Nuclear Cognition

Public attitudes, elite opinion, and the next generation of nuclear energy communications

Nuclear energy is perhaps the most controversial technology ever created. Since the initial commercialization of nuclear reactors in the late 1950s, the technology has been broadly misunderstood by the public, while public opinion has been broadly misunderstood by elites.

Members of the public are apt to conflate nuclear energy with nuclear weapons, associate it with fossil fuels, and overestimate the risks associated with nuclear accidents and waste disposal. They also underestimate how much energy nuclear produces, its environmental benefits, and its remarkable record of safe operation. Elites, in turn, have consistently overestimated how much the public knows and cares about nuclear energy while failing to appreciate the degree to which public opinion, when offered, is mostly just a proxy for various partisan, ideological, and cultural identities rather than indicating well-formed opinions about the technology itself.

This report plumbs the voluminous and diverse research on nuclear attitudes going back 50 years, with the goal of extracting actionable insights for nuclear communications — particularly in the US context. We find that nuclear energy is a low-salience issue for the American public. Most people think about nuclear energy only when pollsters ask them to offer an opinion about it. When asked, about as many people express support for nuclear energy as opposition, but few have strong opinions.

When responding to surveys, the public is prone to associate nuclear energy with its most salient negative associations — waste, accidents, and radiation. However, perceived benefits are a stronger predictor of nuclear support or opposition, and long-term fluctuation in public attitudes is strongly associated not with concerns about pollution or climate change, nor even the risks of nuclear energy, but with perceptions of energy scarcity.

Insofar as public opinion about nuclear energy is polarized, that polarization has been cued by political elites. Elite opinion toward nuclear energy (in contrast to public attitudes) has been characterized by strong, consistent, and ideologically coherent attitudes. From the 1960s onward, elite opinion became increasingly fractured along the fault lines of cultural worldviews. Nuclear energy became absorbed into this polarization of elite opinion, and public opinion followed suit. Egalitarian worldviews aligned with the anti-nuclear sentiment, and hierarchical/individualist worldviews aligned with nuclear support. On both sides of the divide, polarization increased with education and political engagement.

Alongside this sorting of attitudes, a new cognitive structure for thinking and talking about energy was developed, largely by opponents of nuclear energy, that has come to define the terms in which all energy sources and technologies are discussed. This cognitive structure reduces energy sources and technologies to two binary categories: (1) energy sources that are clean, cheap, abundant, simple, small, and natural and (2) those that are dirty, expensive, scarce, complex, large, and unnatural. A solar panel on the roof of a home is the dominant prototype for the first category of energy, and an oil well or coal-burning power plant is the prototype for the second.

The characteristics of those categories fit together conceptually even when the facts do not. Solar and wind are seen as “cheap” even if the electricity they produce is expensive, because nobody owns the wind or the sun. They are perceived as “clean” even if they require large land and material intensity, because they don’t involve combustion and air pollution. And they are viewed as “natural” even though they are manufactured in factories, because they harness the sun and the wind rather than fuels that must be mined and refined.

By contrast, fossil fuels are considered expensive even if the energy they produce is cheap, because they are scarce and the fuel can be owned. And they are considered unnatural because they are mined or extracted, refined, and combusted.

Although nuclear energy does not fit neatly into either category, it is associated mostly with the second because it is produced in large plants and uses a fuel source that is mined and refined; it does not combust that fuel, but it does create heat to boil water; it does not pollute the air, but its environmental risks are widely known; and it is not any more or less natural than any other technology, but the splitting of atoms is seen by many as fundamentally unnatural.

In the decades since nuclear attitudes realigned along cultural fault lines, and the binary schema of energy sources was constructed in the 1970s, little has happened that might shift opinion among either elites or the public. Energy prices have remained low. Western nations have built few reactors. The basic technological and institutional contexts in which nuclear energy has been deployed and operated have remained largely unchanged.

In spite of this relative stasis, two recent developments suggest the possibility of significant shifts in both public and elite opinion.

First, climate change has created an opening for egalitarian elites to reconsider nuclear energy. The public is prone to assume that nuclear energy emits greenhouse gases, but virtually all elites know that it does not. As the scale of clean energy necessary to address climate change has become clear, along with the challenge of doing so without nuclear energy, many elites concerned about climate change have begun to take a second look.

Second, a new generation of much smaller advanced reactors is on the verge of commercialization. These reactors have many characteristics common to the clean-energy category. They are small, simple, manufactured, and developed by start-ups and entrepreneurs rather than government scientists. Many can run on recycled fuel, which makes them functionally limitless.

Taken together, these two developments represent a singular opportunity to redefine nuclear energy and garner the levels of public acceptance and popularity that renewable energy receives today, and that nuclear received in the first decades of its development.

Restarting the conversation about nuclear energy will require the right audience, messengers, messages, and technology. The recommendations that follow do not assume that better communications and messaging are all that is needed. To the contrary, public support would surely be helped by greater transparency, consultation, and outreach by the nuclear industry in its relationship with communities that surround existing and proposed plants. And the advanced nuclear industry will need to deliver on its commitment to finishing projects on time and on budget. But as these technologies approach commercialization, the work of seizing this opportunity needs to begin now.

Three key guiding principles for communicating about nuclear energy emerged from this analysis:

Principle 1: Highlight benefits rather than dismissing risks

Nuclear advocates consistently overestimate the public’s fears about nuclear energy and underestimate the importance of its perceived benefits. This often leads to reinforcing fears rather than allaying them. In reality, perceived benefits better predict public acceptance of nuclear energy than perceived risks. Nuclear advocates therefore would be better served making less efforts to confront misperceptions and more efforts to highlight benefits, especially those associated with next-generation reactors.

Principle 2: Shift the prototype to advanced technologies

Transforming public opinion requires changing the mental prototype of nuclear energy. Mental prototypes matter for public attitudes about energy issues. Solar energy, for example, has benefited from its dominant prototype being a few rooftop solar panels rather than large-scale, land-intensive solar farms. Similarly, small advanced reactors can offer a new mental prototype of nuclear energy, one that not only is more broadly appealing but also resonates with egalitarian worldviews.

Principle 3: Target egalitarian elites

Transforming attitudes about nuclear requires such egalitarian opinion leaders to become outspoken in their support for nuclear energy. Although climate change has produced grudging acceptance of existing nuclear power sources among environmental elites, gaining their more full-throated support requires a vision of nuclear energy that aligns with — rather than challenges — their vision of an ideal society. This entails a vision of nuclear energy that is “small,” “simple,” decentralized, community-based, and in harmony with nature.

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