Americans split on nuclear energy — poll

Source: Kelsey Brugger, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, March 29, 2019

Forty years after the Three Mile Island disaster, Americans are evenly split in their opinion of nuclear power, according to a new poll.

The Gallup analysis found 49 percent of respondents favor nuclear power — up 5 percent from three years ago, the last time Gallup surveyed the issue. Support for nuclear power has fluctuated over the years and appears to be a response to energy prices, experts said.

“It’s interesting how nuclear has come back into vogue,” said Paul Bledsoe of the Progressive Policy Institute. “The reason is that Republicans are heavily invested in the industry and Democrats need the zero-emissions power.”

Despite the increased support, the results released yesterday show that voter attitudes continue to fall largely on party lines. A majority of Republicans (65 percent) and fewer than half of Democrats (42 percent) support nuclear energy.

Politics today are less clear-cut as climate change threats have diminished visceral opposition to nuclear energy for some.

Yesterday, a bipartisan pair of lawmakers — Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and ranking member Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) — introduced the “Nuclear Energy Leadership Act,” a bill to make nuclear cheaper and more competitive in the face of advancements in Russia and China. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey is a co-sponsor of the bill (E&E News PM, March 27).

At a town hall last night, Booker reiterated his full-throttled push for nuclear as an essential piece of the equation to combat climate change.

“Nuclear has to be part of this solution,” Booker said last night at the CNN town hall held in South Carolina, when asked about the Green New Deal.

Like the poll, Democrats are split on the issue. Candidates running for the 2020 nomination include nuclear supporters like Booker and opponents like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who has said she would work to ensure that people would not have to “bear the burden of nuclear energy” (Energywire, Feb. 8).

The Obama administration cut funding for the Yucca Mountain waste repository at a time when former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) led the charge against nuclear.

Oil prices and climate

Many environmental groups such as Greenpeace have taken an anti-nuclear stance. Other organizations, however, have warmed up to nuclear power in recent years, citing it as essential to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Nuclear Energy Institute noted this shift when it expressed encouragement by the recent Gallup results. The “results reflect a growing consensus among policy leaders such as Google, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Nature Conservancy that nuclear energy is essential to reduce carbon emissions and ensure reliable and clean power,” said spokeswoman Mary Love.

Earlier this week, NEI Executive Director Maria Korsnick made multiple references to “climate” in her annual address.

“Nuclear generates most of our country’s emissions-free energy, helping to combat the dangerous effects of climate change,” Korsnick said. “We’re making our air cleaner. We’re making our planet safer for ourselves and our kids.”

However, the percentage of Americans who think nuclear power is safe is lower than it was in 2011, even though the earlier survey taken just weeks after the Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan rattled the globe.

Some think public support fell because of the price of other energy sources. As Bledsoe put it, “I think public attitudes are more concerned with cost than with safety.”

The recent modest increase of support is “possibly in response to higher oil prices in 2019,” Gallup analyst R.J. Reinhart wrote. “Or perhaps some of the increase in support stems from the fact that nuclear energy generates emissions-free electricity.”

Polling data over the past two decades follow that trend.

Gallup said support this year is far below the record 62 percent of respondents who backed nuclear in 2010, when oil prices surged. As domestic natural gas production has accelerated in recent years and reduced energy prices, nuclear power became less attractive to the public.

The Trump administration’s actions on nuclear have won both praise and criticism from nuclear advocates.

President Trump has proposed cuts to the Energy Department’s nuclear office, including a proposal to reduce nuclear office funding in fiscal 2020 by 37 percent from current levels. Congressional appropriators have made clear they plan to restore the funding for many DOE offices (Greenwire, March 26).

Energy Secretary Rick Perry recently toured Plant Vogtle in Georgia and announced $3.7 billion in grant funding for the nuclear construction project. Just yesterday, Perry announced $19 million in grant funding for four advanced nuclear projects (Energywire, March 25).

Still, nuclear power remains expensive compared with the costs of wind, solar and natural gas. It remains to be seen if industry will be able to drive down the costs.

“You would have to say it’s a risk,” Bledsoe said. “As a climate advocate, I think it’s worth the risk.”