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Q&A: Public Opinion of Nuclear and Why it Matters to the Clean Energy Transition


Nuclear power has a major role to play in the clean energy transition, but for decades, its use has been a divisive topic among the public. With public opinion playing a major part in how governments choose to produce energy, addressing this long-standing debate will be a key part of a sustainable, clean energy transition.

To dive deeper into this topic, I sat down with Zion Lights, an environmental journalist and activist that has been on both sides of the nuclear question. Once a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion, a global environmental movement critical of nuclear energy, Lights is now the UK Director of Environmental Progress, a research and policy organization on clean power and energy justice for all.

Public acceptance related to nuclear power is also one of the issues that will be touched on during the upcoming IAEA Scientific Forum on ‘Nuclear Power and the Clean Energy Transition’ from 22 to 23 September.

You were not always in support of nuclear. What changed your mind?

I had heard many negative myths about how harmful nuclear waste and radiation are: in fact, in the environmental movement, which I have been involved with for most of my life, most people simply believe these myths.

But around 6 or 7 years ago, when I was a member of the Green Party and not ‘pro’ nuclear at the time, I attended an energy debate where I tried to ask a question about nuclear, but my question was quickly shut down. I felt that something was amiss, so I spoke to an engineer friend of mine about it who sent me a scientific paper addressing one of the myths I had believed about the number of deaths caused by radiation from the Fukushima accident. My belief had been that many people had died due to radiation from the disaster, but the truth is, that none had. This led me to dig deeper, and I found that many of my ideas about waste were unfounded, and that nuclear is actually a much safer option than fossil fuels, which many countries are still heavily reliant on.

Why do you think nuclear is important?

We live in a warming world that is causing species extinctions, making life harder for those already living in poverty, and burdening economies worldwide. To reverse these trends, lift people out of poverty and improve air quality, we need clean energy options, and nuclear is our only real option for reaching zero carbon emissions.

Not only does it take up little space, but a single plant can provide 80 years of clean energy. Without this reliable energy, we often see countries ending up using coal or natural gas to fill energy gaps.

The nuclear industry needs to speak up and help the public see how it has owned its mistakes and address the public’s fears so the world can embrace nuclear for the incredible solution that is, instead of being afraid of it.

If the nuclear industry has owned its mistakes, then why do you think gaining public acceptance is still a challenge today?

The myth that nuclear is bad is an easy narrative to draw people into. Many people remember the incidents at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl in 1986 and in Fukushima in 2011. They were both serious situations, but fearful reporting has contributed to misinformation about what happened and about nuclear more generally, which has only made the anti-nuclear imagery stronger.

Nuclear has also had a bad image for a long time now because of popular culture. When I talk to people who fear nuclear waste, for example, it usually only takes a few minutes until it becomes evident that their idea of waste is that it is a green, corrosive liquid that is poorly managed — an image that has been perpetuated by TV shows, cartoons and films. The idea of radiation is similarly inaccurate, and equally people’s feelings confuse nuclear power with nuclear weapons.

For public opinion around nuclear to change, there needs to be a shift in how we talk about it, who talks about it, and a focus on all the positives nuclear energy brings us rather than the current industry line of ‘it’s safe’. Fossil fuels aren’t safe, and yet the industry has marketed them to be green solutions. Nuclear ought to be rebranded as green energy.

So how do you think we can begin shifting the public narrative around nuclear?

It’s important to start with the root causes of people’s fears and the very basics of what they are worried about. To get there, we need to listen to people’s concerns and encourage dialogue. That means more conversations and shorter presentations. Longer Q&As. Talk with people. Ask questions. We should engage in two-way communication and not polarize the conversation from the outset or belittle their concerns.

Also, not everyone has a clear grasp of what radiation, irradiation or nuclear is, and many do not realize that radiation is naturally occurring from the ground and space, is all around us, and can easily be measured and shielded against if needed. Simple, concrete facts that address myths and concerns directly can help to unpick specific fears, rather than resorting to masses of data, numbers and long articles that many people won’t actually read. But mainly, it’s about being a kind, patient and receptive communicator.

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