Current Support for Nuclear Energy

For Americans, the current support for nuclear energy is relatively low. Gallup reports that 2016 is the first year that a majority of Americans were opposed to nuclear energy in their own polls. Clearly, there have been other times that Americans have been more than 50% opposed to nuclear energy, just not in Gallup polls. In addition to the Nuclear Energy Agency’s public opinion trend, we can examine Gallup’s that is up to 2016. While support was at a peak in 2010, it has seen a steady decline since then, and hits an all-time low in favor and an all-time high in opposition in 2016 since 1994.

Gallup Current

Image from: www.gallup.com/poll/190064/first-time-majority-oppose-nuclear-energy.aspx

However, a University of Texas-Austin poll shows a less negative picture in public opinion. In the most recent wave of polling, which occurred in January of 2016, 26% oppose nuclear energy and 39% support nuclear energy. Out of the remainder polled, 35% were not sure or did not have an opinion.

Out of the 2,043 people polled, 526 opposed nuclear energy. From those that opposed, 34% were concerned of the effects of radiation on their community, 24% are concerned with waste storage, 19% are concerned with a power plant meltdown, 18% are concerned of a terrorist attack, and 5% are concerned with other issues.

Also out of the 2,043 people polled, 792 people support nuclear energy. From those that support, 81% support because they view nuclear energy as a “steady, reliable source of energy,” 19% support because it is emission free, and 1% support for other reasons.

UniversityofTexas Public Opinion

Image from: www.utenergypoll.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Topline-Wave-10.pdf

Ann S. Bisconti from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists describes the variability between years and between polls as a context issue:

Public opinion on nuclear energy is highly changeable and easily influenced, because most Americans do not feel well informed about the subject. The UT poll shows many people in the middle. The NEI spring 2016 survey also found a large segment of the public sitting on the fence; 26 percent strongly favored nuclear energy and 11 percent strongly opposed it, leaving almost two-thirds of the public in the middle.

However, even with the slight discrepancy between polls, nuclear energy does not appear to be currently very favorable among Americans, and it can be implied that it is most likely not very favorable among Coloradans.

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Historical Perceptions of Nuclear Energy

Historically, it could be argued that nuclear was one of the most favored energy sources ever, and then soon became to one of the least liked energy sources. The political implications of nuclear energy for Colorado may be clear, but there is very little data on what Coloradan’s perceptions were historically. Therefore, we will examine the perceptions of Americans generally, although, Coloradan and American perceptions of nuclear energy are not exactly the same, they are most likely similar to some degree.

A year after World War 2 ended, the United States established the Atomic Energy Commission in order to cultivate the newly discovered power of the atom. In 1945, the book The Atomic Age Opens was published and popularly read, and expounded on a world in which nuclear energy would reign supreme so much that all other energy sources would most likely be abandoned. In a 1956 Gallup poll, Americans were asked “would you be afraid to have a plant located in this community which is run by atomic energy?” 70% answered that they were not afraid. According to Benjamin Sovacool, the military also, unsurprisingly, put its support behind nuclear energy. “Military planners believed that demonstrating the civilian applications of the atom would also affirm the American system of private enterprise, showcase the expertise of scientists, increase personal living standards, and defend the democratic lifestyle against Communist intrusion”.

However, the tune of Americans changed greatly throughout the years. Environmental groups, like the Sierra Club, originally supported nuclear energy as a clean energy source. As time went on, though, the Union of Concerned Scientists formed out of the Sierra club in 1969, and the Sierra Club officially turned against nuclear energy in 1974.

In 1973, Roper put out a similar poll to the 1956 Gallup poll, and asked Americans “how do you feel- that it would be safe to have an atomic energy plant someplace near here, or that it would present dangers?” Only 36% answered that it would be safe. While this language is not exactly the same as the Gallup poll, it can be seen that Americans’ attitude clearly changed towards the safety of nuclear energy between 1956, in which 70% answered they were not afraid of a nuclear plant, and 1973, in which 36% answered that a nuclear plant was safe.

Though, one of the most dramatic and visible changes in opinion towards nuclear energy occurred during the Three Mile Island accident. The accident occurred in the March of 1979. When Americans were polled in January, before the accident, 50% were in support of nuclear energy. When Americans were polled in April, after the accident, 39% were in support of nuclear energy. This is an 11 percent drop in only a few months, which is quite drastic in the context of public opinion.

