When the word is used by psychologists, denial refers to a psychological mechanism that we use to avoid acknowledging and emotionally processing information that is right in front of our noses in order to protect ourselves from the anxiety that facing that information would create. And we do this without even knowing that we are doing it. When we use denial, the good news is that we don't feel the discomfort and anxiety that facing the information would create. This can be a real comfort. It's sort of like "out of sight, out of mind." If we isolate ourselves from frightening information, then we're not frightened. But the price we pay for this can be very large. In exchange for relieving our anxiety, denial deprives us of the opportunity to face and deal with the problematic aspects of reality that it is masking. Depending on what is being denied, this can have catastrophic consequences. If Jimmy doesn't process information that would lead to the conclusion that he has a substance abuse problem that is messing up his life and the lives of those around him, he doesn't feel anxious and sad. But he also doesn't address his problem and so perpetuates it.In addition to the denial that we each use in our individual lives, groups can also employ the mechanism of denial. This could be called collective denial. Our leaders and policy makers, in whom we entrust our safety and well-being, know this and count on it to manipulate public opinion. For example, consider those who advocate increased reliance on nuclear power as an energy source. In my opinion, in order for a leader to advocate nuclear power as a viable answer to our energy needs they must either be in denial themselves or they must be counting on our proneness to collective denial.
So what is the information that is being denied by people who advocate the expanded use of nuclear power and by the people who they persuade? There are several categories of such information. First, there is the knowledge that accidents can occur at nuclear reactors. This is not hypothetical. The world has witnessed such accidents, the most devastating of which occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor (Ukraine) in 1986. During the acute phase of that accident 31 people died. In its aftermath, an estimated 220,000 people were displaced from their homes, and an estimated 14,000 people contracted fatal cancers. But we don't have to go to Chernobyl to see an example of a nuclear accident. Closer to home, the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor, although not as devastating as it could have been, nevertheless had catastrophic consequences for many. A 1997 study indicates that people living downwind from that reactor at the time of the accident are 2 to 10 times more likely to have lung cancer as those living upwind. These are just two examples of how dangerous nuclear reactors can be. One could go on and site many other serious accidents at nuclear power plants. Humans are not perfect. We all know mistakes happen. But when you're dealing with something like a nuclear power station, mistakes can be deadly indeed.
But there's something else that I find even more frightening than the prospect of future accidents at nuclear power plants. Even if we could guarantee that there will never be another major accident (which, of course, we will never be able to do), there is still the problem of nuclear waste. Nuclear waste is all of the radioactive material that is left over after the uranium fuel that is used to power a nuclear reactor has been used up to such a degree that it is now longer suitable for fueling a reactor. Some nuclear waste is highly radioactive. Some nuclear waste has a relatively low level of radioactivity. However, all of it is extremely dangerous and potentially lethal.
Nuclear waste remains highly dangerous for a really long time.-tens of thousands of years. And here's the really big problem: Nobody knows how to store it safely. There are two aspects to this problem. One is technical: How do you store a substance safely for tens of thousands of years? We have not yet developed the technology to do this, and may never be able to do so. Metal containers corrode and leak radioactive material into the ground water. Earthquakes destroy storage facilities. Even people who love nuclear energy admit that we don't presently have the technology to store these lethal materials safely. Meanwhile thousands of tons of lethal radioactive waste that is dangerous for tens of thousands of years are accumulating each year and nobody knows what to do with it, other than to put it in containers that corrode after twenty years. (For reasons that I don't have space here to go into, the much touted proposed Yucca Mountain site is not a viable solution either.)
But what to do with nuclear waste is not only a technical problem. It is a political problem. These lethal materials must be kept in a secure location so that they are away from people who might be harmed by them and terrorists who might try use them to build atomic bombs. And they must be kept secure for tens of thousands of years. When was the last time on the planet that there was a stable, continuous government that functioned effectively for tens of thousands of years? Rome lasted a few hundred. How much confidence can we have that there will be a government continuously in place that will oversee the guarding of these sites for tens of thousands of years?
Another important problem with nuclear energy is that it is extremely expensive. When nuclear power plants first came online in the 1950s, Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the then Atomic Energy Commission (the name of which has been changed, with Orwellian logic, to the Nuclear Regulatory Agency) predicted that the power generated by nuclear stations would be too cheap to meter. Those of us receiving electric bills realize it didn't quite work out that way. In fact, nuclear power plants are so expensive that they require tens of billions of federal subsidies (our money) to continue operating.
There are many other problems with nuclear energy. All of the problems associated with nuclear energy are reflected in the fact that there hasn't been a new nuclear power plant built in the United States for decades. If you want to learn more about this, a useful starting point is http://www.psr.org/site/DocServer/Nuc lear_Power_fact_sheet.pdf?docID=166 There is now wide agreement that energy sources other than fossil fuels are urgently needed to meet our energy needs and to reverse the potentially catastrophic effects of carbon-emitting energy sources. As convenient as it might be to believe otherwise, the facts demonstrate that nuclear power can not be one of these alternatives without incurring unacceptable risk to our safety and security, and that of future generations. So how can some of our leaders advocate the building of yet more nuclear power plants? They may themselves be in denial. Or they may just be counting on our capacity to employ collective denial so that we overlook the enormous negative consequences of their proposed way of dealing with a truly pressing problem. Time will tell whether we are as prone to use denial as they are counting on and, if we are, how great the cost will be for ourselves and for our children and grandchildren.
G. Dennis Rains, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at Kutztown University and maintains a private practice in counseling and psychotherapy in Kutztown.