The Abject, Or, Why are people afraid of nuclear power?

Pen and Copic marker rendering of the South Texas Nuclear Generating Station by the author.

I was gathering my thoughts to write a blog post about why many people in the general public seem to distrust or even fear nuclear power and, indeed it seems, anything nuclear whatsoever. How, exactly, has an overall impressive safety record and the ability to provide safe, clean, energy devoid of dependence on foreign nations or even fossil fuels come to be something that scares people when it would seem to be something most people would only encourage?

When I look at this situation as a scientist, I feel like Mr. Spock from Star Trek: this just isn't logical. However, we must remember that people function on a socio-emotional level as much or more than a logical level, and this is only more true when the topic is something technical where many people lack the scientific background to understand the issues in full. Still, how did nuclear become this boogeyman?

The Bulgarian-French linguist Julia Kristeva—a writer and academic who has worked on a vast array of topics in language, literature, and psychology—may have some ideas we can apply to the socio-emotional position of "nuclear" anything. Dr. Kristeva has a concept of what she terms "the abject", which is a fairly nuanced concept in itself but boils down to the idea that there are things in life we find horrible, repulsive, yet powerful and fascinating. Her concept helps us understand why people become interested in the lives of terrorists or serial killers, or why a figure like Jack the Ripper can still sell movies and books over the years. However, the abject isn't limited to horrible people or fantastic monsters: technology and social constructs can also harbor the abject. In fact, a person seemingly unlikely to do something horrible such as the Boston bomber, the young teenager Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, makes for a far more abject premise than a horror movie monster. Likewise, a technology that is expected to work for good but winds up causing great evil is also a good choice. The abject can also embody the same basic traits as the literary concept of the sublime, that is, something that is both mighty and scary, awe-inspiring and yet able to slip out of control and cause disaster. These are trends that writers have worked into fiction and poetry for generations and even show up in folktales the world over. Part of the ever-popular appeal of the vampire legend is that a departed human could come back from the grave to bring death to more people; having that human a cunning, charming, character like Count Dracula only makes the monster at once less of a repulsive thing yet a more horrible and scary character to behold. There is nothing new under the sun to this thinking, really, at least not in the realm of fiction.

So how is nuclear a prime contender for the abject? Let's just count the ways:

—Advanced, complex, technology that many people don't understand very well.

—Connections to nuclear weapons and massive destructive power that seems almost magical—able to win wars for the cause of good, but also able to bring about great disaster in the hands of those inclined to do evil.

—Via invisible radiation, able to cause horrible sickness that isn't in some cases even noticed at first. The ability to damage unseen.

—In movies and most science fiction, anything nuclear or akin to nuclear power is going to either function as a weapon of great might or else a source of power that we never see really produce power as it ought to (at least not for long) before it "blows up" or otherwise causes a wealth of trouble. "Nuclear" carries as a plot device two aspects that writers of suspense adore: it can cause vast damge and death and it also can be set to a countdown, whether as an actual weapon or as a meltdown situation veering out of control. It can generate suspense via the two most key aspects of suspense: the promise to do great harm if something isn't stopped, and the time-sensitive nature of stopping that something. Therefore, writers and movie directors return to nuclear this and nuclear that time and again in one guise or another.

—A robust iconography of symbols and traits that we all know from Hollywood to mean "nuclear" with little real explanation of what these cues mean on a technical level. The universal radiation symbol, the protective suits worn by nuclear workers, the blue glow of Cherenkov radiation, images of nuclear weapons in their silos awaiting the Soviet attack of the Cold War, massive control rooms with vast arrays of switches and dials. All of this, to those who do not work in technical fields and have seen these images used to create an emotional reaction in movies or other entertainment will understandably associate the emotional meaning over any logical or tangible ones when confronted with the basal constructs behind such iconography. Indeed, simply saying something is "nuclear" means it's ultra-hot, dangerous, life-taking, or simply the most-powerful thing on the menu. How many places offer their chicken wings in mild, medium, hot, or "nuclear"? I've seen it plenty of times.

