An interesting study published this week in the PNAS looks to evaluate how Japan’s Fukushima nuclear incident in 2011 has impacted the Chinese public’s view of nuclear power. The group found that after Fukushima’s meltdown the Chinese public was much less supportive of nuclear power and thought nuclear projects much riskier than before. Their results indicate that these changes in opinion were particularly prevalent among women, people not working in public service, people with a lower income, and people living close to a Chinese reactor at Tianwan.
Previous studies surrounding the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear events have shown that public opinion is often drastically altered following these disasters. A 1988 survey of Americans following the Chernobyl incident showed an increase in fear and knowledge of nuclear power as could be expected, but a surprising decrease in perceived severity of risk. So these events can have some unexpected effects on how the general populace views nuclear power, and understanding those effects is important for discussing the future of nuclear programs.
In the past few years, China has been promoting its nuclear power program and expanding it to try and offer affordable power to more of its population. Immediately following the Fukushima meltdown though, the Chinese government halted all proposed plant construction and increased security measures on those already being built. According to this new study’s survey, public opinion tended to sway from support towards neutrality when the question of nuclear power was posed in a general sense. When asked if they would be alright with a nuclear plant being constructed in their city though, supporters dropped from 23% of respondents before Fukushima to 8% after, neutrals dropped from 64% to 38%, and the opposition increased from 13% to 54%. Evidently nuclear meltdowns are more acceptable when they’re not in your own backyard.
The group also calculated how tolerant the public was of possible nuclear incidents of various severities. Half of those surveyed thought that a level one nuclear event, known as an “anomaly” and which may include overexposure to a member of the public above statutory annual minimums or a minor problem with safety equipment, was acceptable at most once in 50 years. A level two event, known as an “incident” and including minor impacts to people and the environment along with effects on the radiological security of the plant, was only acceptable once in 100 years and a level three event, called a “serious incident,” once in 150 years. It should be noted that Fukushima ranked a level seven on this scale, and is only the second to have done so, the other being Chernobyl in 1986.
The goal of this study was to identify those subpopulations most vulnerable to a change of opinion following a serious nuclear event so that the Chinese government could reach out to them and communicate more effectively in the event of their own Fukushima or in the wake of other disasters abroad. This begs the question though, should they? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for forward thinking energy solutions and nuclear power has a lot going for it, but sometimes public opinion changes for a reason. The public needs to be well informed about these types of possibilities and the risks they pose, and the Chinese government, which already has a vested interest in continuing nuclear expansion, may not be the best source for objective information on those dangers. If the public ends up feeling that the risks don’t outweigh the benefits when it comes to nuclear power, should the government be trying to convince them otherwise? That’s not really for me to say. It’s just for me to pointedly ask at the end of a story.
Info on the nuclear event scale: