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The Social Science Journal


journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/soscij

Media, fear, and nuclear energy: A case study


Cassandra L. Koerner
Department of Political Science, Colorado State University, C346 Andrew Clark Building, Fort Collins, CO 80523-1782, USA

a r t i c l e

a b s t r a c t

i n f o

Article history:
Received 2 March 2012
Received in revised form 16 July 2013
Accepted 16 July 2013
Available online xxx

Keywords:
Media
Nuclear power
Public perception
Scientic information transfer

Although electricity generation technologies and safety have improved gradually over time,
nuclear power, including generation facilities and waste repositories, are seemingly stigmatized in American culture. Contemporary literature has considered the impact of widely
broadcasting nuclear accidents and how media coverage might alter public risk perceptions and in turn, U.S. nuclear policy. This paper discusses the vacillation of public support
in recent decades and its ties to both media and scientic reporting. The analysis identies how media coverage of accidents at Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island, and Fukushima
overwhelmed scientic claims of safety and security in nuclear energy production. Additionally, the discussion considers how to bridge the information gap between scientists,
citizens, and policymakers through increased knowledge dissemination. Finally, the implications of improved scientic communication in democratic policymaking processes are
discussed.
2013 Western Social Science Association. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Since the inception of nuclear energy development in


the 1950s, advocates have been trying to build support
despite major public resistance often tied to risk perceptions, cultural afliation, and social groups (Kahan,
Jenkins-Smith, & Braman, 2011). Sovacool (2009) explains
that society often struggles to assess actual risks, and
perception can be skewed by increased visibility of a problem or event. Accidents in general that cause signicant
nancial or physical losses are more highly publicized
than everyday occurrences, although smaller incidents
occur at a much higher frequency and can have equal or
higher cumulative impacts which go unreported. Content
analyses often describe the framing of an incident when
governments or news reports guide public perceptions.
Researchers theorize that framing can affect public perceptions as coverage may signal the potential for similar,
more catastrophic occurrences (Slovic, 1994). This paper
uses content analysis to investigate the impact of widely
broadcasting nuclear accidents, and how media impacts

Tel.: +1 208 871 6867.


E-mail address: cassandra.koerner@colostate.edu

public risk perceptions and in turn, U.S. nuclear policy. The


discussion presents a prescriptive approach to decreasing
the impact of media and improving dissemination of scientic information as one method to advise the public and
policymakers.

1. Public perceptions of the nuclear industry


Following major improvements to nuclear reactor
designs during the 1950s, commercial development of
nuclear technology spread rapidly across the United States,
and nearly 100 reactors were erected during the 1960s and
1970s. As nuclear technology has advanced, the efciency
and reliability of reactor operations has increased (Blowers,
2011; World Nuclear Association, 2012a). Nuclear electricity currently accounts for about one third of U.S. power
generation (CRS, 2011). Two decades free from large-scale
accidents (19862011) allowed proponents to reinvent
the nuclear industry as a safe and reliable energy source
(Blowers, 2011). Moreover, recent policy developments
have encouraged nuclear growth to address an upsurge
in electricity demand and to focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions (Colvin, 2005; NEI, 2010). In 2005,

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the U.S. Congress allocated $18.5 billion for a loan guarantee program to support initial investments for licensing
and construction to incentivize nuclear development (CRS,
2011). Blowers (2011) suggests that although previous
nuclear processes involved stakeholder input, openness
and transparency has decreased resulting in decisions that
do not consider local communities. Additionally, Doyle
(2011) is concerned over strong connections between the
nuclear energy industry, the government, and the military,
which excluded the public from discussions.
Regarding further development of nuclear power, there
are three main themes that drive the discussion: (1) nuclear
weapons, (2) nuclear power, and (3) nuclear waste. Gamson
and Modigliani (1989) assert that this has caused a dualistic discourse which contrasts a potential for destruction
with high levels of energy production. Social perceptions
are primarily negative and associate nuclear topics with
danger, toxic waste, environmental damage, war, death,
and sickness (Slovic, Flynn, & Layman, 1991). Research suggests these direct associations are tied to the historic roots
of nuclear ssion development:
Nuclear energy was conceived in secrecy, born in war,
and rst revealed to the world in horror. No matter how
much proponents try to separate the peaceful from the
weapons atom, the connection is rmly embedded in
the minds of the public (Smith, 1988: p. 62).
Experts, including scientists, reframe the risk perception of nuclear power by comparing it to other power
generation mechanisms in terms of injuries and deaths
per GWe-year and measuring risk only by counting the
number of accidents; however, these measurements do not
constrict public perceptions because they do not address
additional risks identied by the public (Ramana, 2011;
von Hippel, 2010). Slovic (1994) describes these additional public perceptions of risks as involuntary, unknown,
uncontrollable, and potentially catastrophic and likely
tied to lack of trust for agencies tasked with protecting
against harmful effects. Little can be done to improve perceptions based on the catastrophic potential of nuclear
accidents; however, increasing knowledge of risk probabilities for nuclear power generation might alleviate some
public concerns.
Agencies address the information gap by publishing
briefs about nuclear topics but the information is not wellreceived because risk evaluations lack credibility in the
public eye (Flynn, Slovic, & Mertz, 1993; Ramana, 2011).1
Researchers of public discourse are careful to distinguish
between causes and linkages; media discourse does not
necessarily change public opinion, but alters a part of the
social construct around a topic, such as nuclear power
(Gamson & Modigliani, 1989).
A 2010 Gallup poll showed U.S. public support for
nuclear power at an all-time high, with 62% backing the
use of nuclear energy (Jones, 2010). However, just one year
laterimmediately following Fukushimaa Gallup survey

