Fear Dominates Discussions On Nuclear Power

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The situation in Japan is sparking plenty of conversations about the potential human consequences of a nuclear disaster. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and atomic bombs — have all shaped public perceptions of nuclear power. Dr. Robert DuPont, a psychiatrist who specializes in the study and treatment of fear, talks to Renee Montagne about why perceptions of nuclear power are so different compared to other sources of power.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

As of now, the death toll from Japan's nuclear emergency stands at zero. Contrast that to the thousands of people who perished in the earthquake and the tsunami, yet it is the nuclear emergency and the threat of disaster that have captivated most of our attention. Dr. Robert DuPont teaches clinical psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School and specializes in the study and treatment of fear, including the fear of nuclear energy. He told our own Renee Montagne that the American response to the nuclear threats has been way out of proportion.

Dr. ROBERT DUPONT (Georgetown Medical School): God, you've got people in California taking potassium iodide to prevent cancers from the radiation from this plant. What is that? And I think the answer is in biology. Fear dominates our attention. Whatever the tsunami was, whatever the earthquake was, that's over. Sure, it could happen again. But the nuclear reactor? Who knows.

MONTAGNE: Now, what makes people's reaction to nuclear energy so different than other energy sources - for instance, you know, drilling for oil or coal mining - when they have also some quite tragic, you know, loss of life and danger in the industry?

Dr. DUPONT: They do, but it's familiar and it doesn't have the connection to Hiroshima that we have with nuclear power, and it's also familiar. We're used to thinking about industrial accidents.

What we're talking about when we talk about nuclear is what could happen, what almost happened. Aside from the accident in Chernobyl, you really don't have the bodies piled up, and I got I cut my teeth on the issue of a Three Mile Island, and that was very interesting because there was a sense that we almost lost the East Coast of the United States. And fear is all about what the future is, and you can never reassure the person to say it couldn't happen.

I do a lot of work with people, for example, a fear of flying. And although we've had many years when there's been no deaths from a commercial airline in the United States, I mean zero for a year, you never know when you get on an airplane whether your plane is going to crash. And so you can't really say about these what-if fears, well, that's impossible.

MONTAGNE: Can it also be because well, in the case of the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power, it seems that they are not telling everything they know. So people, certainly in Japan, but elsewhere in the world, go straight to a worse-case scenario.

Dr. DUPONT: Yes, and I think that the biggest health problem associated with Three Mile Island in the commission's report about it was the fear, was the anxiety, the mental stress that people have, and I think that efforts to allay that have the paradoxical effect of reinforcing the sense that, well, we're not hearing the whole story.

MONTAGNE: The nuclear power industry in this country was set back utterly by Three Mile Island. Yet in other countries after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, full speed ahead with nuclear power plants from lesser developed countries like India to highly developed countries like France. Why didn't those populations share in this sort of great fear of a nuclear holocaust that Americans seem to have in large numbers?

Dr. DUPONT: Well, one big difference is the question of whether there's a widespread sense that this is necessary. And it's very interesting what the countries are that have done this - France, using it as an example. Japan is another country. And France is interesting because it is 75 percent of their electricity comes from nuclear power. And they make a big thing in France about people visiting nuclear power plants. I have been there and seen the nuclear power plants in France. And they're major sites for students to come and visit. They make them familiar to people. And so that vaccinates the people, it immunizes them against the fear once it's familiar. The United States could not be more different.

MONTAGNE: Robert DuPont is a professor of psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School and he specializes in the study and treatment of fear, including the fear of nuclear energy. Thank you for joining us.

Dr. DUPONT: Thank you, Renee.

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