Nuclear Energy and the Power of Misinformation in American Policy

According to Pandora’s Promise and nuclear advocates, the risks and costs of nuclear energy are misconstrued by the public and frequently misrepresented by the mainstream press. Proponents in the film, including Stewart Brand, counter common critiques of nuclear energy including: safety risks, nuclear weapons proliferation and costs. Based on their assessment, nuclear energy represents part of a reasonable solution to reducing carbon pollution.

The film’s protagonists recognize that public perception is the driving force behind the U.S.’s current nuclear energy policy. The film presents a convincing argument that nuclear is viewed with such fear and trepidation because it was in fact first developed for use in war (via bombs and submarines), which has given it a lasting and extremely negative connotation. As a result of prolonged fear mongering and a small batch of U.S. and international accidents, nuclear energy development has all but stalled in the U.S.

It is interesting that climate deniers utilize the same tactics of uncertainty and misinformation that are used by nuclear opponents. As such, environmentalists that believe nuclear energy can help solve the climate crisis are faced with not one but two information challenges: gaining greater public support for climate change policy and assuaging public concerns regarding the risk of expanding nuclear energy production.

For advocates like Michael Shellenberger, this dual informational problem presents a perplexing conundrum – which information gap should be addressed first? It seems that coupling the issues would create more confusion and potential opposition. On the other hand, focusing on one issue creates a chicken and egg debate in the U.S.

One solution is to focus U.S.-based research and development investment on the advancement of next generation nuclear energy production outside of the United States, where it is viewed more favorably. Federal R & D could be aligned with international partnerships, in France for example. This spit approach would avoid some domestic opposition and allow policy makers to focus on climate policy, while supporting nuclear development outside of U.S. borders. Interestingly, Bill Gates, a next generation investor, has hinted that his investment in traveling wave reactors will likely need to be tested outside of the U.S. — N. R.