Useless nuke-energy majority

It’s been roughly one year since Gallup made the striking announcement that Americans’ support for using nuclear energy to generate electricity reached an all-time high of 59 percent. That starting gun seemed to set off a race to put nuclear power back into the news. As someone who tried hard to help former Republican Rep. Bill Carney keep his seat and launch the Shoreham nuclear plant on Long Island in the mid-1980s, the latest round of interest in the topic brought on waves of nostalgia. But, as in the ’80s, this latest intimation of “majority support” may engender little progress.

In June, a nationwide survey by the Sacred Heart University Polling Institute tamped down Gallup-induced enthusiasm by reporting that only 46 percent of Americans consider nuclear energy very or somewhat safe. And they piled on by finding that 58 percent believe radioactive wastes from nuclear plants represent a danger “for thousands of years to come.”

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Shortly thereafter, Gary Langer over at ABC News’s polling unit reminded us that while support for new nuclear facilities is up, this change of attitude still doesn’t allow Americans to support a nuke plant near where they live. (In this spirit, I recently saw a newspaper-sponsored online poll wherein residents of Washington state are enthusiastically in favor of building “two new nuclear reactors in Georgia, the first to be constructed since the 1970s”; perhaps they even had it confused with the old Soviet state that’s even farther away than Jimmy Carter’s peanut patch.)

Langer’s ABC polling also revealed some killer cross-tabs, showing huge partisan, ideological, generational and gender gaps. Democrats, liberals, women and the young were most opposed to nuclear power. Interestingly, a sizable slice of Republicans even turn against nukes when you ask them about locating a new nuclear plant within 50 miles of their home.

A more supportive intra-industry analysis of poll data from mid-2009, after the Gallup report, finds the highest yet-reported backing for new plants but quickly acknowledges that “public support for nuclear energy, though high, remains changeable, with support dependent on public awareness of its reliability, low cost and clean-air benefits.” “Changeable” is another word for “unreliable.” The nuclear industry cannot count on public support unless it constantly fills the airwaves with reassuring messages that ensure the magical “awareness” that engenders positive impressions of this much-needed power option.

Despite this meager foundation for a political launching pad, politicians of every stripe are stepping up. Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) has challenged us to “build 100 nuclear plants in the next 20 years.” Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) have echoed jointly that “we must take advantage of nuclear power.” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) says good things. And President Barack Obama has recently joined the chorus calling for a new look at nuclear.

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It’s not just the mainstream pols who are extolling nuclear, either. A Mountain West region friend of mine who closely follows Tea Party goings-on told me the topic of nuclear energy is often raised positively in activist circles where he lives. I have looked into this on a broader scale and there is some truth to it. Tea Partiers admire Sarah Palin (who likes nukes) and disdain environmentalists who oppose nuclear, like those who brought down Vermont’s Yankee nuclear plant. But friends and enemies don’t always adequately frame the issue. The high cost of nuclear and the supposed need for costly federal financial assistance or guarantees may be deal-killers for many fiscally frugal Tea Party activists.

There is room for optimism that eventually public opinion may evolve to validate Gallup’s national majority as a meaningful harbinger of policy and regulatory achievements for nuclear. But as long as support lags among large segments of the electorate, and NIMBY sentiment persists, six in 10 Americans are not yet enough.

Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.