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Why Are We Afraid of Nuclear Power?

CONCORD, MASSACHUSETTS – Germany’s ambivalence about nuclear energy, common in many developed countries, has been on display again recently, following Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to extend the operating life of the country’s 17 nuclear plants for an average of 12 years beyond their currently scheduled closure dates. Merkel says this will help Germany develop the “most efficient and environmentally friendly energy supply worldwide.” Opposition leaders say that the government is “selling safety for money.”

Both sides argue about the facts, but underlying that debate is an argument about how those facts feel. How risk is perceived – whether the risk is nuclear power or genetically modified food or any potential threat – is never a purely rational, fact-based process.

Decades of research have found that risk perception is an affective combination of facts and fears, intellect and instinct, reason and gut reaction. It is an inescapably subjective process – one that has helped us to survive, but that sometimes gets us into more trouble, because we often worry too much about relatively smaller risks, or not enough about bigger ones, and make choices that feel right, but that actually create new risks.

So, as Germany grapples with the issue of nuclear power, there are important lessons to be learned, not only about nuclear power per se, but also about how we perceive risk in the first place, because understanding that subjective system is the first step toward avoiding its pitfalls.