—The word "nuclear" itself has an explicit gravitas. I was trying to explain the various levels of classified information in the US to a friend in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks and told him about the DOE's "Q' level. Ah, he said, so that's "even worse" than "top-secret" then because it's like "nuclear top-secret"? Pretty much. Nuclear gets its own language even in the realm of the hush-hush, it commands its own nomenclature.

Thus, "nuclear" has come to mean something far beyond its real meaning: it has become a shorthand for anything and everything in our ultra-technological society at the level of most-advanced yet most-dangerous. It brings to mind terrorists, the Cold War, accidents, spy movies, the military, and all sorts of other thriller material. This is the level the lay-person often operates at: just as we can say "such-and-such isn't brain surgery" we can say "do you want it nuclear-hot?". How many people aside from neurological surgeons know how much more (or less) complex brain surgery is from other demanding operations? How many people know how hot a reactor gets or why it gets that way? We've created constructs of language that are pretty far removed from their points of origin yet have taken on a life of their own. Once we understand that this is the arena—not what we know as professionals, but what non-professionals know via a mixed bag of odd fictions and Cold war memories—we will know better how to compete in that arena.

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  • The fear, my dear, is not from misunderstanding or lack of education about how "nuclear" will grow to be the answer to power problems of the future , [especially when the heat from fusion technology is controlled], but rather the knowledge of the incompetence of many humans..Many of us have either worked at nukes or know people who have.  All of the control room people that I have met are smart ,well educated,and sane.  --However other jobs are sometimes filled by people put in place by agendas other than competence. The security people that work for the plant at North Anna are employees of high caliber and capability, but we all know of some contractor furnished people at other plants whiose employees are less professional---that is why I cannot stress enough thorough testing and retesting as well as penalties for those who falsify records to get friends or buddies employed.--Yes it will cost more to do increased testing  and more often---but -when the public knows that only the best and brightest will man our plants,you will find more confidence in them.====Also people need to know that slow nuclear fission produces no carbon dioxide like fossil plants;   that radioactive waste is kept to a bare minimum;   and that spent fuel is reprocessed in other smart countries like France [where they produce more than 80%n of their power from nuclear] and Russia .

  • Ms. Berlin, to be clear, my post here deals more with the general fears and concerns of the public at large, so I do feel those concerns in many cases stem from a lack of comprehensive education and understanding regarding nuclear technologies combined with how nuclear issues have been furnished via the media. I'm speaking of the general public, not those valid concerns that people in the industry may harbor regarding specific issues at specific sites. Those are of course very important concerns, too, but my post here considers fears in general on the part of the public who do not understand the nuances of the nuclear industry and moreover, how those fears came to be manifest in a manner that we have not seen with many other industries.

  • I just had to join to comment on this.  I have an idea that would help with energy education and I wonder if some investors would want to do it:  Create a National Nuclear Power Museum and Science Education Center.  What would happen is:  Take a decommissioned nuclear power plant - kewaunee might be a good candidate.  Remove all the fuel and take away as much radiation as possible.  Then create pathways so people can actually see inside a nuclear power station.  I would like to see one but never have and never will - too tight security.  But with this science center, there can be cutaways of some of the components, exhibits about what they do, speakers and presentations about energy, and if people can see what these components are they will know that they are talking about in the news and it can also lead to careers in science in general.  It might have helped to have something like this when I was planning a career - unfortunately, every engineer I knew of was a nasty grouch who had a lot of kids - I did not even know what engineerring was until toolate.Also, there has ben someway of getting into a the nuclear indusrtry whithout having to spend 4 years in an airtight tube with 100+ other guys. Like this idea?

  • Anonymous

    So now when we know the answer for the question; Why are people afraid of nuclear power? It is time to ask; How to deafen fear, bad emotions and negative connotations associated with nuclear power?  And the key to the answer is here “...we must remember that people function on a socio-emotional level as much or more than a logical level...” If nuclear industry wants to increase public acceptance towards nuclear power, should focused more on emotional side of public perception of nuclear energy.