To add to the Three Mile Island accident, 12 days before the accident the movie The China Syndrome with Jane Fonda was released. The movie depicted a disaster in which a meltdown at a nuclear reactor would mean a hole would be melted all the way to China. Throughout the movie, the nuclear power plant worker and managers are shadowed as shady and dishonest. Luckily, when Three Mile Island melted down only 12 days later, the doomsday depiction was proven wrong. After investigation of the scene, only a trivial amount of radiation leaked into the environment and there were no reported health effects from the accident. However, the public did not see it that way. The China Syndrome must have been correct if a meltdown happened so quickly after the movie was released.

As for Chernobyl, the American response was negative, though not as negative as Three Mile Island. Polls found that after the Chernobyl accident dropped around 6%.

In a report published by the Nuclear Energy Agency, a French nuclear energy organization, we can see the trends of public opinion for nuclear energy more recently. The report can be seen below and looks between 1998 and 2007.

Support for nuclear energy

From this figure, an overall increase in support for nuclear energy can be seen more recently. However it is only slightly increasing, and it is also fairly unstable.

Note: a lot of the information sourced in this blog is from Eric R.A.N. Smith’s book Energy, the Environment, and Public Policy which can be found on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Energy-Environment-Public-Opinion-Smith/dp/0742510263

Current Oversight of Nuclear Energy on Federal and State Levels

The primary agency in charge of overseeing commercial nuclear energy plants on a federal level in the United States is the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is an independent agency separate from the U.S. Department of Energy. According to its website, the NRC “regulates commercial nuclear power plants and other uses of nuclear materials, such as in nuclear medicine, through licensing, inspection and enforcement of its requirements”. More specifically, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversees and regulates how nuclear waste is dealt with, how mill tailings are dealt with, and how states should form their laws and regulations around commercial nuclear energy plants.

The United States Department of Energy also deals with nuclear issues on a federal level; however, these deal more with nuclear weapons, overseeing disposal sites for nuclear fuel rods, and advancing research for nuclear energy. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration also play more minor roles in the oversight of nuclear energy.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission also offers the Agreement State Program, in which is relinquished regulatory authority, in accordance to NRC rules, to state governments. The State of Colorado became an agreement state on February 1st, 1968, and amended the agreement in 1982, which is the current agreement between the NRC and the Colorado State Government. With this agreement, the State of Colorado assumes control of regulating and rule making for uranium processing, fuel disposal, and electricity generation via a nuclear plant. However, the NRC retains control of very specific areas such as ocean disposal of nuclear waste, internationally importing or exporting radioactive material or fuel, and licensing disposal of waste.

Within the Colorado state government, the two agencies that would be most influential regarding nuclear energy policy are those that are already most involved with energy policy in general, namely, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and the Colorado Energy Office. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency, there are 79 regulations and legislative decisions regarding nuclear energy in Colorado. These regulations range between how byproducts of uranium mining is to be handled, radioactive dose amounts for employees, or how dosimetry machinery should be used and recorded.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in the United States there are 15 states that have prohibitive regulations on nuclear energy that make it either illegal to construct new facilities or put huge regulatory barriers of entry for nuclear plants. Colorado is currently not one of these state, and does not have prohibitive entry for nuclear power.

Environmental Externalities of Nuclear

Environmental externalities are an important cost associated with energy, but are a much more dispersed cost. Most of the other economic factors discussed in this report have related directly to the costs of energy companies, unless paid for by subsidy. For example, energy companies will have to buy the fuel, account for the reliability of an energy source, and build the necessary capital development. However, the environmental costs of an energy source are something not only paid for by energy companies, but by everyone to some degree. We all have a vested interest in the environment in varying degrees of capacity, which means we all foot the bill in some kind of way for environmental externalities.

Each energy source has some kind of environmental externality which is either obviously seen or more hidden. However, comparing environmental effects can be difficult as the effects are generally in completely different metrics. For example, how many birds and bats would have to be killed by wind farms in order to equal the amount of pollutions given off by a coal electricity generator? How much radioactivity exposure is equivalent to the environmental damages caused by liquid natural gas spills? It is like comparing apples to oranges.

