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.

This Aug. 17, 2000, file photo shows a secure area next to the main generator of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Vernon, Vt. Polls show that Vermont residents want it to close next year as scheduled.

The massive earthquake that threatened a meltdown at Japan's Fukushima I nuclear plant has dramatically eroded public support for building new nuclear power plants in the US, throwing into question the "nuclear renaissance" hailed by industry advocates, new polls show.

A new Civil Society Institute/OCR poll conducted last week shows that a majority of Americans now favor halting new federal loan guarantees to support reactor construction. At the same time, most respondents also favor removing the federal indemnification in the event of a nuclear accident.

Other surveys also show a serious weakening in support for nuclear-power development. While Gallup found 62 percent support for nuclear energy last March – the highest since the polling firm first asked the question in 1994 – support for new nuclear power has now dropped to 44 percent, a new USA Today/Gallup poll shows.

Similarly, a new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press release Monday shows 39 percent now favoring more nuclear power while 52
percent oppose it – matching a September 2005 low in support for nuclear. Last October, a Pew poll showed 47 percent favored promoting the increased use of nuclear power and 47 percent opposed.

“The American public clearly favors a conservative approach to energy that insists on it being safe in all senses of the word – including the risk to local communities and citizens," Pam Solo, founder and president of the Civil Society Institute, the Newton, Mass.-based nonpartisan think tank, said in a conference call. "These poll findings support the need for a renewed national debate about the energy choices that America makes."

American views on nuclear power

The new CSI/OCR survey, she says, is an attempt to dig deeper into public attitudes on nuclear power. It shows, for instance, that 53 percent of Americans would support “a moratorium on new nuclear reactor construction in the United States” – but only if “increased energy efficiency and off-the-shelf renewable technologies such as wind and solar could meet our energy demands for the near term.”

That's a big "if." Nuclear industry boosters and others contend it is virtually impossible. A new plan by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., a Boston energy-consulting firm, suggests nuclear power could be reduced by one-quarter, but only in a transition over four decades.

"If done in a gradual way, over time, there's plenty of time to backfill" the declines in nuclear power though systems like solar and wind, Bruce Biewald, president of Synapse Energy told reporters in a conference call hosted by CSI unveiling the findings.

The findings also included:

  • 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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