Energy Initiative Blogs

Public Perception of Nuclear Energy

by Ayesha Riaz | Jan 28, 2015

According to CASEnergy Coalition for the advancement of nuclear energy, approximately 48% of Illinois relies on nuclear energy for power and electricity. This is due to Exelon's 6 nuclear power plants located in Northern Illinois that provide most of the electricity for the Northern region of Illinois and some of West Indiana.  Exelon's recent 2020 Program shows the trajectory for their goal of reduction emissions and their carbon footprint, offering more low-carbon energy, and including inventory programs to reduce leakage. Although the goals were anticipated to be reached by 2020, last year in 2013, Exelon announced that they had reached their goal seven years ahead of schedule. This impressive accomplishment shows that even the largest companies in energy are able to drastically reduce their carbon footprint, creating a subtle commentary on why other companies fail to do the same. Exelon owns the third largest nuclear fleet in the world, (following Japan and France), and annually releases a sustainability report that showcases their progress and future goals (which they meet without fail).

What we are currently being pushed to believe as the American public is that nuclear is safe, clean, affordable, and necessary during our eventual transition to renewable energy. Several decades earlier, the outlook on nuclear energy was completely different. It was associated with massive radiation levels, dangerous working conditions, and was viewed as a suspicious technology that could easily be manipulated to create weapons. (The Chernobyl incident did not help the nuclear case either).  

After WWII, specifically after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the general consensus of using nuclear anything was approached with apprehension and much caution. However, promotional materials were produced for the American public by known figures such as Walt Disney himself  who developed propaganda to convince America of the many benefits associated with nuclear energy such as safety, ease, convenience, efficiency, and versatility. Aside from an interactive and informative children's cartoon depicting the wonders of atomic power (featured below), Disney also sought the help of Heinz Haber, German physicist who helped create a book showcasing the same ideals, called "Our Friend The Atom".

                          1Our Friend the Atom Magazine spread

1 Our Friend the Atom 1
1Our Friend the Atom 2
1Our Friend the Atom 3

                         Selected Pages from Our Friend The Atom 

It seems ironic as well, considering the toxic chemicals depicted as magical fairy dust by Disney were once thought to save our growing population, but have actually condemned it with pesticides, bioaccumulation, and disease among other ills. 

Nuclear reactors are still being mentioned in pop culture today. The most recent example was the latest Godzilla movie that incorporated a meltdown of the fictional Janjira nuclear power plant in Japan that was a strong reference to the near-recent 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster due to tsunami caused by the Tohoku earthquake. Although it was a subtle comparison, it shows the relevancy of our growing energy crisis, even though Godzilla also catered to popular kaiju-MOTU subculture that had been awaiting a remake. 

                     1Godzilla 2014 Still

                                     Photo Still from Godzilla (2014)

              1Fukushima, March 2011
                   Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, March 2011

However, nuclear energy functions as a great system to utilize in our transition period to more renewable sources such as solar, geothermal, and wind as opposed to coal with its high carbon emissions and detrimental environmental impact. After every large-scale nuclear power plant disaster, the industry immediately takes several precautions to avoid the same situation from happening elsewhere. Another Chernobyl is highly unlikely to occur because there nuclear core reactor that was used (RBMK) was an early commercial reactor design that is the oldest that is still in operation. The U.S. does not use this type of nuclear core reactor, and since then has increased the number of safety precautions. The U.S. uses either boiling water or pressurized water reactors that use water as a coolant and moderator whereas the RBMK design uses a graphite moderator and water coolant. The graphite is also flammable at higher temperatures, and the Soviet RMBK does not have a containment vessel aside from the obvious shielding whereas the light water reactors also have a thick wall of steel-reinforced concrete, rendering it impossible to have another Chernobyl incident in the U.S. 

Following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) has confirmed that the industry has taken precautionary measures against extreme natural disasters (such as tsunamis). Additional generators have been invested in to keep the reactor cool if electricity from the grid is unavailable. 

In recent efforts concerning the massive radioactive disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, Japan recently began building a literal 1.5 km ice wall to isolate the toxic water that the destruction produced. Inserted pipes will run coolant that will freeze the surrounding soil in order to reduce the risk of contaminated  groundwater, which is still a growing concern. Scientists have expressed concern about this project, given the fact that nothing at this scale has been created before. 

1Koji Sasahara

          TEPCO employees preparing for Fukushima's underground barrier 

The Nuclear Regulation Authority of Japan still has concerns to solve
‚Äč with TEPCO, Fukushima's plant operator of ways to accurately measure the levels of radioactive water, and how best to purify it, if possible. The plan would also include extreme energy increases and currently is operating at a cost of 32 billion yen ($314 million), and is estimated for completion around March 2015.  

Additional Material:
Japan begins building Fukushima ice wall 

Achieving Exelon 2020 

Nuclear Energy Institute 

Our Friend the Atom: Disney's 1956 Illustrated Propaganda for Nuclear Energy