After a decade of public opinion surveys that consistently find broad and deep support for nuclear energy among nuclear power plant neighbors, is it time to re-think NIMBY? The conventional wisdom goes that “not-in-my-backyard,” is a barrier to nuclear energy. That may be true in some locations, but it is absolutely clear that a NIMBY attitude toward nuclear energy does not apply to most people who live close to America’s nuclear power plants.
Six biennial surveys of U.S. nuclear power plant neighbors that we have conducted for the Nuclear Energy Institute since 2005 confirm that residents close to the facilities are far more favorable to nuclear energy than the general public, and they are very supportive of the local plant. The latest nuclear power plant neighbor survey, just released, was conducted May 26 through June 13. A random sample of 1,080 respondents was drawn from residents of the 60 sites in the U.S. where nuclear power plants are located, an equal number per site. They were interviewed by landline and cellphone. Households where someone works at a nuclear power plant were excluded.
Favorable Attitudes Toward Nuclear Energy
Familiarity makes a difference: 83 percent of plant neighbors favor the use of nuclear energy, compared with 68 percent of the general public surveyed this February. Nearly twice as many plant neighbors strongly favor nuclear energy (50 percent) compared with the general public (27 percent).
Favorability to Nuclear Energy
“Overall, do you strongly favor, somewhat favor, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose the use of nuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity in the United States?”
Plant neighbors see nuclear energy‘s attributes in a favorable light. Majorities associate nuclear energy “a lot” with reliable electricity (72 percent), efficiency (65 percent), job creation (60 percent), clean air (59 percent), energy security (57 percent), and affordable electricity (54 percent).
An overwhelming majority (89 percent) reported that they have a favorable impression of the nuclear power plant closest to where they live and the way it has operated recently. That breaks down as 57 percent very favorable, 32 percent somewhat favorable, 6 percent somewhat unfavorable, 4 percent very unfavorable, and 1 percent unsure. These impressions have changed little over the decade.
Not only do most nuclear power plant neighbors favor their nearby plant, 69 percent would find it acceptable to add a new reactor at the site of the nearest nuclear power plant, assuming more electricity were needed. That acceptability is lower in the Northeast (58 percent) than in the South (70 percent), Midwest (73 percent) and West (79 percent).
Neighbors expressed confidence in the company that operates the nearby plant. They gave the company and plant high marks for safety and environmental protection. They also recognized the plant’s contribution to the economy and jobs, as well as the company’s community involvement.
Real world experience corroborates the surveys. Conventional wisdom once held that, due to public opposition, no company would be able to seek renewal of U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses to operate its nuclear power plants beyond 40 years. Already 74 nuclear power plants have received license renewals, and 18 more have applications under review. Local opposition to license renewal has been minimal, if any. Even more difficult, people said, would be to gain the support needed to build new plants. Five new reactors are under construction in Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina with solid public support.
Nuclear Energy’s Reverse NIMBY Advantage Because of Scale
Nuclear energy has a reverse NIMBY advantage compared to some other sources of electricity. That advantage is due to scale. One reactor provides enough electricity for 690,000 homes and businesses. To make a large contribution to the nation’s electricity, the support of only a small number of communities that actually want a nuclear power plant is required. Those communities are already there, among the 60 communities across the country with existing plants. Other communities may seek nuclear energy facilities as well.
In contrast, most other energy sources require many locations to match the generation of one reactor. That means many diverse approvals and likely battles with communities that, for example, do not want wind turbines in their backyard.
An assessment of NIMBY and its impact on the future development of energy sources can be more nuanced by asking these questions: How many supportive locations are needed? And are the locations already there?