Social Listening Reveals Public Perception of Nuclear Energy and Fusion Research
A look at the trajectory of public opinion toward fusion and other nuclear research on social media
Henry Chapman, Research and Insights Analyst
In honor of Earth Month, we used our social intelligence platform, Infegy Atlas, to pick up on perceptions towards alternative energy resources (ones that do not emit greenhouse gases). Nuclear energy is one such resource, but has its own set of controversies. We dove right into those conversations.
Here, we explore social media's conversation surrounding traditional nuclear power (fission reactions) and compare them with ones discussing the yet-undeveloped fusion-based power plants.
We will first look into why people have adverse reactions toward fission power. Next, we’ll highlight the reasons for those negative reactions. Finally, we’ll leave you with some insights into how people on social media feel about fusion power – especially considering that it's still in an experimental stage as a reliable power source.
Fission reactions: A quick introduction
We first used nuclear power for civilian purposes to generate electricity in 1951. Nuclear power is fission-based. It involves splitting heavy elements like uranium and plutonium and then harnessing the heat created to generate electricity.
There are complications associated with fission-based reactions, such as the need for radioactive uranium, the toxicity of byproducts, the need for large amounts of water to cool the reactors, and the risk of meltdown.
Fusion reactions: A quick introduction
Fusion reactions are a promising alternative to traditional nuclear energy because they combine hydrogen atoms to create heavier atoms, similar to how stars generate heat and fuel. Like nuclear fission, this process doesn't produce carbon emissions, making it a popular topic in conversations around climate change concerns.
Infegy Narratives’ visualization has sampled millions of discussions around fusion generation over the last 15 years. We see clusters of conversations around the potential benefits of fusion reactions, including their environmentally-friendly nature.
Sustainability is a significant theme in these conversations, particularly about the problems associated with fossil fuels and the promise of clean, renewable power related to fusion. Fusion reactions don't produce traditional radioactive waste or hold the same environmental dangers associated with breakdowns.
A social view of nuclear energy
Nuclear energy has always been controversial in the United States. The Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979 especially made people wary of radioactive waste. However, the Fukushima disaster in 2011 was a turning point for the reputation of nuclear energy, as it led to a 15-year high in post volume around the topic. Despite this, traditional nuclear power still overwhelms post volume around fusion generation conversations, representing 11% of the total posts in both categories. This is because conventional nuclear power is a well-established technology, while fusion generation remains a research aspiration.
Fission-based power: a bad reputation on social
The Fukushima disaster in 2011 significantly impacted the sentiment around traditional nuclear energy, causing a sharp decline in sentiment trends. This is noteworthy because social data is typically reactive and would bounce back. The sustained negative impact suggests a significant change in public perception of nuclear energy.
The consistent negative reputation of nuclear fission power since the disaster may be attributed to concerns about potential meltdowns happening near people's hometowns. Governments, especially in Europe, mirrored this social response by shutting down nuclear reactors.
In contrast to traditional nuclear power, fusion generation's sentiment remained high despite never being tested, indicating people's optimism towards it. Additionally, with the recent breakthroughs, fusion's sentiment has reached a 15-year-high within the last year.
Using social intelligence to identify reasons behind the sentiment shifts
We analyzed hashtag word clouds to get a more detailed view of public perceptions around traditional nuclear power and fusion research.
The results showed that conventional nuclear power had a significantly higher number of negative hashtags associated with it, indicating widespread public concern about its safety and environmental impact. Not surprisingly, the Fukushima disaster dominated the conversation. Still, the word cloud also revealed worries about the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant in Ukraine, which has been subject to security concerns due to its proximity to airstrikes and artillery shells since the Russian invasion.
On the other hand, conversations around fusion research were much more positive, with a future-forward tone focused on the technology's potential to address climate change. The word cloud analysis confirms that social media users are actively engaged in discussions about nuclear energy and have different perceptions and concerns about traditional nuclear power and fusion research.
Using audience intelligence to understand different perceptions
To understand why traditional nuclear power tends to be associated with negative sentiment while the conversation around nuclear fusion is more optimistic, we examined the source bios of those posting about these topics. Our analysis showed that the discussion around nuclear power was more politically charged, with a heavier emphasis on political debates.
In contrast, nuclear fusion discussions centered more around engineering and scientific research. As we've seen in previous briefs, like our exploration of a gas stove controversy, politics often increases the negative sentiment metric in discussions. Therefore, it's expected that political discussions around nuclear power tend to have more negative conversations. Interestingly, until now, fusion discussions have avoided this negativity by primarily focusing on research and scientific advancements.
Fusion-based power: Anticipation leads the way
The elusive nature of a fusion-power breakthrough has become a running joke, and interestingly, our analysis shows that this sentiment is mirrored on social media.
In fact, Anticipation is the leading emotion around fusion generation, present in almost a quarter of all posts analyzed. This suggests that eager anticipation for a breakthrough has always driven the research and publicity around fusion. However, despite this excitement, real breakthroughs in fusion technology, we haven’t made real progress around fusion until very recently. Nevertheless, the recent breakthroughs have renewed hope in the potential of fusion energy, and it will be interesting to see how the conversation around it evolves in the coming years.
Understanding public perception of nuclear energy and fusion research through social listening
Social listening provides valuable insights into public perception and sentiment around alternative energy sources, particularly nuclear energy, and fusion research.
Conversations around traditional nuclear power show adverse reactions, especially after the Fukushima disaster led to concerns about safety and environmental impact. On the other hand, conversations around nuclear fusion are more positive and aspirational, focusing on its potential to address climate change. The difference in sentiment can be attributed to the political charge associated with discussions around traditional nuclear power, while nuclear fusion conversations remain focused on science and research. However, it's worth noting that social media attention peaks during breakthroughs but remains silent during research and development.
These insights can inform policymakers and researchers as they work to develop and implement alternative energy sources to address the challenges of climate change.