Background

In the eve of today’s level of fossil fuel consumption, these non-renewable resources are quickly running out! The globe has decades left of petroleum and natural gas, and only a couple centuries left for coal (Rashad and Hammad 2000). This issue helps drive many of the debates significant in today’s global politics surrounding the types of energy sources that should be utilized and to what extent (Afgan 2013). Alternative energy sources are of key interest in potential for providing future generations with power. This paper chooses to take an in-depth look into nuclear power as it provides much potential in terms of energy density, waste management and emission levels (Rashad and Hammad 2000). At current levels of energy output, nuclear energy production reduces global carbon emissions by 10% (Apergis et. al 2010). But simply listing advantages of nuclear power is not enough for politicians; when determining what type of energy productions to use, risk perceptions of the public act as important considerations as they 1) significantly impact the choice of certain energy policies and 2) act as some of the most crucial influences of decisions concerning climate change mitigation (Vainio et al. 2017).

But what is risk anyway? It is a subjective term that heavily relies on the set of value-based attributes different individuals and communities assign it. Some examples include attributes of public deaths, occupational deaths, morbidity, unknown risk, and dread risk. But when we treat the concept of risk this way, we can see that the disagreements over the risks of certain energy systems reflect disagreements over what values to use and prioritize (Fischhoff et al. 1984).  With this in mind, risk-taking has become somewhat socially unacceptable in the modern age. Legal provisions constitute a “risk contract,” which assumes that risks can be controlled and/or compensated (Kersten 2012). But what attributes of risk to prioritize remains a subjective pursuit based on the value systems selected.

In terms of forming regulations for nuclear energy, public interest is a key element measured in terms of risk tolerance, choice of methods when determining and implementing acceptable levels of risk, and the resources available (Ash 2010). Studies have found demographic trends among people who assign levels of risk in a similar fashion. Past research in the United States found that pro-nuclear groups tended to be white educated males whereas those against were relatively poor, less educated, African-American and Latino females (Greenberg and Truelove 2011). Other survey results indicate that bureaucrats, lawyers, the military, professional congressional aides, and scientists primarily believe that nuclear plants are safe, while public interest groups and media/entertainment believe that they are not (Rothman and Lichter 1987). Even policymakers’ values surrounding nuclear energy differ from the public as seen in a study performed in Austria (Thomas 1981). Acknowledging these demographic trends within the scope of risk-defining attributes, the broad inquiry this paper addresses how public discourses regarding nuclear energy reflect risk perception of stakeholders. This study investigated the risk-oriented narratives regarding the decision to shut down the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in California, and found three predominant narratives–public safety, economic stability, and environmental responsibility–of which economic stability was weighed the heaviest in the discourse analyzed by our study’s parameters.