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