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The bad and the ugly? How the public see the risks of coal and nuclear

By Martin Leggett - 14 Jun 2011 16:1:0 GMT
The bad and the ugly? How the public see the risks of coal and nuclear

When it comes to moving forward to a clean energy future, the two most controversial crutches to lean on must surely be coal-fired power stations, and nuclear power plants. On the one hand, coal is widely recognized as being one of the dirtiest items in the fossil fuel cupboard. On the other, nuclear power, despite its recent re-branding as the 'low-carb alternative' energy source, finds its news-copy dominated by the triple disasters of Three Mile, Chernobyl and Fukushima.

But researchers at New Jersey's Rutgers University were keen to dig below these surface perceptions. What do consumers really think of the relative risks of nuclear and coal - and do such beliefs vary across the sex, class and ethnic spectrum?

The result of their work, published recently in the journal Risk Analysis, shows that the story of the perceived risks, for coal and nuclear power, isn't as simple as it is often portrayed in the media. The public holds quite complex views over the problems associated with them; and those views vary considerably from group to group. The authors - Professor Michael Greenberg and Heather Barnes Truelove - hope those nuances will better inform the debate, over how to green US energy generation.

The study was undertaken in two parts. First 3,200 residents were phoned and asked to rate various risks they associated with both coal and nuclear power generation. Some of the group were selected randomly, whereas others were deliberately picked from regions heavy with nuclear or coal power plants. The idea was to see if being close to such plants influenced opinions on the risks from them.

Those who undertook the survey were then split up by age, sex, and ethnic background, as well as by their cultural, social and political identities. Overall, it was found that coal was strongly disliked as a future energy source. 66% wanted to US dependency on it cut, whereas only 22% wanted to see its role increased. Those who wanted to see a greater role for coal were more likely to be from less well-off and educated groups; and more were from African-American and Latino backgrounds.

Global warming was a big turn-off factor for coal - but even more people were worried about how coal-plants lowered the quality of the local environment. With nuclear power, it was more than just nuclear accidents that featured on the 'risky' side of the equation. Participants were just as likely to quote uranium mining, or nuclear waste management and transport, as negatives.

In general the public was also more evenly divided over nuclear - with  48% favoring increased reliance, versus 46 percent favoring a decrease. However, its worth noting that this study was pre-Fukushima, which has seen worries about nuclear power soar across the globe. In general nuclear supporters were white, male and better educated.

The authors believe their research shows that national energy policy needs to look at more than just the 'headline worries', when it comes to the public opinion. They advise that 'one or two simple messages that attempt to persuade the public to change its preferences for or against specific energy sources are unlikely to succeed, especially if the public has a negative image of the source.'

Top Image Credit: © Mitchell Knapton