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Nuclear power in US: public support plummets in wake of Fukushima crisis

Several polls show that Americans are once again wary of nuclear power. Before the Fukushima disaster, support for nuclear power had hit record highs in the US.

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The findings also included:

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  • Most Americans said they favor kicking away nuclear-industry supports. Even though President Obama has asked for $36 billion in new loan guarantees on top of $18 billion already approved by Congress, 73 percent of Americans said they do not “think taxpayers should take on the risk" of construction loans for new nuclear reactors. The same proportion favor “a shift of federal loan-guarantee support for energy away from nuclear reactors” toward wind and solar power.
  • Some 73 percent respondents favor congressional review of a 1957 law that indemnifies nuclear-power companies from most disaster cleanup costs. Instead, Americans would hold the companies “liable for all damages resulting from a nuclear meltdown or other accident,” the survey said.
  • Slightly more Americans (76 percent ) are also now “more supportive than … a month ago to using clean, renewable-energy resources – such as wind and solar – and increased energy efficiency as an alternative to more nuclear power in the United States.”
  • Meanwhile, 51 percent support “a halt to the United States extending the operating lifespan of its oldest nuclear reactors." Owners of dozens of aging nuclear power plants – among 104 reactors nationwide – are seeking 20-year operating permit extensions.

Signs of a nuclear backlash

Such sentiments have already come into play in state legislative hearings in California, where lawmakers questioned the safety of two coastal nuclear plants located within the highest seismic hazard area, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). State Sen. Sam Blakeslee, who has a doctorate in geophysics, asked that the owner of one of the plants withdraw its application for a new license until further studies were done.

In addition, 23 nuclear plants in the US have the same or similar reactor design as the Fukushima plant. A February survey showed 68 percent of Vermont residents supported the closure next year of the Vermont Yankee plant, which has a General Electric Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactor, like Fukushima.

Though the Vermont Senate voted last year to retire the plant as scheduled – and the plant cannot operate without its state license – the NRC still extended the Vermont Yankee plant's operating license Monday. "This move calls into question the seriousness" of the NRC's decision to conduct a 90-day review of the entire industry in light of the Fukushima crisis, says Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth.

The NRC has defended its safety record. "The NRC remains confident that our Reactor Oversight Program, which includes both on-site and region-based inspectors, is effectively ensuring US nuclear power plants are meeting the NRC's strict requirements and are operating safely," said Scott Burnell, NRC spokesman, in a recent statement.

But officials representing the nuclear power industry acknowledge that there is work ahead to reassure Americans.

"We're not at all surprised to see – in the wake of more than a week of intensive news coverage – that support has dropped," says Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group in Washington. "We will apply the lessons learned from Fukushima and make the plants even safer than they already are – and build public confidence. We're committed to doing this."

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