which showed that males and people with lower income and fewer children are more likely to indicate nuclear as an option for electricity generation.

Geographic Proximity to Nuclear Energy

Finally, geographical proximity to nuclear power plants has been shown to influence public attitudes. The phenomenon of the “not in my backyard” syndrome seems to be the main reason behind the public’s general resistance, especially if the nuclear power plants are going to be built near to them. For example, Gallardo, Matsuzaki, and Aoki (2014) examined young Japanese attitudes toward the siting of high-level nuclear wastes in the country. Results show that over 50% of the respondents are willing to accept a storage repository within the country, although the acceptance dips to less than 20% if the repository is to be built near the home of the respondents. A post-Fukushima survey of Taiwanese residents shows that people who resided near a nuclear power plant perceive a higher risk of contracting cancer than those who reside further away from a nuclear power plant. Moreover, the people who reside near the planned fourth nuclear power plant perceive greater risks of getting cancer and a higher risk of death related to nuclear power operation and nuclear waste than people living further away (Ho et al., 2014). These studies indicate a clear phenomenon of the “not in my backyard” syndrome among the general public.

Communicating About Nuclear Energy and Climate Change

As reviewed, public opinion likely plays a key role in national policy and local decisions related to the expansion of nuclear energy as a technology needed to mitigate worldwide greenhouse emissions. As a consequence, researchers have evaluated various communication strategies for overcoming public resistance to nuclear energy. These strategies focus on the effective framing of nuclear energy, its benefits and risks; and on national or local consultation initiatives intended to build public trust and acceptance by way of input and involvement.

Re-Framing Conversations About Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy has been framed and re-framed in different ways over the years in local and national news media. Among the first few scholars who examined the concept of framing in communication, Gamson and Modigliani (1989) described media discourse as “a set of interpretive packages that give meaning to an issue” (p. 3). Internally, each package contains a media frame that provides a range of positions to an issue, which may be manifested in a condensed form of words, pictures, and presentation styles when offered to audiences. During the energy crisis in the 1970s, the pro-nuclear social and economic “progress” frame and the “energy independence” frame were the prominent news frames; but the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents stimulated negative media frames such as the “runaway” frame and the “public accountability” frame (Gamson & Modigliani, 1989).

Chong and Druckman (2007) highlighted that media frames reveal issues that the communicators think are important, and frames in thought underscore audiences’ perceptions of the most salient aspect of the information that are presented to them. When media frames influence frames in thought, a framing effect is said to have occurred (Druckman & Bolsen, 2011). Put simply, the way in which media frames an issue can shape an audience’s perception and attitudes toward the issue. For instance, framing the positive environmental aspects as compared to the potential undesirable health outcomes of nuclear energy may promote greater public acceptance of building new nuclear power plants.

A number of empirical studies have tested the effects of different framed messages or framing strategies for nuclear energy on public attitudes toward the issue. Arising from the recent phenomenon of politicization of science, Bolsen, Druckman, and Cook (2014) examined the impact of frames that emphasize politicization on public acceptance of nuclear power. The study found that politicizing science (i.e., by highlighting that politicians often engage in piecemeal selection of scientific work to advance their own interests) reduces acceptance of nuclear energy and invalidates arguments about the environmental benefits of nuclear energy, regardless of whether reference is drawn to strong scientific evidence. In addition, the researchers found that drawing connections to the potential health risks of using nuclear power also reduces public support in the presence of additional frames that emphasize the technology’s relationship to scientific progress (i.e., the emphasis that the development of nuclear energy relies on objective scientific research) or its politicization. The findings highlight that politicization is a serious issue and can act as an impediment to scientific advancements.

Mannetti, Brizi, Giacomantonio, and Higgins (2013) examined whether the influence of persuasive messages in the political domain can be improved when fit is created by subliminally priming people’s regulatory focus (i.e., promotion vs. prevention) and by linguistic framing of the message (i.e., strategic approach framing vs. strategic avoidance framing). The experimenters primed the participants either to focus on promotion goals, which refer to attaining a final goal, or to concentrate on prevention goals, which refer to maintaining a satisfactory current situation. The results found that, among people who held strong negative attitudes toward nuclear energy, their implicit attitude became more favorable after they were exposed to a message that described the economic benefits of nuclear power when the frame of the message fit the participants’ preexisting orientations. This highlights that the effects of media frame on audience’s perception of nuclear energy may not be straightforward, in that it has to depend on the fit with their existing orientations.

