Should Japan's nuclear power crisis change how we view nuclear power? Many American seem to think so — according to Gallup, 80 percent of Americans are either "a lot more concerned" or "a little more concerned" about nuclear power in the United States in the wake of the events in Japan.
But cognitive science has shown convincingly that humans are bad at assessing the relative importance of different threats, especially when a given threat is big and spectacular (the classic example is 9/11 — in the years following the tragedy concerns over terrorism dwarfed concerns over far more fatal, but quotidian, threats). So while there are certainly major concerns about the use and regulation of nuclear power in this country, we should maintain some perspective and understand that in the wake of a catastrophe, our brains can become our worst enemies.
I emailed Donald Braman, a professor at George Washington University's law school who has studied how people assess different risks. He mentioned the fears of many Vermont residents over their state's Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, and went even further in explaining what our reactions to disasters say about us:
Vermont is unlikely to be hit by a 30-foot Tsunami (it was the massive wave that took out the crucial generators), but that doesn't mean that the Japanese disaster isn't having an effect on Vermonter's perceptions of the risk attached to a local nuclear power plant. And one way of thinking about this crisis is that big disasters make remote risks more salient, so people worry about them more, often out of proportion with the actual risk posed. But that's just half the story. In fact, public reaction to the nuclear crisis in Japan is quite mixed. It turns out that some people are exceptionally sensitive to risks posed by nuclear disasters, while others are more attuned to the risks posed by overly restrictive government regulations. In this sense, what a person fears tells us a lot about who they are. In large scale surveys that we've conducted, we see the relationship between cultural values and risk perceptions related to global warming, gun ownership, synthetic biology, and a host of other issues. Nuclear power is one of the most sensitive issues that we've studied. It turns out that, in many ways, what you fear is is who you are.
So it's important to keep in mind that we're fundamentally flawed when it comes to risk assessment: whatever caused the most recent catastrophe we're worrying about might not be worth the fear it's generating, and our reaction to it may simply be a reflection or amplification of feelings we already held rather than a rational response to the event itself.
Globe file photo: Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vermont.