Two Decades after TMI, Nuclear Power is Again a Consideration

In 1999, around the time of the 20th anniversary of the nuclear reactor problem at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, the Gallup Organization asked people whether they could remember the name of the nuclear power plant where the incident occurred. Thirty-eight percent said they could, 3 percent gave an incorrect response and 47 percent said they couldn't remember.

The passage of time and the absence of serious nuclear reactor problems on U.S. soil may explain some of the findings of current polls about nuclear power. Most recent polls have shown somewhat greater support for, than opposition to, nuclear power.

In response to a March Gallup question, 20 percent strongly favored the use of nuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity in the United States, 26 percent somewhat favored it, 28 percent were somewhat opposed to the idea, and 20 percent were strongly opposed. The April Los Angeles Times poll found 52 percent support "increased use of nuclear power as a source of energy in order to prevent global warming," with a third opposed to it.

In a May 7-9 Gallup question that asked people about things that could be done to deal with the energy crunch, investments in new sources of energy, such as solar, wind and fuel cells, topped the list (91 percent were generally in favor of these strategies). At the bottom of the list were "increasing the use of nuclear power as a major source of power" (48 percent were generally in favor; 44 percent were generally opposed) and "opening up the Alaskan Arctic Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration" (38 percent were in favor; 57 percent were opposed). In the May 9-10 Fox News-Opinion Dynamics poll, 49 percent favored building more nuclear power plants as a way of meeting the need for electric power, while 40 percent were opposed.

To understand what role attitudes toward nuclear power might play in the energy policy debate today, it is useful to review opinion before and after the Three Mile Island incident. Before this scare, most polls showed support for nuclear power, though, as always, question wording was important.

A Los Angeles Times question in December 1978 began this way: "Some people say that the nation needs to develop new power sources from nuclear energy in order to meet our needs for the future. Other people say that the danger to the environment and the possibility of accidents are too great." The results of this query were that 52 percent favored building more plants, and 36 percent were against this solution.

However, a September 1978 NBC News-Associates Press question that emphasized safety produced a different result. Fifty-seven percent agreed that "No more nuclear power plants should be built in this country until questions about safety are resolved, even though this will mean energy shortages within 10 years." Forty-three percent disagreed.

Questions asked by Roper Starch Worldwide and ABC News-Harris in the 1970s produced different pictures of safety concerns. In 1977, 39 percent told Roper that atomic energy plants were "completely safe," while 47 percent said they "present dangers and hazards." A question asked by ABC News-Harris interviewers in April 1979 (after the TMI incident) revealed that 21 percent of Americans surveyed believed nuclear power plants that produce electric power are very safe, 46 percent considered them somewhat safe, and 30 percent thought they were not so safe.

When Gallup updated the ABC-Harris question in 1999, 24 percent said nuclear power plants were very safe, 57 percent said they were somewhat safe and 17 percent called them not so safe. Sixty-five percent told Associated Press interviewers in 1999 that nuclear power plants were safer than 10 years ago; 18 percent disagreed.

Support for building more plants dropped after Three Mile Island, but it didn't melt down completely. Writing at that time, pollster Mark Schulman said, "[I]t is clear that in the aftermath of TMI, public opposition to nuclear power has soared to record levels. But the bigger headline is that even so, the public is unwilling to declare a moratorium on new development." Schulman argued that two factors cushioned the public's reaction: First, most Americans had already factored safety considerations into their own assessments of nuclear power. Second, they were aware of the country's appetite for energy and the need for power supply.

All this isn't to say people want a plant in their back yards. In March, when Gallup asked those who supported the use of nuclear energy whether they would favor or oppose the construction of a nuclear energy plant in their area, 34 percent were in favor, but 63 percent were opposed.

Karlyn H. Bowman is a resident fellow at AEI.

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