Nuclear Power: A Psychological Perspective

Marc Pilisuk and Gianina Pellegrini

Note: A print version of this essay will be available in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of the Peace Psychology Newsletter of APA’s Division 48.

With the danger of global warming quite great and the demands for energy use increasing, new arguments in favor of the development of nuclear energy are being heard. Claims are made that despite some notable accidents, nuclear power is typically safe, provides a major source of energy without producing greenhouse gases, and has been effectively used in France and Japan. The transportation and storage of nuclear wastes, while not resolved in the US is viewed as a problem with a technological solution. But psychologists are particularly aware of the use of fear and crisis, or shock, as an excuse to implement solutions without full appreciation of the consequences.

Some progressive environmentalists like Stuart Brand and some environmental scientists like James Hanson are advocating increased use of nuclear power, particularly for the development of “4th generation” thorium reactors, which are claimed to be significantly safer, more efficient and producing much less waste than the reactors now in use. The claim is that 4th generation reactors completely burn the uranium and can also burn the long-lived nuclear waste, which would “solve the nuclear waste problem.” Support by Bill Gates has helped to popularize this view. The Obama administration also seems willing to move in this direction.

The Department of Energy announced in February that it has offered Southern Company and its subsidiary, Georgia Power, a conditional commitment for loan guarantees for the nation’s first nuclear power unit in more than 30 years at Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro, Georgia. The project is expected to produce approximately 3,500 jobs during construction and an additional 800 permanent jobs once the units begin operation. Costs are projected at approximately $14 billion with commercial operation to begin in 2016 and 2017 (Southern Company, 2010). With such amounts of money at stake, and so great an incentive to work on a magic bullet to push back global warming, students of human behavior can understand a propensity to move quickly without due regard for risks. People who are involved in an area for which there is academic acclaim and major economic benefits are likely to minimize the risk and overstate the promise.

The DOE plans say nothing of the psychology, eg, abilities, perceptions and motivations, of those who are in line to make this happen. The nuclear industry has a record of unsafe practices, violation of safety codes, secrecy, stonewalling mandated hearings on environmental impacts, underestimating risks of leaks or accidents, ignoring long term consequences of cancer and birth defects, while lobbying for both nuclear power and nuclear weapons development. Some of the same corporate entities, like GE and Bechtel, have been heavily involved in both nuclear power and nuclear weapons. The human factors behind such mishaps are not easily avoided by technical solutions. The problems are products of a corporate and military culture in which there is little need for accountability. Anthropologist Hugh Gusterson has documented the cult of secrecy in a nuclear weapons facility (Gusterson, 1998). The causes of the Three Mile Island (TMI) breakdown were human errors in design and in response. TMI cost hundreds of millions of dollars (in the 1970s) to build. TMI Unit II generated electricity for a grand total of *3 months*! Clean up cost at $975 million took over a decade.

Cost and Consequences of Nuclear Power

The estimated price tag for the proposed new reactors has increased from $2-3 billion each to more than $12 billion today. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that President Obama’s loan guarantee of $8.3 billion to construct two new reactors at Plant Vogtle in Georgia has a “very high – well above 50 percent” likelihood of default (Sheppard, 2010).

In a proposal now being considered by the Senate, both coal technologies and nuclear power developments would receive development assistance with the risks involved being shouldered by the government through taxes. This is in fact the only way that energy corporations can acquire loan guarantees since private insurers will not underwrite the acknowledged high risk of default and extensive liability. By providing unlimited financial assistance to expensive, non-renewable energy the Senate’s proposed Clean Energy Deployment Administration (CEDA) would expose taxpayers to hundreds of billions of dollars in losses. The Union of Concerned Scientists argues against this risk.

Shifting financial risk away from big business onto U.S. taxpayers is inconsistent with widespread public concerns about using public money to bail out large corporations. Such policies require concealment from the public spotlight, which in turn jeopardizes the trust people place in their government. There are unmentioned costs associated with nuclear power. The West Valley Demonstration Project offers a clear example: the failed plutonium re-processing site cost $6 billion to clean up.

Destruction Caused by Accidents

The downwinders in Nevada and residents of Eastern Washington provide tragic examples of the consequences of nuclear production. Even small increases over normal levels of background radiation produce such long-term consequences as leukemia and birth defects (Gofman, 1996; Gofman, 1990). Every nuclear facility during its developmental phase was declared to be safe. Yet, nuclear plants have been built over earthquake fault lines.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reports that at least 27 of the 104 licensed reactors in the US are leaking radioactive tritium. Entergy’s Vermont Yankee is one example where high levels of contamination have been found in test wells surrounding the reactor and experts suggest that Connecticut River is at serious risk of contamination (Wasserman, 2010). Leaks and accidents are not uncommon occurrences at nuclear production sites. Vermont is rejecting continuation of the aging Nuclear Power plant.

