Nuclear Power and Public Fear in the Era of Climate Change

By Scott Montgomery

To discuss nuclear power requires discussion of public anxiety, particularly fear of radiation. Such fear exaggerates levels of actual risk and poses a hurdle to progress in non-carbon energy in the West, while nuclear power advances elsewhere. China and Russia will soon gain leadership of nuclear power over the US, posing major questions for the future.


To write about nuclear power and its future, there’s no avoiding the matter of public anxiety. Perused with a calm eye, the dread surrounding this energy source, which accounts for the great majority of non-carbon electricity in Europe and the US, largely returns to fear and trembling about radiation. Not dealing with this factor is thus to allow the proverbial elephant in the room to hold a family reunion. What follows therefore begins with a discussion of this anxiety before looking at the new nuclear era the world has lately entered.

A few years ago, I was hired to run a workshop on communication for a group of scientists at a well-known US government agency, most of whom worked on radiation safety. When asked what they thought about public attitudes on this topic, most deferred to official agency statements or changed the subject. One researcher, however, took me aside and in a lowered voice, as if confessing a dark deed, told me:

I rarely talk about my work or about radiation, Chernobyl, etc. What most people feel they know about these things, probably from decades of news hysteria and other sources, is too misinformed. They don’t want to hear what I have to say, not really. It would take many hours to correct any part of this. And you’d be climbing a steep hill the whole time. By the way, you can’t use my name.1

In the years I’ve spent researching nuclear power (NP), I’ve managed to gain responses on the question of popular attitudes from dozens of experts. None of these people ever worked in the NP industry. They were radiologists, health physicists, nuclear physicists, radiobiologists, and medical researchers working on the impacts of ionising radiation (that is, radiation able to remove an electron from an atom). What they told me was quite striking, though unsurprising.

It is common knowledge in this expert community that public fear of radiation, and the media tendency to legitimise it, are out of all proportion to the actual risk determined by decades of research. Much of the public, for example, unfortunately believes that any level of exposure is dangerous. Fear is felt to be justified no matter the dose level, type(s) of radiation, or exposure pathway (skin, inhalation, ingestion). It has also become clear that such fear is responsible for actions causing the great majority of casualties in nuclear accidents. Bluntly put, dread of radiation has proven more perilous than radiation itself.

It is common knowledge in this expert community that public fear of radiation, and the media tendency to legitimise it, are out of all proportion to the actual risk determined by decades of research.

How do we know this? From research on four key groups: 1) Japanese survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki; 2) populations living in areas of high natural background radiation; 3) workers in various industries who deal with radioactive materials; and 4) residents affected by fallout from Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Radiation dose is measured in milli-Sieverts (mSv), with higher levels considered to start around 1,000 mSv, where radiation sickness is significant but fatal cancer risk is 5% or less. Low doses are usually viewed as below 100 mSv. At such levels, lifetime cancer risk is extremely small or undetectable.2 While a statistical risk (<0.01%) has been interpreted down to 50 mSv/year, millions of people live in parts of the world where doses from natural background radiation range from 30-200 mSv. Repeated epidemiological studies have shown no added risk for cancer in any of these places.3

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By “added” I mean in addition to the expected risk of 25%-33% in most societies, due to tobacco use, air pollution, exposure to certain chemicals, poor diet, and other factors. In the Chernobyl accident, over 99% of the resident population affected by the fallout received doses in the 5-33 mSv, including evacuees. After 30 years, a total of 47 deaths and roughly 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer have been attributed to radiation from the worst nuclear accident in history (no fatalities are associated with Three Mile Island and none are predicted for Fukushima).4 The question must be asked whether this constitutes a true “catastrophe”. It is a necessary question when we compare the many hundreds of deaths among the public from oil/gas explosions (e.g. the 1984 San Juanico disaster in Mexico) and hydroelectric dam failures, and most pressingly the >1 million premature deaths annually caused by air pollution due to coal and oil use.5

There is another reason to refocus our understanding of Chernobyl. This too is well-known in the expert community but much less appreciated in the rest of society. Work by medical professionals, such as Evelyn Bromet, Stony Brook University School of Medicine, documents the widespread presence of “depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, general distress, and medically unexplained somatic symptoms (e.g., fatigue, severe headaches, muscle and joint pain)”. And there are yet other impacts to consider, brought by evacuation:

Families were sometimes separated, and pregnant women were told to have abortions. Evacuees were not welcomed by the communities where they were resettled… Doctors attributed diseases and symptoms to Chernobyl indiscriminately [and the] psychosocial fallout from Chernobyl was then compounded by the political and socio-economic turmoil following the break-up of the Soviet Union.6

With Fukushima, where no radiation injuries to any member of the public occurred, over a thousand people died as a result of the evacuation. This included hospital patients and elderly people who needed nursing care, plus others with heart ailments and others who suffered from stroke. As with Chernobyl, stigmatisation by others and by oneself, has become a serious problem for many.7

There seems a worrisome irony here. Emergency response programmes are predominantly aimed at protecting the public from radiation. Yet the evidence from actual accidents shows that this emphasis can be misplaced. By embodying public fear, it can encourage rushed evacuations, while downplaying the need for resources to address medical and psychosocial impacts of an event.

