Women, environment and nuclear energy: a complex relationship

Studies in several countries, since the 1990s, show that women have a marked tendency to be more opposed to nuclear power than men, especially in developed societies. We have asked ourselves where did this difference come from?

Women are also more widely involved in environmental movements, associations or NGOs. Feminism has actually been associated with environmentalism since the middle of the last century: this trend was given the name of Ecofeminism, a movement defined by the French philosopher and activist Françoise d’Eaubonne in the 1970s.

Advocates such as Rachel Carson and Wangari Maathai, among many others, have since fueled this movement and its different strands, the former focusing on organizing protests against pollution of rivers and the latter against deforestation. All of them participated, and even inspired, the emergence of environmental political movements in several countries and increased recognition of the voice and of the social and political role of women.

According to this trend, women’s actions would be consistent with their traditional roles of “care-giver” and protectors of health, habitat, “the other”, and thus, by extension, of the environment and of the planet.

Nuclear power very often seen as a threat to the environment

Women, more mobilized on environmental issues and particularly present in political environmentalism, are therefore also more often anti-nuclear.

We may point, in France, to the women politicians Michèle Rivasi, Corinne Lepage, and Ségolène Royal or leaders of the EELV (Green) party (previously Dominique Voynet, today Sandra Regol).

Internationally, we can cite in particular the long-time activist Hélène Caldicott in the United States as well as the young pro-climate activist Greta Thunberg, named by Forbes Magazine among the 100 most influential women in the world. Thunberg’s public statements about nuclear power are however more reserved than hostile.

The presence of women is visible at the political and militant level, but also among the general population. As with all those who reject nuclear power despite their attachment to the climate cause, women are victims of the lingering disinformation on the subject.

This is one of the main motivations of the foundation of Voices of Nuclear: to inform, to establish the facts and to allow citizens to decide with full knowledge of the facts.

Fake news is fueled by a lack of trust by citizens, due in part to a lack of genuine communication, for quite a long time. Even if great progress has been made, the reflex of mistrust persists. It is necessary to admit as well that still today, few voices from industry leaders or government decision-makers take the stand to publicly address the (good) facts about nuclear power – stable supply and low price of electricity, relative independence from external suppliers, unlike other sectors, notably imported gas – to a French public who benefit from it but often unknowingly.

Greater mistrust

The survey conducted in 2019 for Orano by BVA shows that 69% of French people think that nuclear contributes to the production of greenhouse gases (CO2) and therefore to climate change. This is already a high percentage, but when we look at the results in detail, we see that there are in proportion almost twice as many women as men in this figure (79% of women, 40% of men)!*

A majority of French people think nuclear power contributes to production of greenhouse gases

If women’s concern for environmental and health issues explains part of the difference in their perception of nuclear power compared to their male counterparts, it is however not enough to justify it entirely.

Various studies have shown that women express greater risk aversion than men.

Studies show that women are more risk-averse than men, presumably because they feel more exposed to risk, including nuclear risk

An analysis by the American media Vox.com in 2016 suggests that American women have a different perception of risk, including nuclear risk. This is because, like other socially and/or economically vulnerable population groups, women feel more exposed to the consequences of risk than, in particular, those who by virtue of their societal functions make the decisions that expose others.

Women are also at the forefront of pronuclear movements

However, a new movement of civil society, pro-climate and pronuclear, is developing, led by a number of women:

– Abroad, with Kirsty Gogan of Energy For Humanity, Jessica Lovering of the Breakthrough Institute, members of Mothers for Nuclear like blogger Iida Ruishalme, tweeter Katie Mummah, and many others who go against the grain of the traditional tendency of women to distrust nuclear power.

– but also in France, with of course “our very own” Myrto Tripathi, representative of French pronuclear civil society, founder and chair of Voices of Nuclear, and Valérie Faudon, representing the French nuclear sector with the French Nuclear Energy Society (SFEN), who courageously goes on French TV to present the reality of nuclear facts in an often adversarial context.

These women, while acknowledging that nuclear energy has its drawbacks, have concluded in particular that the risks of nuclear are overshadowed by the major and existential risk posed by climate change, against which nuclear power constitutes an essential part of the solution.

They also know that it is women, like the poor and minorities, who bear the greatest burden of climate change.

In a recent interview, the vice-president of the IPCC**, Valérie Masson-Delmotte, points out the need to integrate the rights of women and gender in the fight against climate change.

There is an opportunity to integrate the prism [of women’s rights into the French low carbon strategy] and to have approaches of risk management, alert system and adaptation assistance that take this into account. 

How can this trend be developed?

Industry and political decision-makers must first make progress towards more transparency, more inclusion, more diversity, so that citizens can identify with decisions and actions undertaken.

But these communication efforts must also not fall on deaf ears. Faced with a tendency to nuclear-bashing by French media these days, the arguments in favor of nuclear energy have become almost inaudible when they come from industry or the political field.

In this context, women climate activists who favor nuclear energy challenge multiple prejudices, and are effective advocates to emphasize the advantages of nuclear power that are little known today.

By their action, they contribute to giving nuclear energy its rightful place in the public debate, in particular on human and environmental issues – consistent with the values ​​of ethics and nurturing which, according to sociologists, are supposed to characterize the feminine approach but that we recognize more and more in men too, especially young people.

Let us aim to prevent the Greta Thunbergs of this world from dismissing nuclear power on the basis of the wrong image they may have formed of it.

The universal goals of decarbonizing our societies, making them resilient and inclusive, and maintaining a decent standard of living for all, are universal for a reason : they concern us all, and it is therefore up to all of us to share in making sure that all solutions to achieve these goals are evaluated on an equal basis.

Ann MacLachlan   –   Claude Jaouen   –   Myrto Tripathi     

* Over its entire life cycle, French nuclear power emits between 4 and 7g CO2 / kilowatt-hour (12g CO2 / kWh on a world average calculated by the IPCC). That is roughly as much as wind power and> 5 times the emissions of solar thermal power, compared with 1,000 gCO2 / kWh for a coal-fired power plant and 500 gCO2 / kWh for a gas-fired power plant. Sources: SFEN, EDF, MTES

** Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body

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