A regular column, produced by the National Office Public Interest team, which investigates how psychology can contribute to addressing the growing environmental crisis facing our world.  

Nuclear dilemmas

Increasingly, nuclear power is presented as a solution to Australia’s escalating energy requirements, reducing greenhouse gas production, and boosting our economy.
Greenhouse gases from nuclear power are about 10-100 times less than those from gas and coal (Commonwealth of Australia, 2006). In 2003, nuclear power stations averted the release of 2.5 billion tons of CO2 – about twice the savings of the Kyoto protocol if all countries met their target for 2010 (Rogner, 2003). Australia has the world’s largest reserves of economically recoverable uranium, and could reap billions of export dollars if mining was expanded.

Australia’s participation in a global nuclear chain, however, comes with risks and responsibilities to protect humanity from the dangers of nuclear by-products. Nuclear power debates usually revolve around the issue of radioactive waste, which is toxic for thousands of years, poses transportation and long-term storage problems, and has catastrophic potential for accidents. Other drawbacks for nuclear power include the costs and timelines to build nuclear power stations, the fact that nuclear is not a renewable energy source (some ores may run out by 2030 – Solonin, 2003), and that nuclear power stations invite terrorist attacks.

Often missing from debates, however, is the risk of nuclear weapon proliferation. The fuel for many new reactors would contain a mixture of uranium and plutonium dioxides, which can be chemically removed to fabricate nuclear weapons. These are dire but predictable consequences of expanding the global use of nuclear power. Are nuclear safeguards adequate to protect us from nuclear proliferation? Not according to a report by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (ACF, 2006). The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is empowered to negotiate safeguards agreements with individual nations such that, for a given period, “no significant quantity of nuclear material” is diverted to military use. The ACF report concludes the IAEA cannot practically ensure timely detection, and that “significant quantities” are, by today’s standards, too high. A country could divert plutonium or enriched uranium from its civil nuclear program to assemble nuclear weapons rapidly. International safeguards are only effective if countries concerned are genuinely committed to their Treaty obligations or safeguards agreement. That is, safeguards depend on countries behaving lawfully. There is, therefore, an unavoidable risk that Australian uranium exports to nuclear weapon states will directly or indirectly support nuclear weapon manufacture and proliferation.

Also considerable are the implications of expanding Australia’s own nuclear activities (e.g., enrichment, power and reprocessing), which would position us to gain nuclear weapons capability, possibly triggering a nuclear arms race in our region.

So why is so little being said about the enormous risks of nuclear proliferation as the Government advocates expanding our nuclear activities?

The psychology of weapons of mass destruction

According to Frankenhauser (1987), because nuclear threat has grown through gradual escalation with successive weapons increases spread over decades, we are encountering emotional blunting. Feelings of distress and anxiety fade away without eliciting corrective responses. If one is in a horrific, inescapable situation, psychic numbing becomes a protective survival mechanism. With this pseudo-adaptation comes decreasing emotional involvement with increased distance in time and space. People display inability to become emotionally involved in problems not perceived as urgent. We may acknowledge risk but shut our eyes to its imminence (Frankenhauser, 1987).

So what have we numbed ourselves to? All nuclear weapons are weapons of terror: immoral, illegal, and never justifiable. Since the establishment in 1970 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the number of countries with nuclear weapons has increased to nine, possessing 27,000 weapons between them (26,000 by Russia and the US combined), with more than 1,000 warheads ready to be activated within tens of minutes (The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 2007). Each weapon has a potential destructive force up to 40 times that of the Hiroshima atomic bomb that killed 100,000 people. Overkill, you might say.

Falk and Lifton (1982) use the term ‘nuclearism’ to define psychological, political and military dependence on nuclear weapons, which are embraced as a solution to a wide variety of human dilemmas, most ironically security. Such beliefs are based on enemy images – stereotypes of another group or individual as implacably evil, aggressive and untrustworthy – used to create fear, justify abrogation of treaties, and provoke military and nuclear defence proliferation. In a mirror image of ‘the enemy’, as one side claims the right to protect its sovereignty with weapons of mass destruction, so, too, does the other.

Psychological research has identified exaggerated images of ‘the enemy’ as the key source and amplifier of international tensions. Enemy images fuel conflict and limit receptiveness to new ideas, yet the general public (not to mention ourselves) has little awareness of such images and their psychological effects. These biases reflect common psychological processes toward self and other that affect us all.

The belief that threat is the way to solve problems ignores bodies of knowledge from political psychology, violence prevention, tension reduction and conflict transformation.
Paradoxically, the way to be more secure is to make your enemy more secure. Some peace psychologists argue that the term ‘national security’ is an oxymoron. There is only universal security or universal insecurity.


Steps people can take to address the risks of the nuclear industry 
  • Increase our understanding of enemy images and how they work
    There is no compelling evidence that we have an immutable, deep-seated psychological need for an enemy. To move beyond enemy images people need to become aware of their potential biases, develop empathy, learn to see the world from the adversary’s perspective (including their underlying needs, wants, fears and concerns), foster personal connections, identify common interests that reduce the sense of insurmountable differences, cooperate on common goals, and focus on transnational problems (e.g., AIDS, global warming, reducing the nuclear arsenal) that invite cooperative efforts. Maybe, paradoxically, the common threat of widespread environmental destruction will prove to be the superordinate goal that helps us work towards global security, and reduces the misplaced reliance on nuclear weapons for security. 

  • Urge our Government to adopt a nuclear free defence posture
    If Australia rejects the use of nuclear weapons in our defence, as New Zealand has done, we can encourage the nuclear weapon states to give an ever-diminishing role to nuclear weapons.

  • Support nuclear weapon abolition
    According to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, abolition is achievable through a Nuclear Weapons Convention that would prohibit the development, production, testing, deployment, stockpiling, transfer, and threat of use of nuclear weapons. Psychological research shows that the availability of weapons increases the likelihood that they will be used. Similarly, the more actions taken towards warfare, the more likely people will keep on that path to war, and see it as an inevitable course. 

  • Demand greater investment in alternatives
    Massive resources and government initiatives in Australia and China, as elsewhere, should be directed as an urgent priority to research, development and deployment of safe and renewable sources of energy, in combination with improved efficiency of energy use. 


“The splitting of the atom has changed everything except the way we think. Thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.” – Albert Einstein. 


Any comments or ideas for this column can be forwarded to Dr Susie Burke, Senior Researcher, National Office Public Interest team at s.burke@psychology.org.au


ACF (2006). An Illusion of protection. A report by the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Medical Association for the Prevention of War. Retrieved on May 6, 2007 from http://www.acfonline.org.au/uploads/res_Full%20Report_%20webview.pdf.

Commonwealth of Australia (2006). Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy – Opportunities for Australia? Report to the Prime Minister by the Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review Taskforce, December 2006.

Falk, R. & Lifton, R. (1982). Indefensible Weapons: The Political and Psychological Case against Nuclearism. New York: Basic Books.

Frankenhaeuser, M. (1987). To Err is Human: Nuclear War by Mistake? In K.Helkama (Ed.), Proceedings of the First Congress of Psychologists for Peace, Helsinki.

Rogner, H.H. (2003). Nuclear Power and Climate Change. World Climate Change Conference Proceedings, Moscow, Russian Federation.

Solonin, M.I. (2003). Current and future problems of the fuel supply for nuclear power. Atomic energy, 95(2), 546-553.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (2007). Five minutes to  midnight. Retrieved on June 12 2007 from http://www.thebulletin.org/minutes-to-midnight/board-statements.html.