found a 5% drop in citizen support from the previous year,


and reported that seven in ten Americans had increased
concerns about a similar disaster occurring in the U.S.
(Jones, 2011). A 2012 Gallup survey reported that support
for nuclear remained static at 57%, and 40% of the sampled population still believed the technology to be unsafe
(Newport, 2012). There were similar drops in approval
following other nuclear incidents. For instance, following
Chernobyl, support for nuclear power plummeted to 19%
(Slim majority, 2011). Slovic et al. (1991) posit that perceptions of nuclear accidents are similar to those of the fallout
from a nuclear war and suggest the public lacks condence
in government agencies to safely implement nuclear power
and waste operations.
2. Impacts to nuclear development and policy
Nuclear incidents change citizen perceptions toward
the safety of nuclear power generation worldwide and
cause sharp declines in the number of individuals who support development of the technology (De Boer & Catsburg,
1988; Ramana, 2011). Although in 2007 the nuclear industry applied for several permits to build new reactors, and
it seemed a nuclear renaissance was forthcoming, many
concerns still remained. High development costs, lengthy
permitting processes, and concerns for safety and waste
disposal continue to hold the industry at a standstill, even
with supplemental government support programs (CRS,
2011). Media reporting of nuclear incidents likely impacted
the industry but has not been the sole source of their developmental woes.
Following the most recent nuclear crisis in Japan, the
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission canceled pending
requests to restart plant reactors and extend operating licenses based on new-found political controversies,
including concerns over safety (Greenemeier, 2011). Work
halted on the South Texas Project expansionwhich was
one of three candidates for a government funded guaranteed loanbecause of a loss in funding tied to the investors
nancial condition following Fukushima (CRS, 2011).
3. A trend of energy production-related accidents
Energy production comes at a cost to both humans and
the environment. During the last century, there have been
human and property losses from dam collapse, oil spills,
nuclear meltdowns, and mining accidents (Sovacool, 2009).
While safety has improved in recent decades, accidents
continue to occur.
Three nuclear events have received considerable media
attention since the mid-1970s: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Governmental responses and
information transmission regarding these incidents widely
affected perceptions of trust in the government and the
nuclear industry as well as the safety of nuclear power.
3.1. Three mile island

1
For example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Nuclear Energy
Institute, the Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy
Agency (CRS, 2008).

On March 28, 1979, a section of non-nuclear equipment


malfunctioned, beginning a sequence of events that led to
a partial meltdown of Three Mile Islands Unit 2 reactor