Various sources can shape how the news media frames nuclear power. In particular, events, advocacy groups, and public service announcements have been shown to shape news frames and attributions of responsibility in the area of energy conservation (Bolsen, 2010). In the frame-building process, media outlets choose among frames to convey issues to the public (Scheufele, 1999). In this process, “competing interests operate as news sources, supplying strategically packaged news items and story information to journalists” (Nisbet & Mooney, 2007, p. 42).

What goes into media frames comes, in part, from top decision makers. Governments often develop their own national frames on nuclear energy to carve out the direction for their energy mix. Some studies have looked at how key stakeholders such as policymakers framed nuclear energy. Upon examining the policy addresses and speeches of policy makers across six countries, Shim, Park, and Wilding (2015) found major policy frames of energy security, clean energy, nuclear safety, and economic growth in these discourse. Variations exist across the countries. In particular, the United States and Japan have highlighted the issues in terms of nuclear safety and energy security; the United Kingdom and France have emphasized the economic growth frame; and South Korea has highlighted the nuclear safety frame. In contrast, Germany’s emphasis on the clean energy frame has overshadowed the other frames in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident. This coincided with Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear energy right after the accident. Adhering to the recommendation that nuclear power could be framed as a feasible option for reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuels (EIA, 2013), the U.K. government has emphasized the role of nuclear energy in mitigating climate change, which has been shown, to some extent, to enhance public support for nuclear energy. The results further suggest that effective frames should be developed in terms of a future energy mix that reduces carbon emissions and contributes to energy security and economic growth, while improving nuclear safety.

With mounting empirical evidence showing that factual information does not necessarily enhance the effects of media frames on public perceptions of science and technologies (Druckman & Bolsen, 2011; Nisbet & Mooney, 2007; Kahan, Braman, Slovic, Gastil, Cohen, & Kysar, 2009), media practitioners and policymakers alike should realize that supplying more factual information to the public may not be the optimum way to shape public opinion. Instead, they have to consistently frame and reframe nuclear energy in strategic ways to effect changes in public opinion.

Public Consultation and Engagement

Public consultation and engagement have been used as a strategy for building public acceptance of nuclear energy. The notion of public consultation rests in the Western political traditions, where there is an expectation that fair procedures will result in enhanced legitimacy for decision-making processes. Science communication practitioners have been adapting these democratic procedures to foster deliberations in the contexts of climate change mitigation strategies and issues related to nuclear energy. It involves members of the public in the process of agenda setting, decision making, and policy development (Rowe & Frewer, 2004). Specifically, the IAEA (2011) has called for a need for stakeholders such as the lay public and local residents who lack the technical knowledge to connect with expert stakeholders with the specialized knowledge in the decision-making processes. Governmental stakeholders also ascribe importance to public involvement, in particular when public opinion is perceived as being polarized, as in the case of nuclear energy (Li, Brossard, Su, Liang, Xenos, & Scheufele, 2015).

These public dialogues and consultations serve several important purposes. First, it could give people the authority and opportunity to become informed policy contributors with regard to the issues that might affect them (Cornwall & Gaventa, 2001). Furthermore, in a democratic society, the public has the right to participate in the decision making of environmental and energy issues (Richards et al., 2006). When the public perceives the participation process as transparent and inclusive, they tend to have greater trust in the decisions that are made by policymakers (Krütli et al., 2010). Another advantage of public engagements is that public values and knowledge can be conveyed to scientists and policymakers so that they can make quality decisions that take into account diverse social and moral concerns (Renn & Schweizer, 2009; Rowe & Frewer, 2000). Public engagement also enables experts and the lay public to construct a common set of knowledge that motivates the two stakeholders to understand each other’s viewpoints (Reed, 2008). This, in turn, can encourage stakeholders who disagree with each other’s opinions to find ways to work together.

Although participation is not a static concept in that it may not be possible to create a common definition of the elements of an effective participatory exercise (National Research Council, 2008; Rowe et al., 2008), the common consensus on the fundamental processes for participation include promptness, information disclosure, public empowerment, responsiveness, inclusiveness, discussion, and transparency (Beierle & Cayford, 2002; Conger & Kanungo, 1988; Irwin, 2006; OECD, 2001; Stirling, 2005; Thomas, 1995).

In practice, however, there are barriers to effective engagement that science communicators have to overcome. Some common barriers include limitations in time, a lack of public awareness, pre-existing public distrust, lack of access to information, and skepticism in the effectiveness of public engagement per se (Lorenzoni et al., 2007; OECD, 2009). For example, using the case site of Hinkley Point in the west of England, Butler, Parkhill, and Pidgeon (2011) examined the local public’s engagement with different forms of low carbon energy development either existing or proposed in the locality (i.e., nuclear power, tidal power, and onshore wind energy). In the study, time constraints to participate in such consultation and engagement process and the general feeling that they could not influence decisions even if they would like to were the two major barriers that prevented the public from participating.

