The Future of Nuclear Power: Value Orientations and Risk Perception
Since the turn of the 21st century, there has been a revival of interest in nuclear power. Two decades ago, the expansion of nuclear power in the United States was halted by widespread public opposition as well as rising costs and less than projected increases in demand for electricity. Can the renewed enthusiasm for nuclear power overcome its history of public resistance that has persisted for decades? We propose that attitudes toward nuclear power are a function of perceived risk, and that both attitudes and risk perceptions are a function of values, beliefs, and trust in the institutions that influence nuclear policy. Applying structural equation models to data from a U.S. national survey, we find that increased trust in the nuclear governance institutions reduces perceived risk of nuclear power and together higher trust and lower risk perceptions predict positive attitudes toward nuclear power. Trust in environmental institutions and perceived risks from global environmental problems do not predict attitudes toward nuclear power. Values do predict attitudes: individuals with traditional values have greater support for, while those with altruistic values have greater opposition to, nuclear power. Nuclear attitudes do not vary by gender, age, education, income, or political orientation, though nonwhites are more supportive than whites. These findings are consistent with, and provide an explanation for, a long series of public opinion polls showing public ambivalence toward nuclear power that persists even in the face of renewed interest for nuclear power in policy circles.