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

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Voter Knowledge on Energy Issues

After looking at the economic implications of nuclear energy, we can see that there is a lot that is preferable about nuclear energy. However, living in a democracy means that policy and regulation will be based heavily in public perception of issues. In order for politicians to be elected or re-elected, they must serve the interests of their constituents in some kind of degree even if the constituent’s interests are uninformed. However, how informed are voters when it comes to energy issues?

To examine what voters could know about energy policy, several polls taken in the United States are helpful. The first one is explained in Eric R.A.N. Smith’s book, Energy, the Environment, and Public Opinion:

In 1977, when a Roper survey asked people whether they thought that solar, wind, and other power sources could realistically replace foreign oil within the next 5 years, 52% said they thought solar power could do it, and 16% thought that wind power could. These people had listened to too many exaggerated claims about the coming utopia; they were seriously mistaken.

Clearly, this forecast did not come true. Half of Americans polled got it completely wrong on solar power, and around a sixth of Americans got it wrong on wind power. Eric Smith goes on with data showing what percentage of Americans got energy policy questions correctly, which is seen in the figure below.

Smith_Eric_Energy_Environment_Public_Opinion_PG101

The most correctly answered question was whether or not Exxon housed its headquarters in the United States in 1978 and 1986. The most incorrectly answered questions were “what percentage of our oil do you think we now import?” in 1990 and 1991 and “What percentage of the nation’s electric power is currently supplied by nuclear power plants?” in 1979 and 1986. No questions got above an 80%, but got as low as 5%.

Energy policy is a difficult area of policy to know a lot about for many people. It is a combination of a lot of science, economics, and politics, which are all areas that the average American citizen struggles with. Eric Smith explains this complication with energy policy:

Consider, for instance, the news attention given to Newt Gingrich. Numerous stories about him appeared every day for weeks after the Republicans startled the nation by gaining House and Senate majorities in 1994. Even after the initial surge of attention subsided, Gingrich was in the news most days of every week through 1995 and 1996. Yet by May 1996, only half the public could supply his name when asked, “Who is the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives?” Given examples like these, we can hardly expect energy policy, which receives much less attention, to be well understood- especially the more complicated, technical aspects that are necessary for making informed choices.

Since energy policy is not always specifically focused on by the media, it is most likely that voters don’t have many venues to actually get to know much about energy policy. Furthermore, since there are many scientifically technical elements to energy policy, it should be looked at how Americans do with science topics. In 2005, the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers asked 1,200 Americans about genetically modified foods. When asked if regular, non-GMO, tomatoes have genes, 60% answered that non-GMO tomatoes do not have genes. 58% thought that if you were to combine catfish genes with a tomato, the tomato would taste more “fishy”.

Americans clearly do not know enough about politics or science in order to have a coherent opinion on energy policy. However, American’s, and particularly Coloradan’s, opinion on energy policy is essential for understanding if nuclear energy is feasible politically.