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Emotivism of nuclear energy

June 2019: New evidence shows that nuclear energy remains a highly emotive topic. Most likely, there will be 40% less use of nuclear energy than there might have been without the general public’s high sense of dread, limiting its potential to decarbonise the economy.


New evidence illustrates how investments into nuclear energy technology is restricted by the address public sentiment surrounding the technology. A recent study that presents a comparison with other alternative energy sources shows that nuclear energy can performance favourably in terms of safety, cost, scalability, reliability, land transformation, and emissions.  Despite statistically lower risk levels than, for example, hydropower, nuclear energy often attracts great controversy and invokes a feeling of dread amongst the general public. Of course, the consequences of serious failure can be extremely severe, but are very rare. In the eyes of the public, the few serious events in the nuclear industry overshadowed the less drastic, but more frequent, risks associated with other energy technologies. The new study shows that this sense of dread is leading to 40% less nuclear energy generation in 2050 than might otherwise have been the case. 

Implications & Opportunities

Arguably, greater public acceptance of nuclear energy could support a faster transition towards a low carbon economy and capitalise on the technology’s high energy-density and comparatively low land area use. Further, there are arguments that nuclear energy could strengthen conservation efforts. Nuclear plants are often self-contained which could allow nearby habitats to remain protected and reduce the need to re-purpose deserts for solar panels, ridges for wind farms, forests for biomass, or rivers as hydro-electricity generators. Nevertheless, public dread and the ‘precautionary principle’ should be seen in balance with potentially high risk nuclear accidents and an extended scientific debate on those risks.


The study focus groups to evaluate emotional responses towards nuclear energy, leading to a stronger generalisation of its results. Hence, the study’s results should be seen within the parameters of its methodology.


Abdulla, A., Vaishnav, P., Sergi, B., & Victor, D. G. (2019). Limits to deployment of nuclear power for decarbonization: Insights from public opinion. Energy Policy, 129, 1339–1346. doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2019.03.039 

Sustainability Times. 2019. UN mass extinction report highlights urgency of decarbonisation. Retrieved from

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Adele Wiliams

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The views expressed in these external research papers are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL, the University of Cambridge, or any of its individual business partners or clients.