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core. Around 4 a.m., several water pumps stopped running, preventing the steam generators from removing heat,
and increasing pressure levels in the nuclear portion of
the plant (NRC, 2009a). A plant operator opened a valve
to relieve the pressure, but the valve subsequently failed to
close automatically. This malfunction allowed water that
usually cools reactor fuels to pour out of the core, causing
the core to overheat; the fuel pellets began to melt (NRC,
2009a). Potentially, core meltdown could have caused a
large release of radiation if the containment building walls
had been breached (NRC, 2009a).
Days later, when the core was stabilized and danger of
a meltdown appeared to have decreased; specialists discovered a hydrogen bubble growing within the pressure
vessel, threatening the reactor with the possibility of explosion or rupture. Experts determined after several days that
the bubble could not explode because there was no oxygen
available and by then the bubble size was shrinking (NRC,
2009a). The incident, although potentially catastrophic, did
not injure or kill any workers or community members
(NRC, 2009a). Residents of surrounding communities were
concerned over increases in radiation in the atmosphere;
however, research has shown if there were any increase, it
has not caused any health concerns over an 18-year period
(World Nuclear Association, 2012a).
The morning after the incident, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was called in to help assess the
possible implications of the events from the night before.
Poor communications between government ofcials and
the scientists at the plant led Governor Thornburgh to
overestimate the risks from the accident and recommend
at-risk populations leave the area (Smithsonian, n/d). The
NRC told the media that risks were increasing and could
require evacuation of up to 20 miles.
Shortly after President Carter visited the reactor, he
commissioned a group of 12 people to investigate the
incident. The report was released around 6 months later
concluding there needed to be changes in the organization, procedures, and practicesand above allin the
attitudes of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Kemeny,
1979). In addition, the accident spurred new training programs for reactor operators and greater oversight from
national and international nuclear organizations (World
Nuclear Association, 2012a).
3.2. Chernobyl
The incident that occurred in Unit 4 of the Chernobyl,
Ukraine plant on April 26, 1986 had the most destructive
and widespread effects in the history of nuclear energy production. The details of the incident and its causes have been
widely debated, but several reports agree that an explosion
destroyed the reactor during a test of the plants electrical
power capabilities. The incident has been linked to aws
in the industrial design of the reactor which were realized when the operators created a power surge in order
to test the capacity of the reactor (Howard, 2008; NRC,
2009b). The explosion released large amounts of radiation
into the atmosphere and many on-site materials caught
re. The re burned for ten days while workers frantically
entombed the unit in concrete to prevent further releases

of radioactive materials. Nevertheless, the remaining three


units continued to operate after temporary closures (NRC,
2009b). Because of the size of the re and the altitude of
its plume, particulates and radiation were carried throughout much of the northern hemisphere (Howard, 2008).
The most heavily contaminated areas included Belarus,
the Russian Federation, and Ukraine; over 230,000 people
have evacuated these areas since 1986 because of radiation
(NRC, 2009b). Divergent coverage of the incident reports
that the 40,00048,000 citizens of Prypiat were evacuated
in a timeframe up to 40 h following the incident; however,
other nearby towns were not evacuated until as long as one
week later in concert with large-scale medical assessments
of citizens in Kiev (Marples, 1986). The danger zone from
the accident was largely underestimated in the beginning
and became an ever-expanding issue over time. Large tracts
within these areas continue to be excluded from agricultural uses, and there are stringent regulations on crop,
dairy, and farm animal production (Howard, 2008).
Two Chernobyl operators died almost immediately following the blast, 134 workers suffered acute radiation
sickness, 28 died within months of the incident, and an
additional 200,000 were exposed to high doses of radiation during the cleanup efforts (NRC, 2009b; World Nuclear
Association, 2012b).
Scientic discussion is limited on the immediate
response of the U.S.S.R. leaders; however, western perspectives explain that the government did not release a
statement until the radioactive cloud was hanging over
Europe, two days after the explosion (Marples, 1986).
Heads of ministries and departments organized a government commission in order to assess the accident and
associated outcomes. Representatives provided limited
information to both the UN and a subcommittee in the U.S.
House of Representatives and explained that the incident
was under control, but likely not over. Marples (1986) suggests that Gorbachev made an explicit decision to release
only small amounts of information about the incident at a
time in order to protect the reputation of both the energy
source and the U.S.S.R.
The accident at Chernobyl caused many nations to question the safety of their nuclear reactors as well as the quality
of their emergency programs (Marples, 1986; NRC, 2009b).
This incident not only fueled distrust for government, but
also for nuclear power, regardless of how laissez faire the
government reaction appeared at the time.
3.3. Fukushima
The most recent incident occurred in Dai-ichi, Japan
following a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent
tsunami on March 11, 2011 (NRC, 2011). The Fukushima
reactors shut down following the earthquake, although
diesel engines continued to cool the reactors until the
arrival of the tsunami waves, which damaged the site facilities as well as stopped the cooling mechanism. Without
a device to cool the reactors and no access to generators to produce electricity and pump water to cool the
systems, reactor fuels began to melt. Additionally, hydrogen gas explosions occurred within the units and led
to signicant radiation releases (NRC, 2011). Following

