Popular culture (or pop-culture for short) was a term once used by sociologists to describe customs and traditions of people in general, however today anything can be labeled as pop culture, including the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, and of course the tv shows and movies we watch. Think of Pepsi, Doritos, Nike and Marvel movies and Tik-Tok as examples. Generally, society recognizes them all.
So, what about nuclear energy? Does it have enough “buzz” to exist in popular culture in a positive light? Within the past five years, streaming services have offered content depicting nuclear. One series about the events at Chernobyl and one documentary about events at Three Mile Island – both sharing fears among many that these things could still possibly happen, although very unlikely.
Even before these shows were created, there was a long-running series in pop culture…"The Simpsons." Everyone familiar with this show knows that Homer works at a nuclear power plant in the fictitious town of Springfield. Though a very entertaining show that gives glimpses of the nuclear industry, not everything that takes place at Homer’s job are things that people should shape their beliefs and opinions around nuclear. The series on Chernobyl and the documentary on Three Mile Island share similar misconceptions.
- Control Room Operators do not work alone: We see Homer working alone in the control room. In a real control room, this could not happen because according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), a supervisor, second supervisor or reactor operator have to be present at all times during reactor operation. These individuals also must be licensed by the NRC. In order to maintain their licenses, operators must complete requalification training and examination programs, spending one week of every five weeks in required training throughout the duration of the careers. In addition, they must also be mentally and physically fit.
- The industry learns: The aftermath of the incidents focused on in the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island content both brought about industry changes including emergency response planning, reactor operator training, radiation protection and other areas of nuclear operations.
- Nuclear power plants are well maintained: Contrary to the safety violations seen, such as cracked pipes spewing green radioactive waste, this simply does not happen at a nuclear power plant. Nuclear plants have well-trained employees that perform regular safety inspections and preventive maintenance. The NRC also maintains a pair of inspectors at each site, who can inspect anything at any time. No wonder the nuclear industry is one of the safest places to work and live near.
- Nuclear waste is safely stored: Unlike Springfield, you will never find nuclear waste discarded in the community. In fact, used fuel from our nuclear plants never leaves the site. Every 18 months, a plant will refuel. During a refueling outage, 1/3 of the oldest fuel is replaced. That fuel is either moved a 40-foot steel-lined pool or placed in dry cask storage.
This is not a call to stop watching current or future content depicting the nuclear industry. In fact, these shows can open doors and pave ways to new conversations to help debunk myths and fears of the nuclear industry.
So, does nuclear energy have enough “buzz” to exist in popular culture in a positive light? The answer, as you can see, is not yet. But as it's integral to our country's carbon-free future, we're hopeful that one day it might.