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Public opinion on nuclear power matters. Should we build new reactors or not? If so, who should pay for them? Should we close existing reactors? Where should nuclear power rank among all the other possible sources of electricity generation? Where should we put our limited resources to attain the best possible energy future?

These are all fundamental questions, the answers to which could affect our future far more than, say, who will be the next Senator from Indiana. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, until recently—really the past two or three years—other than regularly-conducted, loudly-trumpeted and rarely relevant industry-sponsored polls, polling of public opinion on nuclear power (and a lot of other energy issues) was haphazard at best.

Gallup, for example, over the past 18 years as best as we can find out, has conducted only 10 polls (and most of these only asked a half-sample, putting their numbers into question) asking people their opinion on nuclear power. But beginning in 2009, Gallup has begun polling annually. Unfortunately, Gallup asks the exact same question, with the same wording, that the Nuclear Energy Institute’s (NEI) own well-tested polling does. And the NEI doesn’t ask questions that it doesn’t want the answers to. Even so, Gallup’s answers don’t quite match those NEI gets, and which are usually heavily promoted in the media by NEI.

To try to get a better sense of what the public really thinks about nuclear power (and since we can’t afford to conduct our own polling), we took a look at every poll we could find on the issue, and related energy issues, over the past two years, and in some cases further back. Yes, that includes GOP/Fox News favorite Rasmussen.

As DailyKos readers know, if not the general public, examining all the possible polls leads to a much greater confidence in conclusions than relying on a single poll. Thus, we have a fairly strong confidence that our conclusions are a good statement of where the American public is at on nuclear power and our energy future in the Spring of 2012.

Conclusion 1: The public does NOT want to pay for new nuclear power. It IS willing to pay for renewable energy.

This one is a slam dunk.

New nuclear reactors are simply too expensive for utilities to build with their own assets. Nor are banks willing to lend money for most nuclear projects; they’re considered too risky given the long history of cost overruns, defaults, cancellations and other problems. Thus, the only two means of financing a new reactor are to either get money from taxpayers, through direct federal loans or taxpayer-backed loan guarantees, or from ratepayers in a few, mostly Southern states, which allow utilities to collect money from ratepayers before reactors are built—a concept known either as “early cost recovery” or Construction Work in Progress (CWIP).

ORC International (which polls for CNN, among others) has asked a straightforward question for the past two years (March 2011 and February 2012) in polls commissioned by the Civil Society Institute: “Should U.S. Taxpayers Take on the Risk of Backing New Nuclear Reactors?” The answer? Basically identical both years: 73% opposed in 2011, 72% opposed in 2012.

Maybe using the work “risk” skews the poll, you think? So ORC also asked, “Do you favor or oppose shifting federal loan guarantees from nuclear energy to clean renewables?” The answer was basically the same: 74% said yes in 2011, 77% in 2012 with 47% “strongly” holding that opinion both years.

A third poll conducted by ORC for Civil Society Institute in March 2012 asked this question:  

“Utilities in some states are allowed to charge electricity ratepayers for “Construction Work in Progress” for new power plants. This means that ratepayers – instead of the companies – pay for construction of new nuclear reactors and other major power plants before any electricity ever reaches customers, thereby lowering the financial risks to shareholders. Knowing this, which of the following statements about “Construction Work in Progress” most closely reflects your view?”

The answer: fully 80% opposed CWIP.

Most pollsters have not asked similar questions; interestingly though, Rasmussen did in May 2012 for an undisclosed client. Their question: “The government is providing billions in loan guarantees to help the development of new nuclear plants. Would that money be better spent on the development of alternative new energy sources?” Unfortunately, Rasmussen did not publicize the results and hid them behind a paywall,  which we were not inclined to pursue. But if anyone has access to that, we’d love to know what Rasmussen found.

Conclusion 2: Americans do not think nuclear power is “clean” energy, and still don’t want to pay for it.

Jumping back to ORC International, their March 2012 poll found this:

About two out of three Americans (66 percent) – including 58 percent of Republicans, 65 percent of Independents, and 75 percent of Democrats -- agree that the term “‘clean energy standard’ should not be used to describe any energy plan that involves nuclear energy, coal-fired power, and natural gas that comes from hydraulic fracturing, also known as ‘fracking.’”

and this:

About three out of four Americans (73 percent) agree that “federal spending on energy should focus on developing the energy sources of tomorrow, such as wind and solar, and not the energy sources of yesterday, such as nuclear power.” Fewer than one in four (22 percent) say that “federal spending on energy should focus on existing energy sources, such as nuclear, and not emerging energy sources, such as wind and solar.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times in May reported on a Harvard/Yale poll (also behind a paywall), conducted in 2011 but released in May 2012, that found that Americans are willing to pay an average of $162/year more for clean energy than they are paying now—an average 13% increase in electric bills.  But when clean energy was defined as including nuclear power or natural gas, that support plummeted.

