As emergency workers labored around the clock to cool reactors at Japan's beleaguered Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, U.S. policy makers questioned what the potential meltdown could mean for American nuclear energy policy.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., suggested on CBS' "Face the Nation" that the United States should "put the brakes on" nuclear power until the situation in Japan is resolved, while Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told "Fox News Sunday" he opposed making American policy decisions based on the Japanese disaster. [LiveScience: Japan Earthquake & Tsunami]
Researchers who study public perceptions of nuclear energy say the disaster in Japan could sway U.S. public opinion on the safety of nuclear power. The final verdict, they say, will depend on whether the plant comes under control and how well the nuclear industry keeps the public informed.
"The Japanese nuclear industry has a history of not telling the truth to its public," Baruch Fischhoff, a professor of social and decision sciences, engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, told LiveScience. "They actually had a very good safety record as far as everybody knows, and yet they haven't been trusted, because they haven't been honest … It seems like they almost don't have the protocols in place to produce a candid, clear summary of what the situation is."
In the United States, nuclear energy has never been particularly popular, but public acceptance of nuclear power plants has crept upward in recent years. According to a March 2009 Gallup poll, 59 percent of Americans favor the use of nuclear power, compared with about 54 percent in previous polls. The approval rating included 27 percent who strongly favored nuclear, up from 20 percent in previous years.
Still, many people remained skeptical. Fifty-three percent of women (and 29 percent of men) disapproved of nuclear power plants, and a sizeable minority of 42 percent said they aren't safe, according to the 2009 poll.
Such numbers can be frustrating to nuclear industry risk assessors, who argue that nuclear energy is safe and the risk of accidents low. The fossil-fuel alternatives are not without risk, they note: An analysis by the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland found that between 1969 and 2000, fossil fuel extraction and production killed an average of 1,600 people a year. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, between 1970 and 1992 there were 0.01 fatalities per gigawatt, or billion watts, of nuclear power produced. For coal power, that number was 0.32, and for oil it was 0.36. The only other non-fossil fuel evaluated by the IAEA, hydroelectric power, took 0.8 lives per gigawatt of electricity. (All numbers include accidents in which at least five people were killed; if smaller accidents are included, according to the IAEA, the total fatalities are about 10 times higher.)
But when it comes to assessing risk, nuclear technicians and the public don't see eye-to-eye, said Lauren Fleishman, a doctoral candidate at Carnegie Mellon who studies people's perceptions of various energy production alternatives. Professional risk assessors focus on the overall likelihood that a disaster will happen, Fleishman said. The average person, on the other hand, heavily weighs the possible severity of the potential disaster, Fleishman said. That's why people tend to fear air travel more than car travel, despite the fact that car crashes take far more lives.
"It's not that these people are wrong," Fleishman told LiveScience. "It's just that they calculate risk in their heads sort of differently."
From a glass-half-full perspective, it took the largest earthquake on the record in Japan and then an enormous tsunami to knock out the reactors, and residents closest to the plant have been successfully evacuated.
But fuel rods have been exposed and radiation has been released into the atmosphere. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said Tuesday that due to damaged cooling systems at three of the plant's reactors, radiation levels had reached "levels that can impact human health," according to news reports.
Fischhoff said the U.S. industry representatives he'd seen making public statements on the disaster had "stumbled" over their explanations. By keeping a strong record of safety, the U.S. nuclear industry has bought itself goodwill, he said, but they could easily squander it with equivocation.
"The public isn't being given a fair chance to evaluate what is happening, because the industry seems to be falling over itself in its communications," Fischhoff said.
Fleishman suspects public opinion on nuclear energy will come down to something psychologists call "confirmation bias" — essentially, people believe what they want to believe. It's "totally anecdotal," she said, but she has been collecting data for her energy policy studies since the disaster began, and those people who were already more skeptical of nuclear energy are also those who seem more worried about the Japanese reactors.
"There are two sides to this issue," Fleishman said. "And I think people are going to pull out the information that they want to."