In the 1960s, nuclear power was seen as the “energy source of the future.” Governments and investors saw it as a powerful and commercially viable alternative to fossil fuels, and the general public was enamored by the symbolism of using the power of the atom for peace instead of war.
But by the 1970s, public opinion changed. Several countries slowed down or abandoned their nuclear power projects, while others like Germany completely dismantled theirs.
Today, nuclear power provides only 10% of the world’s energy. Why did nuclear power become popular and unpopular? And why are some experts on climate change now advocating for it, despite public resistance?
The early popularity of nuclear power
After the war, the US government heavily promoted atomic energy as an energy source. It established the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and funded both research and media campaigns that built public support.
By 1957, when the first nuclear energy plant opened in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, nuclear energy was seen as a triumph of technology and a symbol of peace. By 1960, four countries—US, USSR, France, and the United Kingdom—had built a total of 17 nuclear power reactors.
In 1963, General Electric was able to develop a cost-efficient light water reactor in New Jersey. That made nuclear energy more commercially viable, and construction costs per kilowatt hour were actually lower than modern gas plants.
Soon, most major electricity producers were placing orders for nuclear power reactors. By the late 1960s, 14 countries had built a total of 78 reactors, with many more projects in progress. Atomic energy was clearly and quickly gaining ground.
The 1970s: the turning point and decline
But in the 1970s, nuclear powerplants fell out favor. People held mass rallies demanding the end of nuclear power. Movies like “The China Syndrome” and “Godzilla” stoked fears of catastrophic nuclear meltdowns and radioactive monsters. Projects were cancelled, and existing construction were slowed down for years.
By the end of the decade, the Atomic Energy Commission and Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy were dissolved, and by the end of the decade, the US had shifted most of its funds to developing solar energy.
So why did nuclear power become popular and unpopular in just a few years?
- Anti-nuclear movement. The late 1960s and 1970s were marked by a general distrust of the government, and criticism of several policies including the global nuclear arms race. The backlash extended to all forms of nuclear projects, including speculation that countries would use power plants as an excuse to purchase materials to make nuclear weapons.
- Environmental concerns. Environmentalists raised concerns about the effect of toxic waste and radiation on soil and water supply, and surrounding plants and animals.
- Health concerns. Research on Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims found long-term effects of radiation exposure, including a higher risk for cancerous growth and genetic defects of unborn children. This led to fears of the effect of “leaking radiation” on communities near power plants, and perception that these were essentially “ticking atomic bombs” that could explode at any time.
- Cost of operations. For power plants to be commercially viable and safe, standards, construction methods, and operation costs have to be carefully controlled. Some countries like France (and later, South Korea) were able to do that by standardizing the technology, systems and materials. However, the US was plagued by different operators and state regulations. The sudden surge of demand also stressed supply chains, and led to delays and price hikes. Rushing production also revealed flaws in cooling systems, which needed to be upgraded, and regulations often changed in the middle of construction. Cost of construction tripled from $900/kW to $2,500/kW.
- Three Mile Island fiasco. In 1979, mechanical and human errors led to reactors in a power plant in Three Mile Island to partially melt down. Two million people were exposed to radiation. Clean up of nearly 15 tons of radioactive waste took 14 years and cost over a billion dollars, and all 51 reactors under construction were delayed by as much as 10 years by new safety regulations and back-fit requirements. As a result, cost skyrocketed to $7,000 per kW, making nuclear power plants a risky investment. Public rallies, including one in New York that had over 200,000 participants, also scared away investors and was instrumental in withdrawing political support.
- News and media about nuclear disasters. After Three Mile Island, other high-profile meltdowns in Chernobyl and Fukoshima, Japan cemented the belief that power plants were dangerous. Nuclear disasters also became a popular theme in movies, shows and documentaries, including hits like The China Syndrome, Godzilla, Chernobyl, and Meltdown: Three Mile Island.
- Rise of other alternative sources of energy. As nuclear power fell out of favor, research and development on other sources of clean energy—solar, hydroelectric, and wind—gained ground. Today, solar panels have become affordable enough for residential use, and many governments have encouraged commercial use through tax incentives and subsidies.
The possible resurgence of nuclear energy
It’s interesting why did nuclear power become popular and unpopular in just a few decades... and how, after decades, it may become popular again. With the growing problem of climate change and reducing carbon emissions, some environmentalists have actually given their support to power plants.
Nuclear energy has zero carbon emissions. It needs less base fuel to operate, and produces significantly more energy. One nuclear power plant can generate more energy than 430 wind turbines and three million solar panels. Modern technology has also made power plants safer, smaller, and faster to construct.
However, costs still remain a significant barrier for entry. While South Korea has actually lowered the costs of constructing power plants—by creating a single entity for overseeing construction, and adapting proven designs from Canada, United States, and France—other countries have more complex market drivers that drive up the costs.
This includes conflicting or unclear regulations, competing contractors, conflicting government support, and a very vocal criticism from media and the public. Until those factors are resolved, nuclear power plants will remain a very distant second or third alternative to more popular sources of renewable energy, such as solar and hydroelectric.