Coal or nuclear? Risk vs. reward

RUTGERS (US) — Affluent, educated, white males are more likely to support increased use of nuclear energy, and less educated African-American and Latino females prefer an increase in the use of coal, despite the risks associated with each.

Both coal, with its attendant air pollution and link to global warming, and nuclear power, with the potential for radiation accidents such as the one following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, remain controversial.

A new study, published in the journal Risk Analysis, examines Americans’ risk beliefs and preferences for coal and nuclear energy, and finds factors other than global warming and the potential for nuclear power plant accidents figure into their choices.

The aim of the study, co-authored by Michael Greenberg, professor of environmental health at Rutgers, and Heather Barnes Truelove, postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University, was to learn the association, if any, between some common risk beliefs about coal and nuclear energy and consumer preferences; if global warning and serious nuclear power plant accidents were the strongest risk beliefs associated with preferences; and the characteristics of “acknowledged risk-takers” who were aware of the sources’ shortcomings still wanted to increase reliance on them.

The study surveyed 3,200 U.S. residents—800 selected randomly and 2,400 who lived within six, 100-mile-radius regions containing many nuclear and coal-fueled electricity generating and waste management facilities. The response rate to the survey was 23.4 percent.

The research followed an earlier survey that measured public preferences for various energy choices and their associations with respondent demographics and also trust, among other factors.

Due to widespread media coverage (and dramatized accounts) of global warming and the accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, it was expected these two factors would be the “signature risk beliefs” about coal and nuclear power, respectively.

In the new study, the researchers investigated five sets of characteristics for respondents: age; the role of cultural, social and political identity; the effects of values about the environment and trust; respondent location; and risk beliefs about coal and nuclear energy.

Results from the total sample showed that about 25 percent of participants wanted to increase reliance on coal and 66 percent preferred to decrease dependence on it. The analogous proportions were 48 percent and 46 percent, respectively, for nuclear.

Belief that coal use causes global warming, as expected, was related to preferences for coal, but, for example, ecological degradation was a slightly stronger correlate of coal-related preferences than global warming.

With regard to preference for use of nuclear energy, there was a strong correlation with the possibility of a nuclear plant accident, but other risk beliefs, such as about nuclear waste management, nuclear material transport and uranium mining had just as strong or stronger relationships with preference for increased reliance on nuclear energy.

About 30 percent of respondents favored increased reliance on nuclear energy, despite admitting the possibility of a serious accident. About 10 percent favored greater reliance on coal, while acknowledging the fossil fuel’s role in global warming.

The strongest correlates of the two groups were socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity. The acknowledged nuclear risk-taker group was affluent, educated white males, and the coal group was relatively poor, less educated African-American and Latino females. The three consistent factors across both groups were older age, trust in those who manage energy facilities. and the belief that energy facilities help the local economy.

The authors conclude their findings have a role to play in the formulation of a national energy policy because they show “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.”

More important, regardless of the existence of subpopulations with specific views about energy sources, “The United States needs a clear and comprehensive energy strategy that addresses the energy life cycle, beginning with securing the energy and transporting it, then to producing and transmitting the energy, and managing the wastes.”

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