Nuclear Power Loses Support in New Poll


What had been growing acceptance of nuclear power in the United States has eroded sharply in the wake of the nuclear crisis in Japan, with support for building nuclear power plants dropping slightly lower than it was immediately after the accident at the Three Mile Island plant in 1979, according to a CBS News poll released on Tuesday evening.

Only 43 percent of those polled after the failure of the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan said they would approve building such new facilities in the United States to generate electricity. That is a steep decline from the 57 percent who said in 2008 that they approved of new plants. That poll was taken at a time of soaring gas prices and mounting concerns about global warming that led to calls for a new national energy policy and that drove popular support for nuclear power to its highest level in three decades.

Support for nuclear power has waxed and waned over the decades, going up as the power-hungry nation looked for ways to meet demand and driven down by nuclear accidents at home and abroad. Support for more nuclear power plants was 69 percent in 1977, the highest level ever recorded in a poll by The New York Times or CBS News. But two years later, it plummeted to 46 percent after the Three Mile Island accident near Harrisburg, Pa. After the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, in 1986, support dropped to 34 percent in a CBS News poll.

The new poll found that nearly 7 in 10 Americans think that nuclear power plants in the United States are generally safe. But nearly two-thirds of those polled said they were concerned that a major nuclear accident might occur in this country — including 3 in 10 who said they were “very concerned” by such a possibility. Fifty-eight percent of those polled said they did not think the federal government was adequately prepared to deal with a major nuclear accident.

Still, 47 percent of those polled said that, over all, the benefits of nuclear power outweighed the risks; 38 percent said they did not.

The nationwide telephone poll was conducted March 18-21 among 1,022 adults, and it has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

The unfolding crisis in Japan occurred just as many Americans believed that nuclear power was poised to make a comeback in the United States, more than three decades after the Three Mile Island accident.

President Obama has spoken in his past two State of the Union addresses of the need to build more nuclear plants, and he has called for billions of dollars in federal loan guarantees for construction. Some environmental groups, and many members of Congress in both parties, have also increasingly come to consider nuclear power as a steady energy source that, since it does not emit carbon, could play an important role as the nation seeks to address concerns about climate change.

But even before the Japan crisis, there were tremendous financial challenges for any new construction, and the number of plants that was expected to be built in the near future was small.

Finding places to build new plants could also prove difficult: more than 6 in 10 of those polled said they would not approve of a nuclear plant in their community. Support was highest in the South, where plans are under way for new plants in South Carolina and Georgia, and in the Midwest.

Attitudes toward nuclear power varied along partisan and gender lines, the poll found.

A slim majority of Republicans said they approved of building more nuclear plants, while majorities of Democrats and independents disapproved. Republicans were also more likely to see the existing nuclear power plants as safe, and were more likely to say that the federal government was prepared to handle an accident, though most still said the government was not ready for such an emergency.

And Republicans were less likely to disapprove of new nuclear plants in their areas: 50 percent of them said they did not want new nuclear plants nearby, compared with 69 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of independents.

There was also a gender divide: while a majority of men said they approved of new nuclear plants, most women disapproved. Women were also significantly less likely than men to say that the benefits of nuclear power outweighed the risks, more likely to say that they were “very” concerned about a major accident and more likely to say that the events in Japan made them more afraid that a nuclear accident could occur in the United States.

Mr. Obama received high marks for his handling of the crisis from all political groups. Nearly half of those polled said they were concerned that radiation from Japan could harm people in the United States, with the results similar across all regions. But their concern did not run very deep: only 17 percent said they were “very concerned” about the possibility, including just 13 percent of those who live in the West.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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