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Facing Nuclear Fear

Renewing public support after Fukushima Daiichi.

Fortnightly Magazine - October 2011

take as a result? How does the nuclear industry deal with fear and reality when it comes to explaining risks and opportunities of nuclear power? What education and outreach strategies can make a difference to public perception?

Incidents and Reactions

In 2010, 62 percent of the U.S. public supported nuclear power. 1 Since the Fukushima disaster, support for nuclear power in the United States has dropped to 43 percent. 2 On the other hand, another poll indicates that 60 percent of respondents say there’s no difference in their support for nuclear power since Fukushima, 3 and 59 percent express support if new plants are located in earthquake-free zones, and away from large populations. 4 In Congress there’s a split between Republican support (52 percent) vs. Democrat opposition (65 percent) to more nuclear power plants.

Regional support for nuclear power differs. Nuclear industry media experts point out there continues to be strong local support for nuclear power plants from New Jersey to the South and Southwest, where the economic benefits are tangible. These plants provide jobs, and many people know someone who works at a nuclear plant. 82 percent of Americans living in close proximity to nuclear power plants favor nuclear energy, and 71 percent are willing to see a new reactor built near them, according to a public opinion survey of more than 1,100 adults across the United States conducted for NEI in July and August, 2011, by Bisconti Research Inc. with Quest Global Research Group. That contrasts with strong local opposition in Vermont and parts of New York.

In 1979, when the Three Mile Island incident occurred, there were other concerns that offset fears about nuclear risks. A revolt in Iran threatened oil supplies and raised concerns about dependence on foreign oil—just six years after OPEC had imposed an oil embargo and sparked a global energy crisis. In that context, public support for nuclear power remained high. It took three years after the Three Mile Island incident for public support for nuclear power to drop from 52 percent at the time of the accident to 38 percent in November 1982. By then, the energy crisis was off the front pages, and support for nuclear power had eroded.

Then came the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, raising new fears about nuclear safety. Six months later, however, support for nuclear actually increased from 44 percent to 52 percent because environmental critics and proponents alike had educated the public that U.S. reactors were safer than those in the Ukraine, with strong containment structures, and that the industry had benefited from the lessons from the TMI incident. 5

After TMI, which was caused by human error, the nuclear industry responded by improving its training practices and launching an educational and promotional campaign on the safety of nuclear power plants. The industry also formed the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), which instituted better training methods for operators, regular evaluations of plant operations, and assistance to help nuclear plants improve their performance.

INPO also helped operators establish more efficient maintenance procedures that have increased capacity factors of