March 26, 2013 | By Dina Smeltz

Splitting Atoms

American Attitudes toward Nuclear Power/ Part III of American Attitudes toward Energy

I recently watched an interview on the Colbert Report where Stephen spoke with Michael Shellenberger, a co-founder of The Breakthrough Institute. about a book which he recently co-authored (eponymously named Break Through). Shellenberger and his colleagues are focused on making clean energy affordable through technology innovation to deal with both global warming and energy poverty (rather than making dirty energy more expensive).  They argue that rather than abandoning our dated technology (à la Dr. Frankenstein),  we should  "love our monsters," and modernize them for current conditions. Colbert extended the Frankenstein metaphor to Three Mile Island and nuclear power, and Shellenberger agreed that nuclear energy could be a positive in creating clean, affordable energy. Shellenberger also appears in a new documentary, Pandora's Promise, which premiered at Sundance, featuring environmentalists, scientists, and energy experts who have shifted from being ardently anti-nuclear to strongly pro–nuclear energy.

Having grown up ten miles from Three Mile Island, I have complicated views about nuclear energy.  (My family evacuated to NYC, where we watched the menacing TMI Tower II on the news and wondered exactly what it was spewing). Apparently, American public opinion is mixed on the issue as well, because results vary greatly according to survey questions.

When asked to rate the impact of a series of energy sources on the environment in a Harris Interactive poll from September 2012, Americans deem nuclear energy the most harmful energy source in terms of environmental impact (48%), followed by clean coal (34%), natural gas (23%), biomass (12%, with 61% not at all sure), hydropower (8%), wind (5%) and solar (4%).

Yet when asked separately about nuclear energy as an alternative source of electricity to fossil fuels, Americans seem to favor the continuing operation of existing nuclear power plants, if question wording includes the benefits of reducing energy dependence and providing electricity.  Longer-term trends show that this support dropped in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, but seemed to rebound in recent surveys.  At any rate, Americans are decisively less enthusiastic about building new nuclear plants.

The Chicago Council Survey from 2012 shows that six in ten (62%) favor building new nuclear plants to reduce dependency on oil and coal (62%).  Gallup surveys from 2009-2012 also find about six in ten consistently supporting the use of nuclear energy “as one of the ways to provide electricity for the US.”  And majorities across a series of polls believe that US nuclear power plants are safe.

But other surveys reveal some interesting contrasts when question wording is varied, particularly when asking people whether they support increasing nuclear power.  Pew surveys asked about some possible government policies to address America’s energy supply, and found fairly divided views in “promoting the increased use of nuclear power” in Spring-Fall 2010.  Opposition grew  after the Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan in 2011, but the gap narrows again in 2012 (Figure 1 below).

A Gallup survey in 2011 also found divided views about increasing the number of nuclear plants in the country: 46 percent said that “nuclear power is necessary to help solve the country’s energy problems;” 48 percent said “the dangers of nuclear power are too great, even if it would help the country’s current energy problems.”

Other polls have shown more decisive opposition to building new nuclear plants.  An AP-GfK poll conducted in 2011 similarly found 60 percent opposing “building more nuclear plants at this time.”  ABC/Washington Post surveys have consistently found majority opposition to building more nuclear plants since 1983, though these majorities have fluctuated between a low of 52% in 2001 to a high of 78% in 1986 (that survey was conducted in the wake of the Chernobyl accident) (Figure 2).  Currently two in three oppose building more nuclear plants.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey from March 2011 helps to sum up American views toward nuclear energy.  They asked a series of questions about existing and new nuclear energy facilities. Six in ten approved of “using nuclear energy to provide electric power” (57% approved, 42% disapproved) and seven in ten felt that existing nuclear power plants in the US that have already been built should continue to operate (68% vs. 27% who thought they should permanently shut down).  But more Americans opposed than supported building more nuclear power plants in the country (53% oppose, 46% favor), and even more said that “building a new nuclear power plant in your community” would be unacceptable (60%).

This is the third post in a series on American attitudes on energy sources:

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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