Being emission-free is a popular concept and buzzword among many people. Out of the primary sources of energy which have been examined in this paper, wind, solar, and nuclear are all emissions free during the production of electricity. Hydro and geothermal are both emission free as well.

However, while this may be the case, emissions are not the only form of environmental effects related to energy production. A lot of the environmental externalities faced by energy production are faced during the mining of fuels, instead of the generating of electricity. For natural gas, reserves must be drilled to at depth. For renewables, rare earth elements must be mined. For coal and nuclear, mining also needs to take place.

When it comes to the environmental effects of nuclear energy, almost all of it has to do with the release of radioactivity, which is a unique from other forms of energy, which most concerns deal with emissions, animal deaths, etc. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there are two forms of radioactive waste associated with nuclear power: low level waste and high level waste. Low level waste is radioactivity associated with the mining of uranium which would include mill tailings and tools that came into contact with the uranium during mining. The current and common practice with dealing with low level waste is to seal it with barrier so that radon is unable to escape into the environment.

High level waste is more difficult, as this is the spent reactor fuel after electricity has been produced. High level waste is generally dealt with on a case by case basis. For Fort St. Vrain, the former nuclear power plant in Colorado, fuel is kept on site and is under the discretion of the Department of Energy. Thought there is currently no permanent repository for nuclear waste disposal in the United States.

The environmental effect, and in turn the health effects, of high levels of radiation should not be understated. After large amounts of radiation were introduced from Chernobyl, 42,000 people had to be evacuated within a 30 kilometer distance. Out of the 129 firefighters responding to the accident, 17 died of radiation sickness, and 13 others became seriously ill. Furthermore, residents experienced increased higher rates of thyroid cancer.

According to the EPA:

Ionizing radiation has sufficient energy to cause chemical changes in cells and damage them. Some cells may die or become abnormal, either temporarily or permanently. By damaging the genetic material (DNA) contained in the body’s cells, radiation can cause cancer. Fortunately, our bodies are extremely efficient at repairing cell damage. The extent of the damage to the cells depends upon the amount and duration of the exposure, as well as the organs exposed.

History of Nuclear Energy in Colorado

Colorado’s history with nuclear energy is limited. Only one nuclear reactor has been built in the state, and it has since closed down. The plant was located east of I-25 near Plateville, and was named the Fort Saint Vrain Plant. It was built, owned, and operated, in a limited capacity, by the Public Service Company of Colorado, which now goes by the name Xcel Energy.

The Public Service Company acquired a license to build their high-temperature, gas-cooled reactor in 1973, and invested $240 million to build it. The plant began operating in 1979, and remained in operation for 10 years. Until it was transformed in 1989, it only operated, on average, at about 14.6% it capacity. In 1989, the Public Service Company transformed it into a natural gas electric generator for an additional $340 million, and spent $25 million to build a spent fuel storage. This fuel storage is still on site and is under the discretion of the United States Department of Energy.

Though there have been no other nuclear energy reactors in Colorado, the state has a significant history with uranium mining, which is a primary source of fuel for nuclear energy. The state’s history with uranium mining dates back to the early 1900s, when radium and vanadium experienced a huge production boom, which are accessory minerals to uranium.

During the 1940s due to the emergence of nuclear weapons, uranium was specifically targeted in Colorado in mass, which continued through the 90s due to a potential nuclear energy increase in the United States. One of the most significant producers of uranium in Colorado is the Uravan Mining District in Montrose County which contributed over 850 tons of Uranium to the Manhattan Project. From 1947 to 1970, the Uravan district mined and produced around 24 million pounds of uranium ore. Along with the Uravan Mining District, Colorado has hosted the Schwartzwalder Mine in Boulder, which produced 17 million pounds of uranium ore; the Thornburg mine, which produced 1.25 million pounds of uranium ore; the Cyprus Hill mine at Hansen Creek, which produced 25 million pounds of low grade uranium ore; and many other smaller operations.

According to the Colorado Energy Office, there has been no uranium mining in the state of Colorado since 2009. However, there are still 18 active uranium mining sites permitted, 12 on temporary cessation, and 1 pending approval in the state as of 2014. Though these active mines are permitted, none are actually operating.