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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Attitudes Toward Nuclear Power: Between Chicken Little and the Ostrich

If you thought the nuclear power plant disasters in Japan were going to recast the energy debate in the U.S., you may have to think again — or at least wait a while. That would be a prudent conclusion drawn from the just-released CNN/Opinion Research Poll, conducted 3/18-20 (PDF here). According to CNN’s ‘Political Ticker’:

Opposition to building new nuclear power plants in the U.S. has edged up since last spring, a likely reaction to the nuclear power plants crisis in Japan, according to a new national poll.
But a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Tuesday also indicates a majority of Americans approve of using nuclear energy to produce electricity…Fifty-seven percent of people questioned in the poll say they approve of the domestic use of nuclear energy, with 42 percent opposed.
“Attitudes toward nuclear power in the U.S. are more positive than they were after Chernobyl in 1986, when only 45 percent approved of nuclear energy plants, or Three Mile Island in 1979, when 53 percent approved of nuclear energy and the number who said nuclear plants were not safe was 10 points higher than today,” says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.

I was a little surprised by the 57 percent approval, given the horrific video and images coming from Japan. But opponents of nuclear power plants may find encouragement in some other findings in the poll:

The survey indicates that 53 percent of the public opposes building more nuclear power plants in the U.S., up six points from last year. Forty-six percent support the construction of new plants.

A fairly even split, but favoring nuclear power skeptics. Six in ten would opose building a nuclear power plant in their community, while 57 percent say that the U.S. should rely less on nuclear power as a future energy source. Another new poll, by CBS News (conducted 3/18-21) found that 50 percent of respondents opposed new construction of nuclear power plants, with 43 percent favoring new plants. The CBS poll found that 62 percent opposed having a nuclear power plant in their community, with 35 percent saying it would be OK.
When it comes to existing nuclear power plants, however, the gap widens, favoring those who want to keep them, according to the CNN/ORC poll:

Sixty-eight percent say continue to operate all of them, with 27 percent saying that some should be shut down and one in ten calling for all of the plants to be closed.
According to the poll, 28 percent say domestic nuclear power plants are very safe, with just over half saying they are somewhat safe and one in five saying they are not safe.

The CNN report notes that 54 percent of the respondents considered nuclear power plants on or near earthquake zones and oceans “very safe) (12 percent) or “somewhat safe (42 percent). Two out of three respondents expressed confidence that the federal government was prepared to handle a major crisis at a nuclear power plant, which may be a bit of an “ostrich reflex,” given the post-Katrina mess. There are nuclear power plants on the Gulf of Mexico, near New Orleans, Galveston and Tampa, in addition to the two located on the Pacific in California earthquake country. The CBS poll found a higher level of skepticism, with 35 percent saying the government is prepared to deal with a nuclear emergency, while 58 percent say it is not
There are 104 nuclear power plants licensed to operate in the U.S. It’s hard to imagine that the public has a realistic grasp of the enormously expensive and complex security and safety issues surrounding the plants that merit concern. President Obama has expressed support of the expansion of nuclear power in the U.S., while calling on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to review the safety of the 104 operating plants, most of which are aging significantly.
I was one of those ostrich Democrats who became complaisant about nuclear power in recent years, thinking that the diminishing anti-nuclear power plant protests had started to sound like Chicken Little. After all we had not seen reports of any major disaster threats in the U.S. since Three Mile Island.
But the sobering images from Japan have jerked my head out of the sand. And reports like the one out today noting that there is an advisory to new mothers in Tokyo not to let their babies have any tap water because it has double the level of radioactivity considered safe for infants insures that I’m staying opposed to it. It’s not like we’ve got a big edge in scientific or technical expertise over the Japanese. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that U.S. Nuclear Power Plants had 14 “near misses,” or serious “events” in 2010 alone, involving “inadequate training, faulty maintenance, poor design, and failure to investigate problems thoroughly.”
I’m hoping President Obama will rethink the issue, declare a moratorium on new construction of nuclear power plants and invest the money saved in developing truly green energy options, like solar thermal and wind, which would create a hell of a lot more jobs, according to the Worldwatch Institute. Despite the relatively small number of jobs they create, nuclear power plants often end up being more expensive, because of unexpected safety issues that must be addressed. For a disturbing account of the ever-increasing expenses and dangers associated with nuclear power in the U.S., read Christian Parenti’s article “After Three Mile Island: The Rise and Fall of Nuclear Safety Culture” in The Nation.
The more you read about the dangers and expenses of nuclear power plants, the harder it gets to accept glib assurances about their safety and economic feasibility. Even if one accepts the premise that the odds are very high against a major disaster in the U.S., all it takes is one long shot disaster to do vast damage to America’s economy and politics. At the very least, Dems should consider a much stronger emphasis on development of alternative sources of power. Anybody up for a Manhattan Project/Marshall Plan for solar/wind power development?

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