Fear Dominates Much of the Discussion On Nuclear Power     Print Email
Tuesday, 22 March 2011

As of now, the death toll from Japan's nuclear emergency stands at zero. This contrasts to the thousands of people who perished in the earthquake and the tsunami, and yet it is the nuclear emergency and the threat of disaster that have captivated most of our attention. National Public Radio, in the United States, interviewed. Robert DuPont, who teaches clinical psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School and specializes in the study and treatment of fear, including the fear of nuclear energy. He told NPR's Renee Montagne that the American reaction to the nuclear threats has been way out of proportion:


Dr. ROBERT DUPONT: There are people in California taking potassium iodide to prevent cancers from the radiation coming out of this plant. What is that?  I think the answer is in biology. Fear dominates our attention. Whatever the tsunami was, whatever the earthquake was, that's over. Sure, it could happen again, but the nuclear reactor? Who knows.

MONTAGNE: Now, what makes people's reaction to nuclear energy so different than other energy sources - for instance, drilling for oil or coal mining - when they also present tragically heavy risks of danger and loss of life in the industry?

Dr. DUPONT: They do, but it's familiar, and it doesn't have the connection to Hiroshima that we have with nuclear power. We're used to thinking about industrial accidents. What we're talking about when we talk about nuclear power is what could happen, what almost happened. Aside from the accident in Chernobyl, you really don't have the bodies piled up, and I cut my teeth on the issue of a Three Mile Island, which was very interesting because there was a sense that we might lose the East Coast of the United States. Fear is all about what the future is, and you can never reassure the person to say it couldn't happen. I do a lot of work with people, for example, to help them deal with a fear of flying. And although there have been many years when there have been no deaths from a commercial airline in the United States, you never know when you get on an airplane whether your plane is going to crash or not.

MONTAGNE: Can it also be because,  in the case of the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power, it seems that they are not telling everything they know? So people, certainly in Japan, but also elsewhere in the world, automatically think about a worse-case scenario.

Dr. DUPONT: Yes, and I think that the biggest health problem associated with Three Mile Island in the commission's report about it was the fear, the anxiety, the mental stress that people have. I think that efforts to allay fears have the paradoxical effect of reinforcing the sense that, well, we're not hearing the whole story.

MONTAGNE: The nuclear power industry in this country saw a major setback after the Three Mile Island incident. Yet, in other countries after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, nuclear power was developed at full speed, from lesser developed countries like India to highly developed countries like France. Why didn't those populations share this sort of great fear of a nuclear holocaust that Americans seem to have in large numbers?

Dr. DUPONT: Well, one big difference is the question of whether there's a widespread sense that nuclear energy is necessary. And it's very interesting to see which countries have done this - France, for example. Japan is another country. And France is interesting because 75 percent of their electricity comes from nuclear power. And they make a big thing in France about people visiting nuclear power plants. I have been there and seen the nuclear power plants in France. And they are major attractions for students to come and visit. They are familiar to people. And this familiarity vaccinates the people, it immunizes them against fear. The United States could not be more different.

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