Nuclear power faces big hurdle: public perception

Reto Gieré and Katherine Smith do not consider themselves advocates for nuclear power. Yet both underscore that this power source will be “part of the mix” in fulfilling the world’s energy needs for the foreseeable future. Thus, a well-informed understanding of the issues involved in creating, using, and dealing with the aftereffects of nuclear energy is crucial.

In a report for the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy titled “Why Some Nations Choose Nuclear Power,” Gieré, a professor and chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Science in the School of Arts & Sciences, and Smith, a senior technology and market assessor for Gemaker, Pty Ltd., who was a visiting scholar at the Kleinman Center last year, explore the economic, political, environmental, technological, and social factors that drive the decision to invest in nuclear energy.

For 20 years, the two scientists have collaborated on studies related to the storage of nuclear waste. Pairing Gieré’s geological field experience with Smith’s expertise in materials science, they have investigated how a man-made ceramic material might be able to trap nuclear waste, just as naturally occurring minerals lock up radioactive elements in their crystal structures. Such a product could provide a more durable alternative to the nuclear waste storage practices in use today.

“Engineers and scientists have good solutions to the challenge of waste management,” Gieré says. “The most pressing problem right now is public perception of the risk of nuclear power.”

In their Kleinman Center publication, Smith and Gieré observe that public concern surrounding nuclear energy—about accidents, such as the 2011 Fukushima power plant disaster in Japan, about storage and transport of waste, and about nuclear weapons—drives some opposition to its use around the world. Yet they also note that public attitudes toward nuclear power tend to be more favorable among populations living close to a power plant. Indeed, many nations are embracing nuclear power.

China and India, for example, are planning to ramp up usage of nuclear power in the coming years, in large part a response to the poor air quality that results from coal-fired power plants.

“These countries are going through the same industrial build-up that the United States was undergoing 50 or 60 years ago,” says Smith. “Air quality is a huge issue in places like Delhi and Beijing, and they recognize that they need a clean energy source to reduce the health costs associated with coal burning.”

As a low-carbon energy source, nuclear power also provides an appealing alternative for mitigating climate change. Even energy technologies thought of as “green,” such as hydro, wind, biomass, and solar power, do have environmental costs. Hydropower, for instance, is clean once a dam is up and running but can damage streams and other nearby ecosystems, and requires huge amounts of concrete, which is carbon-heavy to produce.

“Every energy source comes with its pros and cons,” Gieré says. “If you want to have an honest discussion, you have to look at all of these issues.”

Both Gieré and Smith see a role for Penn in contributing to a balanced and thorough understanding of energy from a scholarly perspective, one that ideally leads to well-informed policymaking.

“There is a huge gap between scientists and policy- and decision-makers, and I think what the Kleinman Center does is bridge that gap,” Smith says. “Getting one community to talk to the other is absolutely vital.”

Nuclear Power