This is consistent with findings over the past decade, which have shown that nuclear power has typically ranked well below renewable energy sources, especially solar and wind, in public opinion, at times battling with coal for least-favorite U.S. energy source.

A March 2012 Gallup poll found that 69% of Americans support spending more government money on solar and wind power—with majorities among Democrats (84%) and Republicans (51%) alike.  But support for “expanding the use of nuclear power” barely received a majority (52%) and then only due to Republican support: 64% of Republicans supported that idea, only 41% of Democrats.

Conclusion 3: On new reactors, how one asks the question matters.

Gallup and the Nuclear Energy Institute ask the same question: “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 U.S.?”

This question doesn’t really get to the issue of support for new nuclear reactors, although NEI typically tries to spin it that way. Although a question of support for current reactors wasn’t asked in any recent poll we saw, the public traditionally has been more supportive of existing reactors than new ones, and the question above could easily be interpreted as support for existing reactors, or even simple recognition that they exist. The results may also be skewed by the pollsters throwing nuclear in as “one of the ways,” without a context of how large a way.

Nonetheless, despite asking the same question, Gallup and NEI can’t agree on the answer. NEI, for example, in November 2011 asserted that 28% of the public strongly favors nuclear power with an additional 35% somewhat in favor. NEI found only 13% strongly opposed and another 21% somewhat opposed.  A May 2012 NEI poll did not publicly break down the numbers into strongly vs somewhat, but claimed a similar 64-33% split between support for nuclear power and opposition.

Gallup, asking the same question in March 2012, found a narrower split.  A smaller number was strongly in favor (23%, a drop of 5%) and a larger number strongly opposed (24%, increase of 3%)—overall an 8-point anti-nuclear swing among those with strong opinions. Those in the middle were 34% somewhat favor vs 16% somewhat opposed. The 2012 numbers were slightly worse for nuclear power than the identical question asked in March 2011, just before Fukushima.

But other polls suggest that Gallup and NEI may be asking the wrong question. For example, the LA Times reported on a Yale-George Mason University poll in April 2012 that found that support for new nuclear power had dropped significantly, from 61% in 2008 to 42% today.

Even Rasmussen in its May 2012 poll found that only 44% support building new reactors.  That was good news for Rasmussen since it found that only 38% oppose them, with a surprising 18% undecided (surprising because no other poll we saw had such a high undecided contingent for any nuclear-related question).

Meanwhile the March 2012 ORC International poll found that:

“Nearly six in 10 Americans (57 percent) are less supportive of expanding nuclear power in the United States than they were before the Japanese reactor crisis, a nearly identical finding to the 58 percent who responded the same way when asked the same question one year ago. Those who say they are more supportive of nuclear power a year after Fukushima account for well under a third (28 percent) of all Americans, little changed from the 24 percent who shared that view in 2011.”

But perhaps the most telling, and easily the most interesting, poll comes from a March 2012 poll from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications.  Participants were asked, “When you think of nuclear power, what is the first word or phrase that comes to your mind?”

29% of those polled said “disaster.” Another 24% said “bad.” Only about 15% said “good” and that was the only measurable group that had anything positive to say. That poll also found that, “…only 47 percent of Americans in May 2011 supported building more nuclear power plants, down 6 points from the prior year (June 2010), while only 33 percent supported building a nuclear power plant in their own local area.”

Conclusions
Americans are not exactly wild about the idea of building new nuclear reactors. Polls asking the question different ways arrive at different results; at the lowest common denominator it is safe to say the country is divided on the issue. But Americans clearly don’t want to pay for construction of new reactors. And the reality is that no utility wants to or even can spend its own money building new reactors—they’re just too expensive. Congress, State legislatures and Public Service Commissions would do well to heed that warning, especially since it crosses all party and political lines.

It is also clear that the American public does not see nuclear power as a “clean energy” source (nor, for that matter, “clean” coal or natural gas fracking). Congressional or state efforts to include these technologies in a “clean energy standard” or a clean energy bank concept are bound to fail.

Finally, for those of us who want to build a genuinely clean, nuclear-free and carbon-free energy future, there is this scintillating nugget: According to the April 2012 ORC International poll:

“More than eight out of 10 Americans (83 percent) – including 69 percent of Republicans, 84 percent of Independents, and 95 percent of Democrats -- agree with the following statement: ‘The time is now for a new, grassroots-driven politics to realize a renewable energy future. Congress is debating large public investments in energy and we need to take action to ensure that our taxpayer dollars support renewable energy-- one that protects public health, promotes energy independence and the economic well being of all Americans.”

The American people are ready for significant change in energy policy; it’s time we all stepped up our efforts to harness and help direct that sentiment to build the energy future we need and deserve.

--Michael Mariotte, June 5, 2012

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