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Nuclear Power in the American Mind

Today marks the 1-year anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. The nuclear meltdowns, plant explosions, and release of radioactive material at Fukushima refocused world attention on the risks of nuclear power and caused many ripple effects, including shifts in public perceptions of this technology.

How did American images of nuclear power change in response to the Fukushima disaster? Using two separate nationally representative surveys – one conducted in June of 2005 and the second in May of 2011 – we asked Americans to provide the first word or phrase that came to mind when they thought of “nuclear power.” We then categorized these free associations to identify the most common images of nuclear power in the American mind.

Compared to 2005, Americans in May of 2011 were significantly more likely to associate nuclear power with images of “disaster” (including many direct references to Fukushima) or “bad” (including bad, dangerous, and scary). And as described in our report: Public Support for Climate & Energy Policies, only 47 percent of Americans in May 2011 supported building more nuclear power plants, down 6 points from the prior year (June 2010), while only 33 percent supported building a nuclear power plant in their own local area.

Fukushima was a “focusing event” – a crisis that generates massive media and public attention and ripple effects well beyond the disaster itself. The meltdown and release of radioactive materials at Fukushima directly impacted the air, water, soil, people, and biota in the immediate vicinity of the facility, but the ripple effects of the disaster cascaded through broader Japanese society, causing, among other things, the prime minister to pledge the end of nuclear power in Japan. Further, the ripples, like the tsunami that triggered the crisis, ricocheted across the world, leading the German government to pledge the phase-out of nuclear power, reviews of nuclear plant safety in other countries, and shifts in global public opinion about nuclear energy, including a shift in the meaning of "nuclear power" in the American mind.