Pragmatic Concerns Fuel Nuclear Support
The keener the perception of energy shortfalls, the greater the popularity of nuclear power alternatives
This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: Nuclear Power Gets a Second Look
What would it take to get your approval for a new nuclear plant next door? The nuclear power industry is counting on a combination of energy shortages, fossil fuel pollution, and the promise of cheaper, more efficient technologies to tip the public's perception in its favor.
"Nuclear energy is the world's largest source of emission-free energy," reads the home page of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), Washington, D.C., which speaks for the U.S. nuclear power industry. "Nuclear power plants produce no controlled air pollutants or greenhouse gases. The use of nuclear energy in place of other energy sources helps to keep the air clean, preserve the earth's climate, avoid ground-level ozone formation, and prevent acid rain."
"Prospects for the renewal of nuclear energy look more promising now than at any point in the past several decades," said Eugene Rosa, professor of sociology at Washington State University, in Pullman. He credits it to the scientific consensus about the reality of global warming and to progress in making reactors safer and more economical.
Forty years ago, nuclear power's place in the future of energy seemed assured, with a nearby atomic power plant a status symbol for the modern city. Opposition surfaced in the 1960s, primarily as environmentalists became concerned about the effects of thermal pollution on stream quality. Later, the radiation hazards of weapons testing led to questions about radioactive reactor waste, and, in 1979, the concept of a core meltdown was featured in the movie, The China Syndrome.
Even so, support for nuclear power among the general public, although decreasing from its early high levels, nonetheless remained well above 50 percent. That changed with the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania.
The pendulum of public opinion
Key to whether the use of nuclear power expands will be the support of the public, believes Washington State's Rosa. "That is one point where both sides of the issue are in agreement," he said.
So does the public support nuclear power? Despite the headline in the Nuclear Energy Institute's Perspective on Public Opinion, "Growing Public Mandate to Build More Nuclear Power Plants," the answer seems to be a firm maybe--with reservations. The analysis is clouded by the large number of polls, including those by Harris, Gallup, Associated Press, The New York Times, and others, asking questions in different ways and often interpreted as supporting a particular viewpoint [see figure].
"To a large extent, the result depends on how you ask the question," said Washington State's Rosa. "Perhaps the most relevant is simply to ask: 'Do you favor or oppose the building of new nuclear power plants?'" Rosa has analyzed 26 years of polling data, from 1975, well before the Three Mile Island incident, to the present.
His analysis shows that strong support for building nuclear power plants existed through the late 1970s [see figure]. After Three Mile Island, opinion was fairly evenly divided, but during the early 1980s, sentiment in opposition to building new plants grew strongly. According to Rosa, much of the change correlated with the buildup of nuclear weapons in Europe; the Chernobyl accident had little effect.
In recent years, nuclear power has undergone some resurgence of interest as its supporters have positioned it as a solution to air pollution, global warming, and energy shortages. Since 1999, the percentage of people responding favorably has ranged from 46 percent to52 percent. One poll of California residents taken in May during the period of rolling blackouts even showed 59 percent supporting expanding nuclear power. Still, there is no clear public mandate for a significant buildup of new plants.
IEEE Spectrum asked Clay Ramsey, a senior research fellow at the Center on Policy Attitudes, in Washington, D.C., to review a large body of poll results. "I've read a number of statements that say the public is dead set against nuclear power, but the polls don't seem to support that contention," Ramsey said. "When the question puts it within the context of an energy shortage or global warming, the favorability increases--but it is still a small majority. It does appear that there is a slight opening for nuclear power, compared to the last 20 years."
Ramsey does not believe the 46-52 percent range in polls since 1999 indicates any trend. "Numbers in [that] range would be considered steady," he said.
Even less encouraging to industry was a similar analysis by Alan Crockett, vice president of communications at Zogby International, a polling and research firm in Utica, N.Y. He pointed out that in most of the recent polls, even when the favorable response exceeded the unfavorable, it usually did not break the 50 percent level.
"Overall, the nation remains fairly divided on the issue, but if you have to look at it one way or the other, there seems to be opposition," Crockett said. "When you take the surveys as a whole, the public has a real fear of what nuclear power can do to the environment. When the question presents a list of options, nuclear power doesn't score well at all." Like Ramsey, Crockett performed no in-depth analysis of polls on nuclear power. Their evaluations were quick reviews at the request of Spectrum.
Nuclear power faces similar challenges worldwide. According to the Department of Energy's International Energy Outlook 2000: "The prospects for nuclear power...are uncertain. Over the long term, only developing nations are projected to have continuous growth in nuclear power capacity through 2020." Besides capital costs, the report cites safety concerns, waste disposal, and public opposition as reasons for the projected decline in developed countries.