    The image of mushroom clouds and deadly radioactivity, as synonyms of nuclear power, is as much result of lack of knowledge as it is result of negative emotions and fear. And there are strong correlations between both; from one point of view calming down of negative emotions will let people to look at the issue in rational way (adapt more knowledge), from the other point of view increasing knowledge is one of the ways to calm down negative emotions. So cooperation between diffusing of knowledge and calming down of negative emotions is essential.

  • I agree with the comment above. I feel what needs to be done by the industry is to be able to provide honest, clear, to-the-point answers to the public and also, I would like to see the NRC and DOE play a more proactive role in that. Even though a degree of bias can be assumed by these Federal agencies, the public should presume less bias than corporations within the nuclear industry and I feel a large part of the reason the public mistrusts pro-nuclear information is because they may feel most, if not all of it, one way or the other comes from the industry itself and thus from a vested interest. What the public may not realize though is that the non-nuclear energy industries have certainly played a role in funding and encouraging seemingly independent environmental groups. Rod Adams has a good, recent, blog post on this topic over at his Atomic Insights blog:

  • Anonymous

    I support Thorium LFTR, designed in the 1960s, can't blow up, melt down or make weapons. No Billion dollar containment buildings, build in factories, burns 99% of it fuel vs 1% for LWRS, toxicity of fuel drops to decades from 300k years.  Thorium is everywhere and is conflict free.

  • I agree on thorium and plan to write an entry or two about thorium soon for this blog.

  • Anonymous

    "impressive safety record"

    I'm assuming this is based on number of instances recorded, rather than the effect or fallout that follows any Nuclear problem. Think of the greatest offshore oil disaster - Piper Alpha, where 166 men died. The environmental and human health impact of this was far less significant than any number of devastating consequences of faults in Nuclear power plants.

    Why are people distrusting of Nuclear power? Because it is expensive, liable to be targeted by terrorist cells, and has a huge potential impact if the "impressive safety record" ever comes a cropper - which it has done, on numerous occasions.

    This topic will likely stir much debate and talk, generating UVs etc. So congratulations on that. Otherwise, it seems more prudent to pass over this topic, and use time more wisely in thinking of constructive ways to create cheap energy (think coal prices) from sources that do not run out and do not adversely affect human health if they fail - think renewables.

  • The Piper Alpha disaster was, indeed, a huge and very tragic loss. The offshore industry lost 167 men total in that one disaster. Nuclear power in America has never suffered anything near that level of loss of human life, and yes, I would certainly call a disaster of that nature a major "human health impact". I cannot think of a more awful impact on human health really than 167 deaths at once due to a platform loss. The air travel industry has suffered, of course, losses of this caliber, too. Yet, we still fly. I cannot think of extending ramifications of any American nuclear incident that would portend a chronic, lasting, impact on human or environmental health of great gravity; if you can cite accurate epidemiological research that indicates such, please do, but I cannot think of any. As to concerns of terrorists attacking a nuclear facility, while these terrorists may target our plants for attack, I do not see any such attack being successful. Nuclear facilities have some of the best security in the world and as I explain in another blog post, even if terrorists did get inside a plant and even if they had a person in their numbers who knew enough nuclear engineering to know what he was doing, safeguards prevent someone from placing the plant's reactor or other systems into a state of peril. As to coal, it's not kind to our environment in several ways and as to renewables, technology there has yet to prove these modalities to be appropriate for large-scale power generation needs across the nation. Can coal, natural gas, and renewables help provide energy? Sure. Are they the most-apt solution for the USA's overall future needs for electrical power? No, I think that still is nuclear.

  • Anonymous

    Well you're clearly wrong.

  • You have every right to disagree but why not state your reasons and support them with facts instead of just saying "well, you're wrong"?