Why do people so fear radiation, and therefore in many cases NP? The reasons are complex. Moreover, they have an evolving history. A simplified (but still accurate) overview might begin with the visions left by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, images that blended in the 1950s with government secrecy and misinformation about fallout from atmospheric tests. Claims by some scientists about multi-generational genetic damage were later disproven yet still became part of nuclear lore. By the 1960s and 70s, the rise of environmentalism foregrounded worry over nuclear waste. But in the Vietnam Era, opposition to NP was also motivated by deep concerns over growing power of the state, specifically the “military-industrial complex”, with NP as both sign and symbol of failing democracy and an endangered planet. Tyranny didn’t arrive, but Three Mile Island and Chernobyl did. These two accidents, and the media gales they gave rise to, helped elevate dread about radiation, a reality revitalised by Fukushima. During all this time, proliferation worries have been real too. But they are not what keeps people up at night or leads them to vote and march against a NP plant or waste site planned for their area.

In today’s world, various elements of this benighted past tend to melt together for many people into an alloy of suspicion and angst. An intimidation factor – the feeling that radiation and NP are too complex to grasp (not true) – adds to the sense of vulnerability. Yet this is far from true for everyone. A significant portion of the environmental, scientific, high tech, and business communities, as well as many younger people concerned about climate change, are either unpersuaded that NP represents an existential threat or view it as a much-needed non-carbon source of electricity. Such is all the truer now that major nations and auto makers have vowed to electrify the car by 2040.

Even with a large number of further closures, say 200 or more, the world could see over 600 operating reactors within a few decades.

This is a good sign for the future. NP, after all, is shaping up to be a growth industry for the 21st century in many parts of the world. This truth may sound impossible to some in the West, but the numbers bear it out. Today, two-thirds of humanity live in countries with nuclear power; by 2050, the figure could well be 75% or more.

Here are some figures to contemplate. In late 2011, soon after the Fukushima accident, there were 433 operable reactors in the world. Six years later, after two dozen permanent shut downs, the number had climbed to 449, with 57 more reactors under construction8 and plans and proposals in a wide variety of countries for over 500 more.9 In a majority of nations with NP, older reactors that have been well-maintained and updated over time are now being relicensed for a further 20 years of operation. While this will extend their operating lives into the 2040s and 50s, there is much discussion about further relicensing if further upgrading is done. Such considerations make sense against a background of climate change, lethal pollution from carbon energy, and possible future cost constraints. It bears emphasis that the original 40-year licensing period was applied for economic reasons, not engineering ones, as the time needed for loan repayment and some degree of profit-making.

Yet even with a large number of further closures, say 200 or more, the world could see over 600 operating reactors within a few decades. There is more than a small possibility that China alone will build as many as 300-5003 of various sizes, given its extensive plans. Russia and India also have major expansion plans underway that together total more than 100 new reactors.

No less important, however, is the growth of NP into countries where it has not previously existed. Naysayers love to call this a matter of “paper reactors”. Yet in the past few years, real physical plants have been started or are about to start in Belarus (2 reactors), United Arab Emirates (4), and Turkey (4). Other countries where the choice of NP sites, financing options, and signed agreements with vendors have continued to move forward include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Poland. Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose main job is to provide guidance and monitoring of civilian NP programmes worldwide, has been especially busy in recent years. It has been called on to help develop the legal and policy basis for nuclear programmes in nearly two dozen in Africa, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and South America.10 None of this guarantees that all such programmes will result in reactors being built, of course. Yet to deny that a strong level of global interest exists, or to claim it is temporary and misguided, would be both naïve and condescending.

Thus, a key question: why are these nations attracted to NP? The answer is that it helps provide a real solution to their most pressing energy needs. Surging demand for electricity is one of these, a reality in many developing nations. At least 1.1 billion people have no access to electricity, with another 2 billion having only intermittent power. Economic growth is constrained in many nations by power availability, while much farm produce spoils due to lack of refrigeration. Energy security defines another issue, one that merges with the need to lower carbon emissions. NP satisfies these requirements at a high level, providing massive amounts of non-carbon power with the smallest footprint of any source, allowing a nation to shift away from dependence on fossil fuels. Neither can it be denied that nations are drawn to NP for the prestige it can give to a country’s image.