Several studies have examined the outcomes and effects of public consultation on nuclear energy. For example, Pidgeon et al. (2014) adopted a mixed-methodology approach to examine the effectiveness of a major 33-month public consultation program (known as the “Energy System Project”) that was held in different parts of United Kingdom between 2010 and 2013. The study was structured in three phases. The first phase involved expert discussions and investigation of scenarios of key policy concerns. The second phase involved a qualitative deliberation to provide deeper insights the public viewpoints and concerns during the discussions. The research team assessed that the Energy System Project was effective in engaging a large number of people considering the complexity of the issue. The study further highlighted that the deliberative workshops that were interspersed with scenarios enabled people to engage in in-depth conversations about implications for their everyday lives.

In Edinburgh, Scotland, Howell, Shackley, Mabon, Ashworth, and Jeanneret (2014) conducted a large group process that investigated public perceptions of climate change and low-carbon energy technologies. The study found that people indicated a slight increase in support for nuclear energy after the workshop, even though the difference was not statistically significant. In comparison, people indicated statistically significant increase in support after the workshops for the other energy types, including coal, oil, biofuels, geothermal, hydroelectric, wind, and wave/tidal energy. However, there was a significant drop in support for carbon capture and storage. It appears that public consultations can engage the public to deliberate about the complexity of energy in general, and nuclear energy in particular. In addition, public consultations may also enhance public support for nuclear energy.

Despite this, public consultation and engagement may go in an unintended direction if not handled carefully. For example, a major public engagement exercise on climate change strategies and nuclear energy, conducted in Hong Kong in 2010, turned out to be highly ineffective. When polled, most members of the general public concurred that public engagement is an important part of nuclear decision making, but they also indicated that they were unaware of the consultation. They also believed that comprehensive and balanced information was not provided relative to the consultation process (Mah & Hills, 2014). Furthermore, the public cited other barriers that prevented them from attending the consultation: a lack of time, a perception that they could not make a difference even if they attended, and trust in government to handle nuclear situations without their input (Mah & Hills, 2014).

One line of research suggests that perceived fairness plays a key role in the consultation process, which determines whether the public will accept the legitimacy of a related outcome or policy decision. Besley and McComas (2014) highlighted four types of fairness—distributive, procedural, interpersonal, and informational. Distributive fairness relates to people’s concerns about the fairness of outcomes. Procedural fairness refers to people’s concerns about whether they have received a fair process (Thaibaut & Walker, 1975). Interpersonal fairness concerns the extent to which people think decision makers are respectful, and would treat them with respect. Informational fairness refers to the degree in which people believe that decision makers would be timely, thorough, and transparent in the decision-making process. Empirically, Besley (2010) found that distributive fairness judgments mattered most when it came to assessing overall support for nuclear energy, but other forms of fairness mattered when assessing whether a decision was legitimate.

Another study that looked at a plan to expand a nuclear power plant in the U.S. Southeast found that the effects of outcome and procedural fairness on public perception of the legitimacy of a decision process is contingent on their level of anger (Besley, 2014). People who feel angry tend to depend on perceived outcome and procedural fairness when formulating their perception of whether a decision process is legitimate or not; while perceived outcome and procedural fairness do not matter to people who are not angry. These findings suggest that public consultation must be conducted in a fair and transparent manner so that people can accept the outcomes, regardless of whether it is in line or against their own points of view. Specific to nuclear energy, across country settings and relative to specific communities, it may be worthwhile for communication practitioners to investigate the types of risk communication that affect the perceived fairness of authority figures or decision-making processes.

In a similar vein, by analyzing the nuclear policymaking processes and outcomes of a U.K. nuclear consultation exercise in 2007, Mah and Hills (2014) found that, due to a lack of focus on trust and other key elements behind the engagement, the consultation ended with unwanted results such as public distrust in the legitimacy of final decisions. The researchers developed a framework for public engagement by highlighting three important dimensions: content, process, and outcome. The content dimension features the extent to which information presented to the public is accurate, holistic, and objective. The process dimension describes the interactions among the stakeholders that occur in the process. The outcome dimension highlights the changes that ensue from the interactions. The important elements of the process dimension include “timeliness, inclusiveness, transparency, responsiveness, empowerment, and deliberation” (p. 341). In addition, “improvement of the substantive quality of decisions, policy legitimacy, trust enhancement, empowerment, and conflict resolution” are identified as the important elements of the outcome dimension (p. 341). By comparing the actual public engagement in the United Kingdom and their normative content-process-outcome framework, the findings indicate that policymakers need to integrate more responsive and deliberative forms of participation into existing styles that concentrate on focused and instrumental goals of consultation.