The Church Rock Uranium Tailings Spill in 1979 was the largest release of radioactive waste, by volume, in US history, larger than the Three Mile Island (TMI) reactor accident and second only to the 1986 Chernobyl reactor meltdown in the amount of radiation released. This spill resulted in 1,100 tons of radioactive tailings and 94 million gallons of toxic wastewater released into the Puerco River and severely affected the surrounding areas. The Navajo Nation and multicultural groups continue to urge federal and state agencies to hold General Electric responsible for the cleanup of such widespread contamination, to provide funding for health studies, and to compensate former facility workers for the health problems caused from exposure to toxic chemicals (Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, 2009; Brugge, deLemos, & Bui, 2007).

Britain’s nuclear processing plant in Cumbria is home to the top two most hazardous industrial buildings in Western Europe (Building B30 and B38 in Sellafield). It is reported that the cooling ponds, filled with old nuclear reactor parts, emit potentially lethal doses of radiation. Engineers estimate it could cost up to £50bn over the course of 100 years to clean up the site (McKie, 2009; Savage, 2009).

From 1947-1977, 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were released into the Hudson River from the Hudson Falls and Fort Edwards facilities in upstate New York. PCBs are linked to a number of health problems, including low birth weight, thyroid disease, immune disorders, and developmental diseases. A project now underway to dredge and remove the PCB-contaminated sediment along the 200-mile stretch of the Hudson River is expected to cost $460 million and 30 years to complete (The Center for Public Integrity, 2009; US Environmental Protection Agency, 2009). The Hudson River is labeled the nation’s largest Superfund site by the EPA and General Electric, the company that managed the Hudson Falls and Fort Edwards facilities during the time the release into the Hudson occurred, is reported as the #1 Superfund polluter (US PIRG, 2009; The Center for Public Integrity, 2009).

Technology and Corporate Control

Perhaps we can make technology safer but such measures do not necessarily improve human performance in large bureaucracies so that clear warnings are taken seriously by those with the power to behave in different ways. The proposals before congress deal with the new technology as if it were independent of the corporate entities and human judgments that will carry it out.

One among many examples of a corporate culture ignoring nuclear industry dangers is seen in the Bechtel Corporation. Bechtel was responsible for the cleanup of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and is currently one of the primary contractors responsible for the cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Bechtel has a long history of constructing and managing chemical and nuclear power plants, many of which are now experiencing leaks or are not in compliance with current safety regulations (Reaching Critical Will, 2009). Ironically, Bechtel has been awarded many of the contracts to decommission and/or cleanup the toxic mess from the same nuclear development facilities they constructed in the 50s. Companies that run nuclear power plants are also deeply engaged with military programs and we should be cautious of their intentions.

In recognition of the power of large organizations to manage the flow of public information, psychologists can appreciate the necessity of providing a platform for whistle blowers and for dissenters. Amory Lovins of The Rocky Mountain Institute, is an expert in nuclear power and its alternatives. He has remained a consistent critic of nuclear power. He notes that claims made in support of nuclear power often ignore essential information. He notes, for example, that the process of burning radioactive waste requires the development of plutonium reprocessing facilities. Reprocessing, according to Lovins, “makes waste management more difficult and complex, increases volume and diversity of waste streams, increases by several- to manyfold the cost of nuclear fueling, and separates bomb-usable material that can’t be adequately measured or protected” (Lovins, 2009). In addition to the economic and environmental costs associated with reprocessing facilities, the process will make plutonium more available for use in nuclear bombs.

Better Solutions: Renewable Energy, Conservation, and Local Initiatives

There are many safer, cleaner, cheaper, and more quickly deployable methods to producing energy, many of which create more jobs and do not increase the likelihood of catastrophic accidents, terrorism and nuclear weapons proliferation. It is imperative that we embrace these strategies and oppose the new nuclear weapons plants and phase-out the old nuclear facilities. Energy experts estimate that “a dollar invested in increased efficiency could save as much as seven times as much energy than one invested in nuclear plants can produce, while producing ten times as many permanent jobs” (Wasserman, 2010).

Massive conservation and efficiency is far more key to combating global warming than any new generation of power. Serious energy conservation reduces the overall energy demand.