Uncertainty in Europe and Japan
In much of Western Europe, public opinion has not favored nuclear power for several decades. In 1978, Austrians voted to ban nuclear energy entirely. Italy discontinued its nuclear energy program in 1987 after a national referendum and, more recently, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland have officially committed to a gradual shutdown of their nuclear industries.
One clear influence has been the growth of environmental parties in European governments, bringing environmental concerns to prominence. In Germany, for example, a coalition government of Social Democrats and Greens recently signed an agreement with the power industry to retire reactors as they reach the end of their lifetime.
Twenty years after Sweden voted to phase out nuclear power (the first plant shutdown occurred in 1999), the nation's nuclear power industry finds some comfort in polls showing opposition to accelerating the shutdowns; but it sees little support for new construction. An industry report states, "In June 1999 a poll showed 82 percent of Swedes wanted the country's 12 nuclear plants to continue in operation, with only 16 percent supporting early closure of any. One in four of the 82 percent were in favor of building new nuclear plants."
In industrialized Asia, only Japan has a well-established nuclear program, contributing 36 percent of its total electricity. Public support for Japanese plans for nuclear expansion is faltering after several incidents at nuclear reactors and the fatal September 1999 accident at the Tokaimura uranium-reprocessing facility that exposed two workers to large doses of radiation.
Hope in the U.S. industry?
Back in the United States, the nuclear power industry thinks that it sees some encouraging signs. The National Energy Institute, which sponsors its own surveys of public opinion for the industry, believes that the public is ready for new plants, as long as they are carefully sited--near nuclear power plants that are already operating. Indeed, most new plants currently in planning will be built on the grounds of existing facilities.
Most industry-sponsored polls frame questions about nuclear power in a future context, garnering higher favorable responses. Rosa cautioned against using this data to infer it is only a radical fringe of U.S. citizens who oppose nuclear power.
"This interpretation may be correct," he said, "but asking about the building of nuclear power plants now has an anchored time perspective, while the data asking about building plants in the future has no fixed anchor point." In virtually every survey where the underpinnings of general attitudes toward nuclear are explored, he added, people continue to express great concern about the safety of nuclear power and about high-level nuclear wastes.
Clearly, the industry's toughest hurdle will be addressing its opponents' main concerns: radioactive waste and plant safety. It will be no easy task. Also, most environmental organizations are not convinced by the argument that the lack of greenhouse emissions makes nuclear power environmentally friendly.
"What support there is for nuclear power comes from people buying into the global warming argument," said Debbie Boger, global warming and energy staffer at the Sierra Club, Washington, D.C. "This is definitely not the solution." She sees several insurmountable problems, including the inability to handle the tons of radioactive waste piling up.
Another environmental group that doesn't view nuclear power as a solution is the Natural Resources Defense Council, in New York City. "Our major concerns are safety, waste disposal, and proliferation," said Kathy Parrent, the group's media spokesperson. "If you could address these and still have an economical plant, that would be great, but we don't believe that can be accomplished. Efficiency and other alternatives are superior solutions when you analyze all the costs and discount the substantial initial capital costs."
While Rosa, after his years of analyzing polling data, believes there may be early signs of public support for nuclear power, he has found no clear indication that a trend has been established. "Americans are uneasy about the technology, but they are pragmatists and may support this technology in the future," he said. All the same, "there is little indication that the future is now. It seems unwise to exaggerate nuclear's potential in the coming century, especially to the neglect of alternatives for addressing the issues of pollution and global warming."
The chances of new nuclear plants receiving public support appears higher now than it has been in recent decades. Still, the industry must address substantial public concerns about plant safety and waste disposal before any new initiative is widely accepted.
Tekla S. Perry, Editor
About the Author
STEVE MILLER became a freelance science writer after 23 years as an analytic chemist. Based in State College, Pa., he also edits the newsletter Superconductor Week.
To Probe Further
Two nuclear industry organizations that address policy issues are the Nuclear Energy Institute in the United States, at http://www.nei.org and the World Nuclear Association in the UK, at http://www.world-nuclear.org
The Union of Concerned Scientists includes nuclear safety issues in its mission to examine public policy where science issues are concerned. The UCS Web site is at http://www.ucsusa.org/index.html The Nuclear Control Institute, primarily concerned with issues of nuclear proliferation, has a Web site at http://www.nci.org/.
To find out how nuclear energy fits into the overall energy picture, including assessment of the political and public opinion effects on possible future implementation, see the U.S. Department of Energy's report, Annual Energy Outlook 2001 With Projections to 2020, at http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/aeo.