Given the promise of public engagement for issues on climate change and the future of nuclear energy, as well as the concomitant barriers for public consultations, science communicators will have to experiment further with innovative methods for the delivery of public engagement processes that ensures timeliness, fairness, and transparency. Besides this, there might be variations in the manner in which public consultations are conducted across different countries. In particular, as public deliberation has its roots in the Western tradition, the contrast between the East and the West may be wide when it comes to practices in public consultations. Future studies should more rigorously identify practices in public consultations, taking into account the unique cultural contexts between the East and the West.


This article gives an overview of media discourses related to nuclear energy, highlights public perception of nuclear energy in relation to climate change; provides an update on the current frames used in the conversation of the technology; and describes the best practices and barriers to public consultations in nuclear energy.

As reviewed, major accidents such as the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima tend to stimulate greater media discourse about the risks and hazards of nuclear energy, pushing aside mentions of the benefits of the technology for climate change mitigation. With a few exceptions, many of the empirical studies that used content analysis to examine media discourse about nuclear energy focused on the U.S. news media. Hence, more international research is needed to analyze media discourse in countries across Asia and Europe, especially relative to coverage in the years following the Fukushima accident, and as strategies to de-carbonize the world economy are debated and implemented. As media coverage can shape public attitudes toward nuclear energy, understanding variations in news coverage across countries can give science communicators and policymakers a better idea of how they can reshape the agenda on the news.

While the general public may reluctantly accept nuclear energy for climate change mitigation, competing messages that highlight the benefits of nuclear power for energy security and economic advantage appear to have greater impact on public acceptance of the technology. Moreover, public perception of nuclear energy is shaped by a host of other factors such as trust in nuclear governing institutions, knowledge, political inclinations, geographical proximity, and socio-demographic variables. At the same time, nuclear experts and the general public differ in their levels of risk perception of nuclear energy. Understanding these key differences between the experts and the public, and the ways in which beliefs, values, and perceptions influence public acceptance of nuclear energy is necessary, therefore, when and if, policymakers decide to develop framing strategies and public engagement initiatives that communicate nuclear energy as a necessary means to tackle climate change.

More research is needed on public perception of nuclear energy in countries such as Thailand and Vietnam, where there are considerations to deploy the technology. The public in these countries may have different sets of considerations from those residing in China, the United States, or France, where the technology is strongly familiar and well developed. Moreover, future studies should conduct longitudinal panel studies so that changes in public opinion toward nuclear energy can be tracked over time, in relation to events, and across countries. It is also timely for scholars to conduct a more current comparison of public and expert perceptions of nuclear energy, as most of the studies specific to this contrast are more than two decades old.

Most studies of public attitudes and communication about nuclear energy have ignored or left unaddressed various Internet-based contexts. The growth in social media has created an online sphere where people can express their opinions about nuclear energy. Apart from any news framing of an issue, since online comments and recommendations can result in attitude polarization among the public (Anderson, Brossard, Scheufele, Xenos, & Ladwig, 2014), it is necessary for future studies to investigate public opinion within and across online contexts. For instance, sentiment analysis, content analysis, and discourse analysis of online discourses can help fill this void. The online environment is a much more dynamic and challenging context where public opinion toward nuclear energy may be difficult to capture and manage, especially in times of a nuclear crisis. Policymakers and scientists may have to continuously monitor the online discourse and react in a timely manner.

Finally, various key stakeholders have been vying to influence the frame building process in the media about nuclear energy and climate change. As reviewed, politicizing science by highlighting that politicians often engage in piecemeal selection of scientific work to advance their own interests in the media reduces public support for nuclear energy. For effective communication, policymakers and scientists will have to experiment with a mix of frames that resonate with the public. When it comes to public consultation, more investment is needed in ensuring transparency, accountability, and fairness, so that people are willing to accept any outcomes or decisions as legitimate. Of course, cultural variations may exist regarding the effectiveness of message frames and the public consultation processes. Future studies would have to assess what message frames do and do not work across countries and cultures.


This material is based on research supported by the Singapore National Research Foundation under NPRP Award No. NRF2014NPR-NPRP001-004. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Singapore National Research Foundation.

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