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the governments announcement of a nuclear emergency,


evacuations began late in the evening of March 11 for a
two-kilometer radius and quickly expanded the next day
to 20 km. Finally on April 21, the government declared the
initial evacuation area of 20 km a no-go area because of the
high levels of radiation, removing an estimated 160,000
people (World Nuclear Association, 2012c). Some areas
have been cleared for reoccupation, but the devastating
impacts of the tsunami could slow or halt all movement
back to the area (World Nuclear Association, 2012c).
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA, 2011)
reported that testing of the atmosphere and food products for radioactive iodine and cesium continued. Although
high radiation levels exist throughout the region, no radiation casualties have been reported. Over 195,000 residents
near the plant were screened for radiation exposure but
no harmful health effects were discovered (World Nuclear
Association, 2012c). In a university study of evacuees
iodine thyroid dose, mean levels were at least ten-times
lower than the reported rates from Chernobyl, even in
the most exposed areas around Fukushima (World Nuclear
Association, 2012c).
Water quality is a primary research concern because of
the highly contaminated water that leaked into the ocean
from the reactors following the incident. Tepco, the owner
of the nuclear reactor, promptly took action to address
these concerns by removing highly contaminated water
from damaged reactors and then building a new wastewater treatment facility. After assessing the new plant, Tepco
discovered some unanticipated performance concerns and
built a supplementary plant to reduce radioactive particles and other contaminants to regulatory levels (World
Nuclear Association, 2012c).
Japan closed its fty-four nuclear reactors, reducing the
energy load by nearly 50 GW of power (Economist, 2012:
McCurry, 2012). The Economist reports that based upon the
location and assessed risk of these plants, many may never
be reopened (The death of trust, 2012). World Nuclear
Association (2012) emphasized the importance of nuclear
power to Japan, which has few natural resources of its own
and is heavily dependent on foreign oil and coal. Prior to
this incident, nearly 30% of Japans energy capacity came
from nuclear power, and the country had plans to expand
nuclear power sources to replace other forms of energy.
The Economist suggests that although Fukushima was
another blow to the nuclear industry, development was
already stymied with astronomical construction costs and
a lack of technological developments to substantially
advance production capacity (The dream that failed,
2012). Citizens of Japan are divided over the nuclear power
issue as many struggle to come to terms with eviction
from their homeland. Contrasting reports from the World
Health Organization and other research institutes estimating radiation exposure to residents confuse and anger
citizens. However, in May 2012, several reactors reopened
when the Prime Minister and other industry leaders interests garnered support, especially considering the necessity
of production to industry during peak summer months
(McCurry, 2012). The Guardian reported support lingered
around 25%, but it was enough to tip the scale in the direction of cautious reintroduction (McCurry, 2012).

Reports of these three nuclear incidents covered newspapers for months, modifying citizen perceptions of
nuclear energy. The following analysis assesses how media
may have impacted public perceptions of the nuclear
industry based on coverage of the incidents. It also assesses
industry and government reactions to the incidents.
4. Methods
This section presents the results of a content analysis of
newspaper headlines from the two weeks following major
nuclear accidents including: Three Mile Island in the United
States, Chernobyl in Ukraine, and Fukushima in Japan. The
purpose of this analysis is to understand the emotive qualities of the headlines and identify themes that the headlines
address. Additionally, the analysis compares newspaper
coverage by reporting the number of positive, negative, and
neutral headlines.
The analysis framework uses both domestic and
international newspapers to avoid over-framing nuclear
incidents. The variety aims to capture an international
perspective and to identify nuances in the themes and
quantity being reported in different periodicals. None of
the papers are known to be inherently biased against the
nuclear energy sector, although several have center-left
leanings (New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian).
These editorial leanings are not expected to bias the sample. The headlines of ve newspapers are assessed covering
three time periods and 536 articles containing information related to nuclear incidents. The newspapers were
selected based upon access to online media sources for the
time periods being assessed.2 The newspapers are accessed
through Academic Premier and Newspaper Source Plus
using search terms such as nuclear accident/incident,
nuclear disaster, or nuclear meltdown.
Distinguishing between positive, negative, and neutral
headlines was unexpected considering the nature of the
events being examined; however, the assessment reveals
some patterns in reporting providing both obviously negative and positive headlines. For example, a headline from
The Globe and the Mail just four days after the Chernobyl
incident reported Soviet A-leak worlds worst, harm to
food cycle feared where, in contrast, on the same day
The Guardian headlined Reagan offers U.S. help and No
radiation threat to UK, Commons told. The two latter headlines are interpreted in this analysis to be positive, as the
outcomes and ideas represent good news in the wake of
tragedy. The majority of headlines regarded as positive
relay optimistic responses by the government or imply that
the events would have no negative economic or health
impacts.
The content analysis includes ve themes: fear, health,
economics, policy, and trust. Headlines that do not fall
under these themes are categorized as other. Headlines
related to fear are identied by keywords such as explosion, casualty, death, fallout, danger, disaster, meltdown,

2
The author attempted to nd at least three papers with coverage for
all three disasters but struggled to obtain access to online headline media
prior to 1980, making the Three Mile Island assessment especially difcult.

