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Explaining the Gender Gap in Public Opinion on Nuclear Energy

Ann Bisconti
The following is a guest post by Ann S. Bisconti, PhD, President, Bisconti Research, Inc.

Davis Burroughs deserves credit for a sensible exploration of the gender differences in attitudes toward nuclear energy that his organization, Morning Consult, found in a national public opinion survey this spring. In that survey, 59 percent supported the use of nuclear energy and 29 percent opposed; 52 percent supported increasing the use of nuclear energy and 34 percent opposed.

The gender differences in the Morning Consult survey are striking:
  • Among men, 74 percent supported the use of nuclear energy and 20 percent opposed;
  • Among women, 45 percent supported the use of nuclear energy and 36 percent opposed.
It is tempting for commentators to dramatize this “gender divide” and convey a picture of strongly conflicting views, but Burroughs rejected drama for accuracy. He focused instead on the important fact that many people, especially women, took middle positions on the nuclear energy questions. In the Morning Consult survey:
  • 59 percent of men and 76 percent of women either took middle positions on the use of nuclear energy or had no opinion;
  • Among men, 32 percent strongly favored nuclear energy and 9 percent strongly opposed;
  • Among women, 10 percent strongly favored nuclear energy and 14 percent strongly opposed.
Our own surveys for Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) conducted over the past three decades consistently show a gender gap and also large numbers, especially of women, who simply have not made up their minds.

Our latest survey of US public opinion, in February-March 2015, found that only 15 percent of men and 6 percent of women feel very well informed about nuclear energy. Feeling informed is closely correlated with favorable attitudes toward nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy is not the only topic about which women feel less well informed than men. The Morning Consult poll also asked questions on the Patriot Act:
  • 25 percent of men and 46 percent of women said they had heard little or nothing on the topic;
  • 20 percent of men and 40 percent of women had no opinion on supporting or opposing the repeal of the Patriot Act.
Focus groups that we have conducted over three decades to understand attitudes on a wide range of nuclear energy topics almost invariably find that women, especially, admit to being poorly informed about nuclear energy. The focus groups have shown that women are reticent about expressing an opinion when they feel they don’t have enough information. Women typically end a focus group session, where information is presented, feeling favorable to nuclear energy and asking why the public is not given more information on the subject.

The challenge to the industry, including the many thousands of people who make up the industry, is to communicate information more broadly about nuclear energy’s benefits, such as the fact that with nuclear energy, uniquely, we can have both reliable electricity and clean air.

Davis Burroughs also noted that attitudes of men and women have become more favorable over time. The question asked for NEI since 1983 that shows this trend is worded slightly differently from the Morning Consult 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 for the United States?” The percent in favor rose:
  • Among men, from 63 percent in 1983 to 74 percent in 2015;
  • Among women, from 43 percent in 1983 to 63 percent in 2015.

Part of this shift over time can be attributed to a growing sense that nuclear energy is needed and important for the future and is probably reasonably safe, based on absence of negative news. Our polls show a sea change in the percentage of the public giving a high rating to the safety of nuclear power plants (same question asked since 1984):
  • Among men, from 40 percent in 1984 to 67 percent in 2015;
  • Among women, from 27 percent in 1984 to 61 percent in 2015.
Familiarity increases support, as evidenced by the very large majorities of both men and women nuclear power plant neighbors who express favor attitudes toward nuclear energy and the local plant. We conduct biennial plant neighbor opinion surveys with residents of the 10-mile radius around all the US nuclear power plant sites. The latest survey, in 2013, found that 85 percent of men and 78 percent of women favored nuclear energy. Because of the favorable attitudes of both men and women in plant communities, new reactors can be built, and are being built, at existing nuclear power plant sites, with public permission.


martin burkle said…
The obvious conclusion is that advertising mostly on TV and public radio is needed.

This advertising can not be expected from utilities because the utilities need to use a variety of generation sources. The information organization of the nuclear,NEI, should be responsible for nuclear TV advertising. A 10 year coordinated plan for nuclear advertising with a preference toward woman's programs would be reasonable.

I assume that cost is the problem. How much does the natural gas industry spend on TV advertising per year?
jimwg said…
Re: "I assume that cost is the problem. How much does the natural gas industry spend on TV advertising per year?"

"Puppy Rescue" advertises almost daily on cable TV in one of the $$$ media markets in the world -- New York City. And don't even think of the Wedding Suites and taxi companies that ad here occasionally, and some very good amateur productions on YouTube shows there are pro-grad producer-wannabes out there to take the nuke edu-Ad challenge, so I REALLY get so TIRED of the ANS or NEI or any nuclear-related outfit or medium claiming that nuclear-education Ads have a money problem. If anything it's a WILLPOWER problem.

James Greenidge
Queens NY
gmax137 said…
But the utilities DO advertise. I have heard the FPL ads on NPR touting how clean & green their "solar, combined with clean natural gas" electricity is. And I don't even live within Florida or any of their other service areas.

I think the reason they don't mention nuclear is, they are afraid of the negative perceptions; they do not want to link their brand with anything negative. No business does.

So in the end you're right, it is up to NEI to do the marketing. Did they ever do that? How about in the old Atomic Industrial Forum days?

Russ Finley said…
Here's a quote from Ann in the Morning Consult article that got a chuckle out of me:

“Women do not feel as informed about these issues as men do,” she said. Conversely, “men think they have more information, but they don’t.

Lol ...she may be right of course, or wrong in this case, but how does she know men don't know more about nuclear issues, or car issues for that matter? Statistically speaking, men and women tend to have different interests. Depending on the topic (cars for example), you might expect that difference to show up in polls.

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