A California ballot initiative proposes to shut down the Diablo Canyon and San Onofre nuclear power plants. But would voters decide using logic or emotion?
California’s initiative process can be both a wonderfully democratic and perilously dumb way to make law. On no issue could that be more true than the proposed initiative to shut down nuclear power in the state. The initiative would shut down the Diablo Canyon and San Onofre nuclear plants until the federal government approves a permanent disposal site for nuclear waste. The issue is scientifically, environmentally and economically complex, and tangled with powerful emotions. Between the facts and those feelings, guess which will have more influence on the choice people make? Is that a wise way to make policy on something with such huge implications for human and environmental health?
Mountains of evidence from both scientific research and our everyday experiences make inescapably clear that risk perception is subjective. It is an instinctive process that relies on emotional and social cues and mental shortcuts for decision-making rather than an objective open-minded analysis of the facts. It is a process that sometimes leads us to worry more than the evidence warrants and sometimes less than the evidence warns — a phenomenon I call the perception gap.
The anti-nuclear initiative is a clarion example. Particularly among baby boomers, our nuclear fears are rooted in existential Cold War worries about nuclear weapons, which transitioned into fear of nuclear fallout from weapons testing , which transitioned into environmental concerns. Beyond that stigmatizing past, nuclear radiation bears many of the psychological characteristics that research has found make any risk scarier.
We’re more afraid of risks imposed on us than those we choose, which is why medical radiation is accepted but nuclear power radiation isn’t.
The more pain and suffering they cause, the more afraid we are of risks, and nuclear radiation is associated with cancer, even though studies of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have firmly established that this form of radiation is a much weaker carcinogen than most people realize. The high doses and prolonged exposures from those explosions raised the cancer death toll among survivors who were within two miles of the explosions by only about half of 1%, according to the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, which coordinates the now 65-year-long epidemiological study of these survivors.