Nuclear power is a contentious subject in the energy field. The technology can be argued to be necessary for tackling climate change, but it is plagued by apprehension related to nuclear accidents and radioactive waste. While environmental and safety risks are at the forefront of the discussion, the social costs of nuclear energy related to risk perceptions are rarely addressed.
Lubell et al. (2006) in Environmental Activism as Collective Action, argue that individuals are more likely to be politically involved and support specific policies that are designed to address a problem if the issue seems to pose sufficient risks and/or benefits to them. Both the opinions and attitudes of individuals serve as important predictors of policy support because they provide a framework from which to look at issues and make decisions. For example, a high perceived risk of a nuclear accident decreases the probability of voting in favor of licenses for new nuclear reactors. The majority of people who are against nuclear power perceive the risk of accident as ‘high’ or ‘fairly high’.
People’s risk perceptions affect their political stand on nuclear power and biased perceptions of accident probabilities pose a cost to society. Hofert and Wüthrich (2011) report annual probabilities of 1×10-6 for nuclear accidents with long-term health damage, yet the average risk perception probability of a nuclear accident is about 0.3.
These exaggerated risk perceptions lead to unnecessary anxiety due to misperceived risks of existing nuclear infrastructures. Understanding people’s risk perceptions can help improve risk management and social welfare while encouraging governmental policy responsiveness, which is expected for issues of public concern.