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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > Nov Dec 2016 > Nuclear Power and the Psychology of Evaluating Risk

Nuclear Power and the Psychology of Evaluating Risk

Could it be that opponents of nuclear energy contribute to worsening global warming by failing to evaluate its risk rationally?

With climate change and environmental devastation threatening the quality of human and nonhuman life, our minds inevitably turn to energy, in particular to alternatives to fossil fuels. Since the Cold War, environmental movements have had a tendency to lump nuclear energy with the horror of nuclear weapons. (Websites for Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and Sierra Club, for example, publish reports only on how “dirty” and “dangerous” nuclear power can be, without considering any opposing evidence.) This despite the fact that many green thinkers, well aware of nuclear energy’s potential dangers, have attempted to argue for its at least short-term benefit in the face of the global warming challenge (including George Monbiot, Ansel Adams, Mark Lynas, Patrick Moore, Ted Nordhaus, Chris Goodall, Jeffrey Sachs, James Lovelock, and Daniel Blumstein to name just a few).

Laypeople such as myself who read science journals and attempt to keep an open mind about complex political realities are aware of several accidents at nuclear plants but are also facing the scientific evidence that nuclear power is, on average, extremely safe, environmentally clean, and plays virtually no role in heating up our planet (Biello 2013). It is difficult to maintain a skeptical position with so many ongoing opposing stances among our leaders (among Democrats, Hillary Clinton has spoken at various times either favorably or neutrally about nuclear power; Bernie Sanders, a significant promoter of renewables, has opposed it; Republicans, on the other hand, speak mostly in its favor and also support drastic deregulation of environmental protection and remain mostly, but not completely, deniers of global warming science itself).

We could of course attempt to balancethe scary side of that word nuclear withthe truly miraculous side, the one that saves lives thanks to X-ray and CT scans and radiation therapy for cancers.

It is thus reasonable to wonder if part of the opposition to nuclear energy is psychological in nature—rooted in problems about how we evaluate risk itself rather than entirely rational. We can consider this question even while we remain environmentalists who otherwise support attempts to overcome global warming through large-scale development of renewables, overcoming dependence upon petroleum and gas, improving conservation, reducing energy use, protecting wildlife, and exploring ways to reduce population and consumption. Most of us who read science articles and journals are aware that nuclear energy produces waste, and we know that it is radioactive rather than gaseous, the latter typically including such pollutants as carbon dioxide, sulfur, or mercury (Barett 2014).

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40TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION PART II ODYSSEYS SCIENTIFIC SKEPTICISM NUCLEAR POWER and the Psychology of Evaluating Risk MICHAEL MANN and the Climate Wars Superstition Masquerading as Science