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Table 1
Details of headline content analysis.
Nuclear accident

Headline dates

Newspapers

Three Mile Island (U.S.)

March 28April 15, 1979

The Globe and the Mail (Canada)


New York Times (U.S.)
The Washington Post (U.S.)

Chernobyl (Ukraine)

April 26May 11, 1986

The Globe and the Mail (Canada)


New York Times (U.S.)
The Guardian (UK)

Fukushima (Japan)

March 11March 25, 2011

The Globe and the Mail (Canada)


New York Times (U.S.)
The Guardian (UK)
Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)

Table 2
Count of headlines for positive, negative, and neutral classications.
Positive

Negative

Neutral

Three Mile Island


The Globe and the Mail (Canada)
New York Times (U.S.)
The Washington Post (U.S.)

1
12
24

6
38
59

1
3
4

Chernobyl
The Globe and the Mail (Canada)
New York Times (U.S.)
The Guardian (UK)

17
9
33

55
67
88

3
8
6

Fukushima
The Globe and the Mail (Canada)
New York Times (U.S.)
The Guardian (UK)
Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)

14
5
6
3

23
16
22
5

0
6
2
0

and radiation. Headlines regarding food, health risk, environmental threats to agriculture, livestock, or other food
sources are separately categorized into health. Headlines
mentioning market effects, nancial losses/gains, bonds,
or insurance values are classied under economics. Topics
tied to politics, policy, specic political leaders, infrastructure, and agency or governmental responses are assigned
to policy. Finally, the theme of trust encompasses headlines regarding public and private institutions as well as
nuclear experts, their responses to the nuclear incidents,
the information they provided the public, and credibility.
5. Results
The analysis shows over 70% of the newspaper headlines
present nuclear energy or responses to nuclear incidents
in a negative light. Chernobyl generated the most media

coverage of all the nuclear incidents and reporting is consistently high throughout the investigation period. With
the exception of the Guardians coverage of Chernobyl, U.S.
newspapers have more headlines on average than foreign
newspapers (Tables 1 and 2).
Table 3 presents a cross-sectional analysis of the same
newspapers across all three events to identify patterns.
The Globe and the Mail produces an increasing rate of positive headlines over time, which praises the heroics of the
cleanup team as well as government transparency throughout the duration of the incident. As stated above, coding in
the initial content analysis was not expected for positive
and negative headlines but after looking through the data,
it is an interesting nuance to nd so much positive spin in
the wake of disaster - most specically relating to government actions, the economy, and the allotment of protection
for human health.

Table 3
Percent of headlines in positive, negative, and neutral classications.
Positive

Negative

Neutral

Three Mile Island


The Globe and the Mail (Canada)
New York Times (U.S.)

12.50
22.64

75.00
71.70

12.50
5.66

Chernobyl
The Globe and the Mail (Canada)
New York Times (U.S.)

22.67
10.71

79.76
79.76

4.00
9.52

Fukushima
The Globe and the Mail (Canada)
New York Times (U.S.)

37.84
18.52

62.16
59.26

0
22.22

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Fig. 1. Number of articles with negative or other (positive/neutral) headlines for each nuclear incident (Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima) divided
by theme.
Table 4
Percent of headlines per theme.
Theme
Fear/safety/uncertainty
Health/environment
Economics
Politics/infrastructure
Trust
Other
Total

Total
headlines

Negative
headlines only

23%
20%
9%
26%
13%
9%

32%
24%
10%
16%
17%
1%

100%

100%

As reported in Table 4, a subsample of negative headlines is used to show differences between themes. With the
exception of politics, which has a large amount of positive
or neutral headlines, the majority of themes have higher
numbers of negative headlines. The portrayal of political
involvement or responses to nuclear incidents suggests
the government has an inherent interest in nuclear power,
which can be shown through its high levels of investment
in the industry.3
Fig. 1 compares the volume of negative headlines by
nuclear incident and by theme. Fear and politics are common headline themes for all incidents, while economics is a
less prominent theme than the others. The volume of headlines for fear and politics are meaningful because fear can
drive reactive policy creation based on exceptional events,
such as the elimination of nuclear power in Japan. Many
headlines in the other theme are difcult to dene as
positive or negative and are classied as neutral.

