Public Mistrusts Nuclear Power, Report Says

Arkansas Nuclear One nuclear power plant photo

Arkansas Nuclear One power plant. Photo by Topato via
Guest bloggers Andrea Donsky and Randy Boyer are co-founders of
Nuclear power is exploding. Right now there are 50 nuclear reactors being built worldwide, and more than 100 are slated for construction over the next 10 years. But a position paper published in the journal Science and authored by 16 social science researchers from institutions throughout the U.S. indicates the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future is failing to address public concerns and mistrust related to nuclear safety.The researchers say addressing public concerns -- everything from plant safety to terrorist threats to waste storage -- is vital to acceptance of a nuclear energy program. And whether you view nuclear energy as a climate fix or an environmental folly, awareness empowers the public to make informed decisions about energy production.

Nuclear Waste is a Major Issue
Nuclear waste storage is one of the biggest threats to an expanded nuclear program. The U.S. alone has accumulated about 60,000 tons of high-level waste to date, and since there's no way to safely dispose of it, it has to be stored until it decays completely.

According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, high-level waste is the byproduct of spent uranium, and it is "highly radioactive." Some of the byproduct elements are lighter than uranium and have a shorter half-life (some can decay in minutes or hours, but isotopes Strontium-90 and cesium-137 have a half-life of 30 years, which means they lose half of their radioactivity in 30 years).

But "transuranic" elements are the real problem. They're heavier than the uranium fuel and they take thousands of years to decay -- some even as much as hundreds of thousands of years. As the NRC puts it, "the wastes must be stored in a way that provides adequate protection for very long times."

Public Involvement is Vital to Nuclear Policy
Nuclear waste safety and storage are complex issues, but public concern has to be addressed by the President's panel says Sharon M. Friedman, one of the paper's authors:

The issues around nuclear waste storage need to be evaluated in a transparent and cooperative environment between technical experts and the public. Communicating with people about risks from radioactive waste is extremely difficult. You can't see or smell radiation, you don't know what it will do to you, and dangers from various exposure levels are hard to explain. All of this instills fear in people and works against public acceptability of proposed solutions for disposing of nuclear waste.

A number of social science studies have already addressed how nuclear waste issues can impact communities and shape policy around these issues. This knowledge should not be wasted but used instead to help find solutions.

In the paper, the authors suggest that addressing social issues "does not guarantee success, but ignoring them increases the chances of repeating past failures, like Yucca Mountain."

Nevada's Yucca Mountain was chosen as the site of a national high-level waste storage facility, and has faced a lot of opposition from Nevada's governor, Nevada residents, environmentalists, various politicians, and, most notably, President Obama. In March, the Department of Energy filed a motion to withdraw the license application for the ill-fated project.

The idea of involving communities in choosing the location of nuclear waste facilities, of being involved in the process in order to build trust and ensure the process is completely transparent, has its merits. In Sweden, communities have the power to veto development of nuclear storage facilities. Even sites that have been vetoed by communities have are not considered complete failures because public trust has been maintained.

Concerns related to nuclear safety and nuclear waste storage are valid. Accidents happen. Safety features fail. Infrastructure degrades over time. Involving the public in nuclear energy decision-making is vital, because if we stay on this course toward a future powered by nuclear energy, then it has to go in someone's backyard.

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