News in Depth: Visualizing Public Opinion on Nuclear Energy

Development of nuclear power can be said to be just as much a public relations problem as it is an engineering one. This, of course, is not news to any government, company, or organization involved in nuclear energy projects. However, what is often missing in discussions is a long-term view supported by hard public opinion data.

Kathleen Weldon, Research Coordinator for the Roper Center for Public Opinion, recently wrote an article in the Huffington Post covering just such data. Her analysis provides us with a unique example of how public opinon on nuclear energy has evolved in the US over the last half-century. In this week’s News in Depth, we explore these trends and reflect on what they mean for the industry both in US and abroad.

The Key Numbers and Trends

Weldon sets up the article with this question: “Do Americans seea nuclear plant as a devastating accident waiting to happen – or the solution to climate change?” The Roper Center’s data stretches back to 1945, when 48% of people polled said they expected atomic power to be put to general use within ten years. In 1957, another survey found that 56 percent thought it could help if used wisely.

These generally positive early numbers shifted slightly lower after the construction of the US’s first nuclear power plant in 1958, with a poll saying that 45 percent believed that the development of nuclear power is beneficial to mankind.

However, over the next few decades the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima Daiichi incidents would have serious repurcussions on the public’s attitude towards nuclear power.


(Image Source: Roper Center via the Huffington Post)

While the responses to the poll were still split in the 1979, right in the heart of th energy crisis, the public was increasingly weary of futher plant construction throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.

However, the broad trend throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s was for increasing support of using nuclear energy as a way to provide electricity in the US. The most recent data, from 2015, shows the lowest level of support in decades owing in part to the Fukushima Daiichi incident in 2011.


(Image Source: Roper Center via the Huffington Post)

Analysis and Conclusions

As Weldon notes, the history and opposition to nuclear power has been defined not just by a series of accidents, but also by the industry’s role in reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emmissions. Interestly, the story is one of the public’s misunderstanding of the role and effect of nuclear energy on the environment. She writes that

polls over the last decade have shown that most Americans do not make strong associations between nuclear energy and climate change solutions. Furthermore, 44 percent believe that nuclear plants contribute a lot or some to global warming.

That last figure is worth repeating: as of 2010, 44% of respondents believed that nuclear plants contribute to “a lot or some” to global warming.

What we see then is a disconnect between public knowledge and the reality of nuclear power. While there are definite challenges in the industry – including safety, decommisioning, and waste handling – one the clear benefits is that it is effectively a zero-carbon emmission energy source.

Thus, one of the biggest projects facing the industry and policy makers alike is one of education and public engagement. As Weldon concludes, if the “public came to associate nuclear energy closely with preventing climate change, support for nuclear would likely increase.” Such association in the public consciousness will take time, but it is a important goal and one that will make the process of development more inclusive and effective in the US and abroad.

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