3
A 2008 report to the U.S. Congress on research and development
spending comparisons disclosed that during the period from 1948 to 2007,
over 50% of energy research funding had been awarded to nuclear projects
(CRS, 2008).

Although Fig. 1 may seem to indicate reports about


Chernobyl have a greater focus on fear, health, and trust
than Three Mile Island and Fukushima, a comparison of
the percent of total headlines shows there are similar percentages for fear and politics across incidents. Few articles
from the Chernobyl incident address the economic impacts.
Chernobyl articles focus more on governmental trust than
the other incidents. The high number of articles addressing
trust could be due to governments desire to control the perceptions of bureaucrats as well as government-supported
and economically indispensable energy sources.

6. Discussion and conclusions


The importance of news media should not be underestimated. News media plays a key role in society and is
often the impetus for individuals to gather more information on a topic. News media affects both personal values
and decision-making. People perceive biased portrayals of
events in the media. These biases, if true, can affect individual perceptions and in the aggregate can sway policy and
voting patterns. Studies on risk communication campaigns
such as the Nevada Initiative have revealed that scientic
information receives spin through issue advocacy and is
often not accurately reported in the media. This places scientic communication in a fragile position, especially with
the public (Flynn et al., 1993).
Deborah Stone (1997) describes the importance of
symbolic representations for political problem denitions
because they determine the way the problem is framed.
When the media or government uses negative examples, it
can skew public focus toward one aspect of a problem and
cause a loss of attention for more germane issues. Cultural
resonance of events and sponsors, are essential to build
support and dissolve antagonism against policies by linking

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key events to previously established frames and nding key


sponsors to frame the discussion around the issue (Gamson
& Modigliani, 1989).
Alvin (Weinberg, 1961: p. 161) writes, Issues of scientic or technical merit tend to get argued in the popular, not
the scientic, press. . .the spectacular rather than the perceptive becomes the scientic standard. Because there is
no accessible media outlet where scientists may present
information to the general public, much of the population uses news media coveragedominated by information
from interest groups and policymakersto develop a
stance on scientic subjects. One unfortunate side of media
is that the sell-point is so important that a newspaper
is more likely to present a controversial minority opinion than a wider consensus of scientic results because it
will garner more attention (Alm, Burkhart, & Simon, 2010).
This issue necessitates a prescriptive approach to communicating scientic information to the public, rather than
following the current trend of scientists writing for scientic audiences. Stone (1997) believes that science can
legitimate claims and help determine cause in important
questions; however, a method must be created to synthesize and condense scientic information in order to prepare
it for public consumption.
6.1. Cultural perceptions of nuclear operations
Media coverage of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and
Fukushima affected perceptions of nuclear power. Headlines dene nuclear power as being a very risky technology
and portray the nuclear industry as not providing adequate
safety mechanisms (Ramana, 2011). The development of
negative perceptions has stemmed, not only from media,
but from the history of nuclear power, including the institutions and technological practices (Doyle, 2011). One major
challenge to framed discussions is the current level of
distrust between citizens, government agencies, and the
nuclear industry.
The content analysis shows over 70% of the headlines
have negative undertones and over 50% of those mention
fear for safety, health, the environment, or uncertainty
over the outcome of the nuclear incident. Furthermore,
the Chernobyl event garnered many more headlines in
regard to trust for the government and the nuclear industry. Numerous headlines reference uncertainty about when
the power surge and explosion occurred and how long citizens were exposed to radiation before being informed by
Soviet leaders of the risk and evacuated from the area. Additionally, headlines imply the governments of surrounding
countries were concerned about the risk to citizens health
as well as the environmental impacts of potential nuclear
fallout. The Three Mile Island and Fukushima headlines
imply that the government response was more rapid
and information was more readily available to citizens
from nuclear administrators. However, formal commission
reports at Fukushima suggest that information was withheld from the public to prevent panic in the populous (The
death of trust, 2012). Trust takes a long time to build and
very little time to lose.
Slovic (1994) identies these events to provide signal value in an unfamiliar system, supplying information