China, in a sense, provides an overall model – and lesson – for this. Having pursued a breakneck pace of development from the late 1990s to 2013, it sought energy security in colossal use of its most abundant domestic resource, coal. The result has been an equally immense level of pollution, with severe impacts on public health and rising levels of dissent. More recently, China’s government has moved assertively to develop non-carbon sources. Though far from solving its carbon energy problems, China has set a precedent by combining all non-carbon sources, including nuclear and renewables, into one category. It is a sign of recognition that both sources are required to deal with pollution and climate change.

China’s NP programme is unique, and huge.11 Since 2013, it has been completing 6-7 new reactors each year, reaching a total of 38 in late 2017. Its plans are to have just under 100 by around 2030, with over 140 more now proposed to follow. At this point, it appears certain that China will surpass the US (99 reactors) as the world’s leading NP nation within 15 years. China’s plans include developing reactors of varied size and output, using current and advanced designs adapted from western and Russian sources. A big part of China’s long-term effort will involve exports of its technology and investments in other country’s programmes, as shown, for example, by its participation in the UK’s Hinkley Point C plant. For Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, such plans are part of the One Belt One Road initiative launched by the current President Xi Jinping.

It seems another tragic irony that much of the advanced world simply watches as other parts of the globe move ahead with a non-carbon technology the West itself invented.

The only other country with a comparable programme is Russia, which has developed its own successful reactor technology for export. Rosatom, the Kremlin’s NP entity, has signed agreements of various kinds with as many as 32 countries for building and financing NP plants. Given the economic sanctions on Russia for its seizure of Crimea, many observers doubt more than a small handful of these will ever see broken ground. Such a conclusion appears sensible at the moment. Yet, somehow, Rosatom is right now building 2 reactors in Belarus and will very soon (2018) begin 4 more in Turkey. Though the firm is undoubtedly in no position to pay for dozens of reactors itself, the new export landscape is proving more adaptable than the old build-in-your-own-pasture approach.12

It seems another tragic irony that much of the advanced world simply watches as other parts of the globe move ahead with a non-carbon technology the West itself invented. Such is particularly true for the US, the once-and-future world leader whose nuclear industry is in dire trouble with little help from government. Such is happening even as the country’s chief global rivals become the new world forces in a technology humanity needs to combat climate change. For those much concerned with non-proliferation, a nuclear future run by Russia and China can hardly be reassuring. In this new context, radiation/nuclear angst translates into a serious hurdle. The world will move ahead with nuclear power regardless. But there will be much to bemoan if the West indeed proves to be so scared of its own peaceful and productive creations that it cannot adequately deal with the greatest and most long-term global threat we all now face.


Featured Image: Jungliangcheng power plant in Tianjin, China © Wikimedia Commons


About the Author

Scott L. Montgomery is a Geoscientist and Faculty Member at the University of Washington, Seattle (USA). After 25 years in the energy industry, he now teaches, lectures, and writes on energy-related matters. His most recent book, with US diplomat Thomas Graham Jr., is Seeing the Light: Making the Case for Nuclear Power in the 21st Century.



1. Quoted from: Scott L. Montgomery and Thomas Graham, Jr. Seeing the Light: Making the Case for Nuclear Power in the 21st Century. Cambridge University Press, 2017;
2. These points are extensively covered in: Timothy Jorgensen, Strange Glow: The History of Radiation. Princeton University Press, 2016. Some of this information is also covered on Dr. Jorgensen’s website devoted to the book, at:
3. S.M.J. Mortazavi, M. Ghiassiu-Nejad, and M. Rezaiean, “Cancer risk due to exposure to high levels of natural radon in the inhabitants of Ramsar, Iran.” International Congress Series 1276 (2005), 436-437;
4. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Chernobyl: Looking Back to Go Forward. Conference Proceedings, 6-7 September 2005, Vienna, 43-116.
5. Kiran Stacey, “India air pollution poised to exceed China’s,” Financial Times 14 February 2017,
6. Evelyn J. Bromet, “Mental Health Consequences of the Chernobyl Disaster,” Journal of Radiological Protection 32:1 (2012), N71-N75.
7. Akira Ohtsuru et al., “From Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Fukushima 3: Nuclear disasters and health – lessons learned, challenges, and proposals.” The Lancet 386, 1 August 2015, 490-497.
8. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Power Reactor Database,
9. World Nuclear Association, World Nuclear Power Reactors & Uranium Requirements, (September 2017). Accessed 12/10/2017
10. See varied stories of such work at: IAEA Press Centre,
11. World Nuclear Association, Nuclear Power in China,
12. Scott L. Montgomery, “Russia: a global energy superpower that is much more than a petrostate,” The Conversation, 14 April 2016,

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.