New Study Provides Clues on How to Build Public Support for Nuclear Energy

A new study at the journal Risk Analysis examines the factors shaping public perceptions of nuclear energy and provides important clues about how to effectively mobilize public support for expanded investment in the technology. (See end of post.)

The study analyzes data from 1997, but the relative stability in public attitudes about nuclear energy and the strong measurement in the study of core constructs such as risk perceptions, environmental values, and nuclear attitudes make the findings still relevant.

Not surprisingly, according to the analysis, basic value orientations--including environmental values--shape public attitudes and account for much of the variance in support. However, the study also finds that one of the strongest predictors of support is trust in the nuclear industry and regulators. Above and beyond value orientations, the more trust respondents had in these organizations, the more supportive they were of nuclear power.

The impact of trust was both direct in shaping support for nuclear energy, but also indirect by way of its influence on risk perceptions. Specifically, the more trust individuals had in industry and regulators, the fewer risks they perceived in nuclear technology, and thereby the more supportive they were of investment in nuclear energy.

From the conclusion to the study:

We began our investigation with the question of whether or not happy days are here again for nuclear power. The most recently available national opinion data on expanding the number of nuclear power plants reveals an ambivalent American public. From 2001 to 2003 polls show a slight (51%) to solid majority (60%) opposed to this option.(19) Recent Gallup polls,(20) however, show a slightly positive attitude, where: in 2004 54% favored nuclear compared to 43% opposed; in 2006, 55% favored while 40% opposed; and in 2007, 50% favored while 46% opposed (although this barely exceeds statistical significance). Moreover, the most compelling raison d'etre for reviving nuclear power, as a solution to global warming, has yet to attract widespread support.16

Despite this considerable opposition, the American public supports nuclear power for the generation of electricity in the abstract: in the most recent national poll 53% favor this option,(19,20) a finding consistent with the plurality support (42%) that we found here, although the majority of our study's respondents either oppose (28%) this option or are unsure (30%). This evidence together with the data on persistent majority opposition to local plant sittings, as described in footnote 3, is not encouraging to the widely claimed revival of nuclear power.

Our survey was designed to unpack global attitudes toward nuclear power by examining their underlying cognitive, cultural, and social elements. The results from our SEM estimates sustain previous findings,(40,45,61) showing the importance of institutional trust on risk perceptions and the importance of both in shaping attitudes toward risky technologies, such as nuclear power. The direct effect of trust is slightly stronger (0.52) than the direct effect of perceived nuclear risk (0.43), and the total effects are substantially larger. Even controlling for trust, risk perceptions, and the NEP, values maintain a substantial direct effect on support for nuclear power. When we turn to the immediate antecedents of perceived nuclear risk, we find that trust dominates and education is the only other independent variable that has a significant direct effect.

In general, our results extend the cumulative findings in the literature on the connection between institutional trust, risk perceptions, and attitudes toward risk technologies. Importantly, however, they deepen our understanding of the dynamics of technological decisions by demonstrating the key importance of values--both directly and indirectly via environmental worldviews, trust in nuclear organizations, and perceptions of risk. Not only do these results sustain the prediction of the VBN model, but they also refine our understanding of attitudes toward nuclear power by distinguishing between traditional values that increase risk tolerance from socially conscious values that decrease tolerance....

...A proper interpretation of our results requires an appreciation of the "plasticity" of variables, by which we mean the speed with which a given variable can change in any direction and the possible range of that change.(62) Longitudinal data on nuclear attitudes over decades show them to be asymmetrically plastic. It is relatively easy to increase nuclear opposition with negative events, such as public protests or accidents such as Three Mile Island, but very difficult to increase nuclear support, even after long periods of safe operations.(6) Hence, whether a new generation of safe reactors, or a burst of enthusiasm from the nuclear industry, or national policy and financial support can redirect nuclear attitudes to be supportive of the technology is highly problematic. As for trust, the risk perception literature has been dominated by the assertion that trust is fragile--once broken it is hard to regain.(40,44) Our data reaffirm that those who believe that nuclear power is an essential part of America's future energy supply will need to devote as much attention to institutional design and performance as they do to reactor design if they hope to win public support. Our results, along with the other data reviewed here, suggest that public attitudes toward nuclear power, while considerably less negative than in the recent past and trending slightly positive, are not yet reflective of the exuberance of those predicting an early renaissance in commercial nuclear power.

The VBN model, supported in part by our results, frames and summarizes the dynamics of what shapes nuclear attitudes. It shows that the individual decisionmaker is neither an isolated, cold, calculating maximizer of the rational actor paradigm, nor is the "cognitive cripple" ruled by incoherent thinking once believed in the psychology of risk. Instead, the decisionmaker exhibits a rich combination of cognitive insight, social and emotional intelligence,(63) and cultural awareness, all anchored by fundamental values showing concern for others and the environment.

To the extent that an enhanced reliance on nuclear power is or can become technologically, economically, and environmentally viable, it will require not only a more robust understanding of the underlying drivers of public attitudes, values, and perceptions about nuclear power but also active assimilation of that understanding into public policy and institutional design.

The authors don't directly address it, but what are the implications of the study for effective public communication?

The findings suggest that advocates for expanding nuclear energy--whether government, industry, or forward thinking environmentalists---need to focus less on educating the public about the technical risks and benefits of nuclear energy and more on relationship building, engaging in organized dialogue with stakeholders and concerned citizens at the local level; framing messages that speak to the background and social identity of key audience segments; using respected third parties and opinion leaders such a medical professionals and religious leaders to build trust; and using Web sites and other social media tools that enhance transparency and two way dialogue with audiences.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.