Nuclear Energy InsightSummer 2011
—Pollsters began asking Americans about their support for nuclear energy almost immediately following the March 11 nuclear accident in Japan and have continued to track opinions since.
Although the polls show heightened concern about nuclear energy and a reduction in support for building new nuclear power plants, they also show that the public understands the value of nuclear energy and supports its continued use.
A few findings:
A CNN/Public Opinion survey in March found that 57 percent approved of using nuclear energy to produce electric power.
When asked whether they think U.S. nuclear plants are safe, 58 percent of Gallup poll respondents said they are; 36 percent said they are not; and 6 percent were unsure. The Harris poll showed similar results, with 29 percent saying they believe nuclear power plants are “very safe” and another 34 percent saying they are “somewhat safe.”
Asked if respondents supported continued operation of the nuclear energy facilities that are closest to their homes, 53 percent said they did, according to a Luntz Global poll conducted in April.
Ipsos/Reuters found in April that half of Americans support nuclear energy as a way to produce electricity.
In a Harris Interactive survey, 59 percent of respondents agreed it is OK to build nuclear power plants if they are built far enough away from earthquake fault lines and areas with large populations.
According to Ann Bisconti, president of polling firm Bisconti Research Inc., the wording of questions can make comparing polls from different organizations exceptionally difficult. “Even the slightest difference in wording can make a difference,” she said. “For example, more people support ‘building more nuclear power plants in the future’ than simply ‘building more nuclear power plants’ and more people favor ‘building more nuclear power plants’ than ‘building more nuclear power plants at this time.’”
Gallup and Harris usually show stronger support for nuclear energy at any given time than Pew. So if Pew reports a number under, say, 50 percent, this is usually in a context where the question always polls under 50 percent in Pew polls while a comparable question from Gallup may usually poll well above 50 percent.
The answer for this discrepancy lies partly with the factors already noted, but context between two different polls can weigh in as well. Pew often polls about energy sources as a group while Gallup will poll about nuclear energy by itself. Bisconti notes that this can cause significant variations in the responses.
“If people are asked about nuclear energy after being asked about solar energy, which everyone loves,” she said, “the answers will be less favorable to nuclear energy than when nuclear energy is the only topic of the poll. There is nothing wrong with the broader context, but one needs to know it in order to understand the answers.”
—Read more articles in Nuclear Energy Insight and Insight Web Extra.