June 16, 2016

Nuclear Energy: Americans Favor Stagnation

The construction site of the very first Belarusian nuclear power plant, which will have two power-generating units, is seen near the town of Ostrovets, Belarus April 19, 2016. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

By Lily Wojtowicz

How do Americans feel about nuclear energy? From Chernobyl to Homer Simpson, nuclear energy doesn’t have a stunning reputation, but until recently polls showed a majority of Americans favor its use for energy. In fact it appears that support for nuclear energy is linked with energy availability and that Americans would rather develop other energy sources.

A recent Gallup poll shows a steady dip in support for nuclear energy, to its lowest level since 2001 (44 percent). The polls asks “Overall, do you strongly favor, somewhat favor, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose the use of nuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity for the U.S.?” Typically, more than half of respondents favor nuclear energy.

The dip in support for nuclear energy in this poll is likely due to a decrease in concern about the cost and availability of energy. In the same poll, Gallup asked respondents “how much do you personally worry about—the availability and affordability of energy?” If you look at the chart below you can clearly see that as the public is less concerned about energy availability/cost it is more likely to oppose nuclear energy.

What Americans do resist is the expansion of nuclear energy infrastructure. Opinion trends suggest that the U.S. does not want new nuclear energy plants. In an earlier post on this blog, Dina Smeltz explored the shifts in opinions on nuclear energy after the Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi accidents in 1986 and 2011 (respectively). One poll from that post shows best the opposition to building new plants, which spiked after these accidents.  Even in the years prior to the Chernobyl disaster less than 30% of Americans favored building new plants.

There are probably two reasons people oppose building new plants. The first is that many Americans don’t want a nuclear power plant in their community (60 percent according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey, March 2011). The second is that respondents would rather see other sources of energy developed more intensively than nuclear plants. A poll conducted by the University of Texas at Austin asked respondents if the federal government should “focus on developing” renewable technologies, natural gas, oil, nuclear, and coal, individually. When asked about this series of energy sources, a majority of respondents still support developing nuclear energy, however that percentage (on average 52 percent) was consistently lower than support for developing renewable technologies, natural gas, and oil.

The funny thing about this desire to cap nuclear power plants at their current level is that—in reality—we are better off with new plants. In response the Fukushima accident, Switzerland proposed in 2013 amending the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS)—a legally binding agreement regulating nuclear power plants to promote nuclear safety which all states that use nuclear power are a party to. The proposed amendment would have set specific benchmarks for safety measures that all nuclear power plants would have to meet. These measures would legally bind parties to the CNS to upgrade plants to meet these new standards.

The U.S. (and China and India) rejected the amendment primarily because, according to Mark Hibbs from Carnegie Europe, “plants would have to be shut down because equipping them with state-of-the-art features would be prohibitively expensive and in some cases not feasible.” Hibbs compared nuclear energy in the U.S. to that in Europe, where safety standards are highly regulated, and concluded that safety standards in the U.S. are far more market driven.

So, if undesirability of new plants is a source of the lack of enthusiasm for nuclear energy, it’s misplaced. In the U.S. you’re safer living near a new plant than an old one.


About the Author

Lily Wojtowicz is a nuclear policy consultant for Weirich Consulting Services and a public opinion research intern at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Prior to joining the Council, Wojtowicz was a research assistant at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. She has an MA in nonproliferation and terrorism studies from the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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Nuclear Energy: Americans Favor Stagnation

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