Nuclear YIMBY

Deck: 

Local communities welcome new reactor projects.

Fortnightly Magazine - July 2010

Visitors to Waynesboro in northeast Georgia might be surprised at local residents’ opinions about two new nuclear energy plants planned for that site; namely, they’re giving the reactors a warm welcome.

The two new units, at Georgia Power’s Vogtle power plant, became the first new nuclear facilities to receive U.S. government support when the Obama Administration in February awarded $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees for the project.What about NIMBY, the theory that no one wants a nuclear power plant or other energy facility in their backyard? Counter to outdated conventional wisdom, most residents in areas that already have experience with nuclear energy facilities are saying, “Yes, in my backyard.”

My firm has surveyed residents living within 10 miles of the 64 nuclear power plant locations in 31 states three times since 2005, most recently in 2009. The surveys of 1,152 adults show deep and wide local support for these plants (see Figure 1). On average across these sites, 84 percent in 2009 said they favor the use of nuclear energy—58 percent strongly. Three-fourths would find it acceptable to add a new reactor at the nearest nuclear power plant, including 82 percent of men and 72 percent of women (see Figure 2).

Additionally, while plant neighbors are more favorable to nuclear energy than the public at large, recent polls show record high support among Americans in general. A national poll in March by Bisconti Research with GfK Roper found that 77 percent would find it acceptable to add a new reactor at the site of the nearest nuclear power plant that’s already operating. And 70 percent say U.S. energy companies definitely should build more nuclear power plants. A dozen years ago, just 47 percent of those taking part in a nationwide survey said they favor definitely building new nuclear power plants.

Reliability, Clean Air & Clean Jobs

Most plant neighbors view the plants as safe and environmentally sound. The 2009 survey found that 91 percent are confident in the company’s ability to operate a nuclear power plant safely, and 86 percent believe the company that operates the nearby nuclear power plant is doing a good job of protecting the environment (see Figure 3).

In what might account for this surprisingly strong support, 80 percent feel informed about the local plant, and large majorities associate nuclear energy with reliability, efficiency, and clean air.

EES North America

For members of the local public, the plants are a familiar part of the landscape. Many know people who work at the plants, and they use nature areas around them for such recreation as hiking, fishing, boating and picnicking.

Additionally, in today’s harsh economy, the prospect of new jobs and economic development are significant drivers for support of new nuclear energy facilities. Ninety percent of residents near existing nuclear plants support new reactors because they believe the local plants help their local economies. At a time when many industries are contracting, the nuclear energy industry has added 15,000 jobs in the past three years. That number would swell to 89,600 direct and indirect jobs if the 64 GW of new nuclear generating capacity forecasted in the Electric Power Research Institute’s (EPRI) PRISM analysis were to be built by 2030.

The new reactors at the Vogtle plant in Georgia will supply electricity to 1.4 million people and will create 3,500 new construction jobs and 800 permanent jobs. Already, 700 workers are excavating and preparing the site for the largest construction project in Georgia’s history. Additional state and local taxes from the new reactors will improve schools, police and fire services, and the local infrastructure. These are among the reasons that residents near these plants favor nuclear energy and the construction of new reactors that will provide reliable and low-carbon electricity.

Used Fuel Management

Following the federal government’s decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain repository project in 2009, plant neighbors expressed more clearly than ever that they don’t want spent uranium fuel to stay at the plant sites. Their preference: centralized storage options.

Last year, 56 percent of residents near nuclear plants agreed that used nuclear fuel can be stored safely at the plant site, compared to 71 percent who in 2007 agreed that the fuel could be stored safely at the plant site until it’s moved to a permanent disposal facility. This difference between the two years could reflect a greater confidence in the safety of used nuclear fuel storage at the plant when that storage is temporary.

Two centralized storage options make sense to plant neighbors:

• 85 percent in 2009 thought it’s more appropriate that nuclear waste be stored at one or two volunteer sites, where it can be stored more securely and efficiently; and

• 82 percent in 2009 agreed that the federal government should continue to develop the Yucca Mountain site for a national disposal facility for nuclear waste as long as it meets NRC regulations—up from 78 percent in 2007.

The March nationwide survey for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) demonstrates that the public is more comfortable with off-site than on-site storage of used nuclear fuel rods. While 59 percent agree that used nuclear fuel rods can be stored safely and securely at nuclear energy plants, 81 percent believe that the federal government should store used nuclear fuel rods at a secure storage facility away from the nuclear energy plant sites until a permanent disposal facility is ready.

Knowing that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has determined that used nuclear fuel rods can be stored safely and securely at nuclear energy plants for 100 years increases comfort with on-site storage only slightly.

Nearly eight out of 10 (79 percent) favor recycling used nuclear fuel rods to make more electricity and reduce the amount of waste that must be disposed. Knowing that a panel of independent experts recommended recycling used nuclear fuel rods increases support, but support is already very high without mention of expert backing.

Looking at Nuclear Differently

There has for decades been a significant perception gap when it comes to nuclear energy: Though a majority of Americans favor the use of nuclear energy, many incorrectly believe most of their neighbors oppose it.

One can’t blame them. When the major news networks covered President Obama’s announcement of the financing support for the Vogtle reactors, ABC News led with a clip from the movie China Syndrome and a reminder of the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. These events are more than three decades removed from both today’s safe nuclear power plant operations and significant public and bipartisan policymaker support for nuclear energy.

It’s time to look at nuclear energy differently—just as those who live closest to these facilities have been doing for years.