Dr. Robert DuPont got a phone call one day to ask him about nuclear power. His specialty is phobias, people whose behavior is restricted by all the what ifs in their lives. A journalist persuaded him to watch 11 years of media coverage on US nuclear power, coverage dominated by what ifs. From a PBS interview:
[F]ear is very important, because danger is around the corner. And fear is a way of signaling that there might be a problem ahead. It’s a reaction to the possibility of a predator lurking behind that bush when you’re out walking. So I think being able to anticipate dangers is very important.
Yet nuclear power’s safety record is excellent. So what accounts for public perception? After all, fear of what ifs doesn’t do us much good.
Well, there are a number of factors. One is that the threat is concentrated. It’s the fear like Three Mile Island. A reporter said off the record that if the public only knew, the East Coast of the United States was almost destroyed. Well, of course, nothing like that happened, but that was in his mind. And he thought about that. So it’s a cataclysmic event that really gets people going. It’s a risk people don’t control. People accept tremendous risk if they control it. But if it’s controlled by somebody else, they can’t accept it. If it’s perceived as needed, people will accepted it; whereas if it’s not perceived as needed, they will dismiss it. The problem of familiarity is probably the most important. And that is when we’re familiar with something, we don’t fear it. But when it’s alien, when it’s unfamiliar, we fear it more.
And on all four counts, nuclear power generates fear. It’s a cataclysmic accident that people are concerned about, some desperate kind of thing. It’s controlled by “them”, the utilities or the government, the scientists, or whoever it is, that is perceived as being the bad guys. It’s unfamiliar to most people. And most people feel they don’t really need nuclear power; that they can get their power from coal or oil or windmills or some other basis. They don’t really need the nuclear power.
photo credit DuPont’s work antedates driving while texting.
In contrast to the what ifs toward nuclear power, often our reaction to fear is insufficient. I hear this frequently as, “Well, we have to die of something” when people talk about cigarettes, alcohol, and coal use (direct pollution from coal still kills more people yearly than climate change). DuPont says,
The capacity of human fear to be eroded by repetition, by familiarity, is unlimited. It is just an amazing thing, that no matter what the risk is, if the thing is repeated over and over again, there’s no fear. There’s no protection from the fear. People will continue to do something over and over again, even if it has a terrible probability of a disaster.
And the single best example of that is cigarette smoking. Everybody knows cigarette smoking is lethal. There is no question about that. It’s not debated. It’s known that it’s lethal. And we have 55 million people who not only voluntarily smoke, but who pay billions of dollars, $40 billion a year, for the privilege of killing themselves with this known lethal agent. Now, if fear were really protecting us, you couldn’t have any smokers. It would be impossible. So you realize that fear is a very imperfect shield against health risks….
So simply getting rid of fear is not a health-promoting goal. What’s important in both cases is to have the fear be realistic; that the fear fits the facts of the risk. And from my point of view, the contrast is very clear. With respect to drug abuse, we want more fear; and with respect to nuclear power, we want less fear in terms of a public health or the public interest goals.
So what can we do?
It’s quite remarkable to me, the number of Americans who hold anti-nuclear views. For them it’s like motherhood and apple pie. I mean, they don’t even get to the point of asking a question of what it is that’s going on. It’s just taken for granted.
Perhaps the first step for anti-nuclear power people is to ask a question. “What about nuclear waste?” is a statement, what are your questions?
Nuclear phobia–phobic thinking about nuclear power: A discussion with Robert L. DuPont was published in 1980, and is now out of print.
image credit. China is more dangerous than the US, where National Academy of Science estimates 10,000 die from coal power pollution each year. Chernobyl (pdf) has killed 50 – 60 so far, with up to 4,000 more deaths possible over the next 6 decades from that initial exposure.
scary? image showing water vapor, from an anti-nuclear site
Sometimes people tell me that they are also opposed to people dying from coal power. But nationwide, is there is much fascination with the sins of coal power? Texting while driving gets surprisingly little attention among the public compared to concerns about brain cancer from cell phone radiation, even though brain cancer rates have declined since 1987.
I’m interested in how people challenge this tendency in ourselves and others to apply worry disproportionate to actual risk.