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The Perils of a Half-Built Bridge: Risk Perception, Shifting Majorities, and the Nuclear Power Debate

46 Pages Posted: 18 Jul 2007  

Amanda C. Leiter

American University Washington College of Law


Much of the risk perception literature relies on the important but unstated assumption that manipulating public opinion to conform to scientific assessments of risk could help the public and, in turn, policymakers make better decisions about whether and how to regulate. This paper argues that the assumption fails in the context of certain "multilayered" risks, or risks that pose tiered policy choices - not just whether to regulate in the first instance, but how to respond to derivative risks arising from the first set of regulatory changes. Examining the debate about the role of nuclear power in the United States' approach to climate change, the paper observes that first- and second-tier risks often differ in character, or require different types of regulatory solution (market-based versus command-and-control). Due to these variations, the public may hold starkly different views about regulation of each tier, and those views may be differently "sticky" - that is, differently susceptible to persuasion.

In the context of the nuclear power debate, this tiering of opinion has perverse implications. The first-tier risks of nuclear power are those associated with individual reactors, including the risks of accident or terrorist attack; the second-tier risks are those associated with mining, transport, processing, storage, and disposal of radioactive materials. Recent work asserts that despite entrenched public fear of nuclear power, it may be possible to induce people to support construction of low-emissions reactors as a strategy for mitigating climate change. But even if policymakers could employ the risk education strategies discussed in the literature to shift public opinion in favor of economic incentives for nuclear reactor development, there is no reason to think such strategies would be equally effective at changing attitudes toward second-tier risks and the command-and-control regulations necessary to address them. To the contrary, many people would likely continue to oppose certain types of government action on these latter problems, even assuming the complete success of the hypothesized first-tier education strategy. As a result, the United States could find itself with a thriving nuclear power sector, but without the political will to address the grave collateral risks.

These observations lead to two conclusions, one related to the nuclear power example, and one to risk regulation more broadly. First, differently sticky public attitudes toward first- and second-tier nuclear risks and their regulatory solutions may defeat any effort to respond to climate change by significantly and safely increasing U.S. reliance on nuclear power. Second, efforts to change public risk perceptions may not advance a regulatory agenda, and may even prove counterproductive. Specifically, where multiple risk layers exist, a successful first-tier education effort and consequent policy changes could create or expose second-tier risks that defy regulatory solution, leaving policymakers stranded at the abrupt and unexpected end of a half-built bridge. Depending on the gravity of the second-tier risks, this regulatory dead end could be one that neither policymakers nor the public would have chosen ex ante.

Keywords: risk, regulation, risk perception, cultural cognition, bounded rationality, nuclear power

JEL Classification: K23, K32, L92

Suggested Citation

Leiter, Amanda C., The Perils of a Half-Built Bridge: Risk Perception, Shifting Majorities, and the Nuclear Power Debate. Ecology Law Quarterly, Forthcoming; Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 1001109. Available at SSRN:

Amanda C. Leiter (Contact Author)

American University Washington College of Law ( email )

4300 Nebraska Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20016
United States

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