The argument is being made that renewable energy, such as wind and solar, will not provide enough continuous energy. Greatest demand for electricity tends to be when it’s hot and sunny, for the purpose of running air conditioners and refrigerators. Solar energy is well matched to meet these demands since the sunshine corresponds with need to use air conditioners. Solar and wind are also well matched because peak wind tends to be at times when the sun is not shining or is blocked by clouds. Alternatively, nuclear power is difficult to turn on and off, producing the same amount of power day and night.

The economic system as a whole is alienating people. Corporate centralization diminishes the participation of people in their own economic wellbeing so local initiatives are much to be preferred. Research money could better go into lowering the cost of energy productions and transportation, off the major grid and controlled by local businesses or neighborhoods. Such technologies have been developed and need research to reduce costs. Finally, we would urge that psychological understanding of the propensities for human error be considered strongly in consideration of proposals for nuclear energy.


Brugge, D., deLemos, J.L., & Bui, C. (2007). The Sequoyah Corporation Fuels Release and the Church Rock Spill: Unpublicized Nuclear Releases in American Indian Communities. American Journal of Public Health, Vol 97(9). Retrieved from

Center for Public Integrity. (2009). Windfalls of War. Retrieved from

Gofman, J.D. (1996). Preventing Breast Cancer: The Story of a Major, Proven, Preventable Cause of this Disease, 2nd Edition. Retrieved from

Gofman, J.D. (1990). Radiation-induced cancer from low-dose exposure: An independent analysis. San Francisco, CA: Committee for Nuclear Responsibility.

Gusterson, H. (1998). Nuclear Rites: 
A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Lovins, A.B. (2009) New nuclear reactors, same old story. Solutions Journal. Retrieved from

McKie, R. (2009). Sellafield: The most hazardous place in Europe. The Observer. Retrieved from

Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment (MASE). (2009). Remembering the 30th Anniversary of the Largest Radioactive Spill in US History. MASE Media Advisory. Retrieved from

Reaching Critical Will. (2009) Bechtel Corporation. Retrieved from

Savage, M. (2009). A £1bn nuclear white elephant. The Independent. Retrieved from

Sheppard, K. (2010) Energy Sec Unaware That Nuclear Loans Have 50 Percent Risk of Default. Mother Jones. Retrieved from

Southern Company. (2010) Southern Company receives DOE support for nation’s first nuclear units in 30 years. Southern Company Press Release, Feb. 16, 2010. Retrieved from

US Environmental Protection Agency. (2009). Hudson River PCBs. Retrieved from

US PIRG. (2009) America’s #1 Superfund Polluter: General Electric. Retrieved from

Wasserman, H. (2010). Obama’s Atomic Blunder. CommonDreams. Retrieved from

PsySR member Marc Pilisuk is Professor Emeritus, the University of California, and Professor, Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center. Marc is the author (with Jennifer Achord Rountree) of Who Benefits from Global Violence and War: Uncovering a Destructive System (Greenwood/Praeger, 2008). He can be reached at Gianina Pellegrini is a doctoral student in the psychology program at Saybrook University, with a concentration in social transformation; she is also pursuing a certificate in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Gianina can be contacted at


3 Responses to “Nuclear Power: A Psychological Perspective”

  1. Mitch Hall Says:

    Marc Pilisuk and Gianina Pellegrini have presented a concise, evidence-based, well-reasoned, compelling argument against the ominous prospects of the Obama administration’s foolhardy advocacy and underwriting of the building of new nuclear power plants. They deserve thanks and encouragement to have this published as widely as possible. Would major newspapers publish it as an Op-Ed piece? It’s worth a try, I believe. How can it reach policy makers? I don’t know the answer, nor do I entirely trust that reason will necessarily prevail against vested interests and irrational forces. Coincidentally, earlier this evening prior to reading their essay, I heard on the local public radio station a portion of a talk delivered in Berkeley in 2009 by Helen Caldicott about the hellish dangers of nuclear power. She said that this was the talk she would like to deliver to President Obama. Alas, with regard for this issue, he does not appear to be listening to the voices of sanity and humane concern for the future of life on this planet. To get back to the piece by Pilisuk and Pellegrini, I wonder whether some clever animators or idealistic film makers could work with their material in a visually creative way to make a vivid video that could be posted on the Internet and reach many more people.

  2. Gunnar Orn Ingolfsson Says:

    Thank you for writing this… well done.

    It is always interesting to see how little emphasis is put on energy conservation and that always leads me back to the thought of how much do the corporate entities that sell power really run all these agencies and funding decisions by the government?

  3. Brian Heath PhD Says:

    A very timely and informative article. I am forwarding this to friends and family and will send copies to both US Senators, Boxer and Feinstein and Rep Farr. Thanks.

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