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What Americans Think about Nuclear Energy

Germans, or at least German journalists, are obsessed with nuclear energy. Any list of the themes on which the German press is the most openly biased campaigning coverage, nuclear energy has to be in the top 10, if not the top 5.

So it's not surprising that the nuclear accident in Fukushima prompted an flood of hyperventilating scare stories in the German media, which were enough to actually prompt a major change in policy -- the so-called Energiewende. And this isn't just my impression: a study of Fukushima coverage in Germany concluded that coverage of the earthquake in Germany was dramatically different than in other countries: the German-language media focused more on the reactor catastrophe, provided more dramatic pictures, explicitly linked the reactor disaster to the question of German nuclear reactors, and included more direct journalistic editorializing against nuclear energy and demands that Germany shut down its reactors.

I don't have time to look up the views of ordinary Germans on nuclear energy, but it's hard to imagine the wall-to-wall indoctrination hasn't had its effects. I was thinking of this because of a recent post from Razib Khan's excellent Gene Expression blog. The subject is what Americans think about the dangers and potential of nuclear energy, broken down by political views and education:

Column: POLVIEWS(r:1-3″Liberal”;4″Moderate”;5-7″Conservative”)

Selection filter(s): year(2010-*) 

Views on nuclear energy N ~ 400
  Lib Mod Cons
Strongly favor 16 13 12
Favor 49 50 64
Oppose 28 27 16
Strongly oppose 7 9 8
Nuclear power dangerous to the environment N ~ 1300
  Lib Mod Cons
Extremely dangerous 26 23 16
Very dangerous 25 29 23
Somewhat dangerous 33 32 31
Not very dangerous 14 13 22
Not dangerous 3 3 8

As you can see liberals do tend to be more skeptical of nuclear energy, but it is not stark. In fact, attitudes toward nuclear power seem to be as strongly, if not more so, variant on a populist vs. elite axis than conventional ideology. Here’s the second question replicated for education:

Nuclear power dangerous to the environment N ~ 1300
  No college College  
Extremely dangerous 26 11  
Very dangerous 27 21  
Somewhat dangerous 31 34  
Not very dangerous 11 28  
Not dangerous 4 7  

But, when you look only at college educated individuals the ideology divide doesn’t go away. In fact, it seems more extreme.

Nuclear power dangerous to the environment N ~ 370
College educated only
  Lib Mod Cons
Extremely dangerous 14 16 5
Very dangerous 28 22 14
Somewhat dangerous 38 35 28
Not very dangerous 15 24 42
Not dangerous 5 4 11

That’s strong circumstantial evidence that the gap here is one of cultural norms and values, and not facts.

Note that many people favor nuclear energy while at the same time conceding that it's dangerous or harmful to the environment. It's also interesting to note that college-educated people think it's less dangerous than those who didn't attend college.


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Very nice to see that.

Chicken or egg? Why do think journalists went first and the populace reacted to their "propaganda"?
I'm afraid journalists just write down what they think a majority will want to hear, or in this case, they refrain from writing what a majority would take amiss.
This "punishment" effect is particularly strong on such touchy issues.
Sure, such a process tends to render the majority even bigger.

About your conclusion: So you assume that people with higher formal education will listen to facts more than those without?
Well, this may be true sometimes, but it's clearly not automatic or obvious.
For starters, it defeats the whole purpose of academic titles ... ;)


The question if it is cosidered dangerous might not be regarded as the most glaring problem with nuclear energy. Personally I would say it is not very dangerous, at least in a controlled facility, but I still oppose the use of nuclear energy because of the unsolved waste problem. If they asked people about their concerns about nuclear waste, the numbers probably would have come out differently.


There had already been a broad discussion resulting in compromise about something called "Atomausstieg" (quotation marks saying, I wouldn't call it that) under the Schröder government. Then Merkel, in another compromise between herself and the nuclear interest groups, backpedaled from said compromise. Right then, Fukushima happened. That the reception of the nuclear disaster was so different in Germany is owed to that background and makes perfect sense to me.

Fukushima didn't so much prompt a major change in policy - it forced Merkel to roll back her own projected major change in policy. At least for now.

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