about the potential of future similar or perhaps more catastrophic accidents. The idea of signal value makes more
apparent the social and cultural effects of media. Following the 1979 incident at Three Mile Island, although the
human impacts were minimal, the media coverage frightened citizens and has been identied as one of the factors
that led to the cessation of new nuclear development in the
U.S. over the past 30 years.
6.2. A rational model for disseminating scientic
information
The rapid accumulation of knowledge in modern times
has complicated decision-making. The lack of linkages
between facts and fact-based theory across disciplines
limits scientists and decision-makers ability to nd commonality and build reasonable solutions. Additionally,
the social architecture of our democracy promotes the
assimilation of public opinion into policies which further
complicate the construction of reasonable solutions. However, democratic processes involving both public opinion
and scientic involvement are not impossible.
(Wildavsky, 1995: p. 5) identies science as the only
publicly accepted rationale to provide evidence for not
only the causes of a problem but also the solutions. The
most common method of rationalizing an environmentally
related decision is to back the decision with the best science
available (Alm et al., 2010). This type of thinking recognizes
the necessity for scientists to provide information at each
point in the decision-making process to several audiences.
Stone (1997) considers a rational model of decision-making
where objectives, alternatives for achieving objectives, and
outcomes are identied and evaluated based on their consequences. Policy makers consider the interpretations of
the outcomes socially, morally, and politically. Scientic
information must inltrate social and political cultures
in order to move the current method from fear-based
decision-making to a more scientically driven process
without compromising the integrity of scientists and the
scientic process. Improving these mechanisms requires
scientists to hone their communications with the public
and politicians and, alternatively, require these groups to
seek out good science to justify their perceptions and
policies.
6.3. The issue of advocacy
The intersection of science, democracy, and policymaking has become a topic of interest as researchers attempt
to discern the linkages between these three value systems and how they might be improved (Baber & Bartlett,
2005; Jasanoff, 1990; Pielke, 2007). Primary investigations
center on who is responsible for incorporating scientic
knowledge into the public policymaking process. Many
authors express concern that scientists who provide information for policymaking and democratic processes may
lose credibility if they are perceived as advocating for
a cause or the media portrays them negatively (Alm
et al., 2010; Pielke, 2007; Wilson, 1998). Alm et al. (2010)
suggest the difculty lies in redening the roles of scientists and disseminating good sciencewhich includes

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scientic consensusto citizens and policymakers. Pielke


(2007) describes a gamut of scientic involvement ranging
from strictly providing facts to advocating a particular position. Nevertheless, Pielke (2007) concludes that the best
service scientists can provide is to present an array of reasonable alternatives, including possible outcomes, to those
with the authority to decide on the best course of action
and to not become overly involved in advocating for what
should happen.
6.4. Scientic politicking
A general belief is that better science, in relation to solving a problem, will lead to better policies by improving
our understanding of current conditions under which our
decisions are being made, and the potential future consequences of those decisions (Sarewitz, 2004: p. 392). One
shortfall of this design is that there can often be many
interpretations for the same data, and it is the interpretations rather than the facts that are important (Stone, 1997).
However, there is no prescriptive method to present the
complexity of scientic subjectssuch as nuclear power
generationto the general public in an accessible fashion. In addition, even when scientic facts are presented,
they are still at risk of being used incorrectly, in political situations. Furthermore, lack of scientic consensus
or uncertainty can be used in politics to put off decisions
which may be costly or lack public support. As Smith (2009)
explains:
Politics is about bargaining, compromise, and the balancing of interests. Science, on the other hand tries to
deal with truth or, to the extent possible, absolutes.
The scientically correct answer to a problem may not
be politically viable.
Scientic knowledge involves both facts and values, and
although data may be used to reduce uncertainty, there is
no way to eliminate uncertainty in science (Carolan, 2006).
There is a general assumption that when posed with scientic information, all scientists will come to the same
conclusion and that if information transfers to the public
were better, citizens would view the issues in the same way
(Jasanoff, 1990; Kahan et al., 2011). But as Michael explains
(1995: p. 473), more information often stimulates the creation of more options, resulting in the creation of still more
information.
These researchers recognize that policy creation is
a difcult process and becomes increasingly demanding as more values, perspectives, and information are
involved. Increasing levels of involvement often put scientists and policymakers at an impasse because more data
is demanded for complex decisions without the realization
that the amount of data is actually causing much of the
confusion (Jasanoff, 1990; Michael, 1995). Leshner (2006)
says knowledge transfer requires more than providing
reports and data; rather, knowledge transfer must include
a dialog between scientists and the public to identify priorities and answer questions. By narrowing the scope of the
issue, it is likely scientists will be better equipped to succinctly present the most applicable information in policy
debates and to address citizen concerns. Jasanoff (1990: p.

7) asserts, decisions have to be made on the basis of available facts supplemented by a large measure of judgment.
This statement is not meant to discount the importance of
making policies based on data, but to encourage decisiveness using available information.
6.5. The role of scientic consensus
The idea of scientic consensus is often highlighted as
a necessary element of gaining public support for a policy, especially those tied to energy and the environment.
Bocking (1997) posits that scientists are responsible for
providing intellectual leadership by using science to validate societal perceptions. Sarewitz (2004: p. 392) infers
that even the most apolitical, disinterested scientist may,
by virtue of disciplinary orientation, view the world in a
way that is more amenable to some value systems than
others.
A study by Barke and Jenkins-Smith (1993) describes
the divergent perceptions of scientists from a variety of disciplines and the institutions in which they are employed.
Their ndings suggest that physicists, chemists, and
engineers have lower risk perceptions from nuclear development than life scientists; however, laypersons had far
higher risk perceptions than any of the scientic disciplines
(Barke & Jenkins-Smith, 1993). Barke and Jenkins-Smith
(1993) and Kahan et al. (2011) tie risk perception to
patterns of beliefs about the environment, science, and
technology and to individual preferences and priorities.
These studies suggest the importance of allowing scientists
to present their ndings through appropriately identied
venues and letting citizens help identify alternatives to
meet objectives. This does not suggest that citizen perceptions should be devalued and over-run by scientists, but
that there is added value through collaborative processes.
Kahan et al. (2011: p. 3) warn individuals will more
readily recall instances of experts taking the position that
is consistent with their cultural predisposition than ones
taking positions inconsistent with it. Sarewitz (2004)
suggests that the interpretation of information at different levels of analysis and for various groups can be
contradictory. This idea was echoed in a description of
researchers who address causes of problems and those
who attend to effects. Wilson (1998)using the terminology of consilience4 sees the necessity to bring together
natural and social science research that addresses both
causes and effects in order to improve our ability to address
science-related problems. Consilience will also address
understanding what is known and framing meaningful
questions to direct future inquiries (Wilson, 1998: p. 326).
Additionally, (Fischoff, 2009: p. 3) asserts that sometimes
when industry or the government cannot nd adequate
support for its perspective, strong-arm tactics, exercising
political clout are used to meet its objectives. This demonstrates the need for good management and communication
techniques for scientists and industry leaders.

4
Consilience is literally a jumping together of knowledge by linking facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common
groundwork of explanation (Wilson, 1998: p. 8).

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6.6. Linking science to public perceptions of nuclear


power
Based on the results of the media assessment provided
above, headline contents following nuclear incidents are
overwhelmingly negative. Negative media coverage can
be linked to public perceptions, signaling fear and distrust for the nuclear industry, and causing reactive policy
development. The success of nuclear energyand other
technologiesis highly dependent on public support and
good publicity that cannot be achieved without scientists
getting involved and publicizing positive nuclear achievements, such as improvements to safety, efciency, and
reliability.
To advance scientic communications, scientists need
to simplify their research ndings and communicate with
the public using less jargon. Simultaneously, interdisciplinary bridges should be built in order to discover
knowledge gaps and integrate available expertise. Scientists and agencies must carefully communicate information
about the current status of nuclear power technologies
without framing them in institutional or political contexts.
Technology over the past several decades has improved
our ability to communicate information. It has also created uncertainty about where to turn for factual scientic
sources. Wilson (1998: p. 294) declares, we are drowning
in information while starving for wisdom and asks scientists to begin synthesizing their research and drawing
connections between cause and effect in order to improve
the current status of technology and science. He further
suggests that ethics are fundamental to the decisionmaking process for all parties and that it will be easier
to reach resolutions if learning is unied and universally
shared (Wilson, 1998: p. 325).
As scientic information regarding nuclear power
becomes more readily available and accessible to the
public, there is hope that trust can be reinvigorated
between citizens and nuclear agencies. Positive relations
can improve the transparency of democratic decisionmaking about the nuclear industry and increase condence
in the industrys ability to deal with future nuclear incidents. Synthesizing scientic information will help the
nuclear industry identify gaps in current policies or
issues and pursue denitive solutions. This prescription
is intended to improve perceptions of nuclear technology
and build a strong framework for disseminating scientic
information and rening tactical approaches to problem
solving.
Acknowledgements
The author would like to thank Dr. Leslie Alm, Lisa Bearg,
and Amanda Leavitt for their encouragement and insightful
suggestions in regards to this manuscript.
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