As we await the results of the ongoing NEI Spring 2016 Public Opinion Survey on Nuclear Energy, two other surveys have raised the question: Where is public opinion about nuclear energy headed? Scientific American Plugged In, March 23, pondered the dramatically different results from questions about nuclear energy asked in polls by Gallup and the University of Texas (UT) and essentially ended puzzled, concluding that polls are faulty. But wait a minute. Both polls are accurate, and we can learn lessons about public opinion by studying them.
Gallup’s Annual Environmental Poll includes one question about nuclear energy, an NEI tracking 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 United States.” Gallup found 44 percent in favor and 54 percent opposed in 2016, a big drop in favorability from 2015, and headlined that, for the first time, a majority of Americans oppose nuclear energy.
The UT Energy Poll asks: “Based on what you know, to what extent do you support or oppose the use of nuclear energy? (Strongly oppose, somewhat oppose, neither support nor oppose, somewhat support, or strongly support, not sure).” In contrast to Gallup, UT found that support increased from 2015 to 2016. Currently, the poll shows, 39 percent strongly or somewhat support nuclear energy, 26 percent strongly or somewhat oppose nuclear energy, and 35 percent neither support nor oppose.
Here are some lessons from these polls that are consistent with what we know from 33 years of comprehensive NEI research on public attitudes:
- Public opinion about nuclear energy is, for the most part, not strongly held. The UT poll shows many people in the middle, and so do NEI surveys.
- Public opinion is highly changeable and reflects a trade off people make—consciously or unconsciously—between perceptions of need and safety concerns, and the two polls illustrate how this happens. In the Gallup poll, the question about support for nuclear energy is asked after questions about hazards, triggering focus on safety concerns. In the context of questions about energy, as in the UT Energy Poll, a question about support for nuclear energy may trigger thoughts of how nuclear energy fits into the energy picture.
- Energy concerns drive up support for nuclear energy. Gallup’s explanation for the downturn on the favorability question is primarily that energy is not currently on the public agenda. That is true. When energy is perceived to be abundant, as it is today, the perceived urgency for nuclear energy diminishes. Historically, resurgent strong support for nuclear energy coincides with periods characterized not only by electricity shortages but also by situations not especially relevant to nuclear energy such as high gasoline prices or conflict in the Middle East.
Energy is likely to remain abundant for years, so continued support for nuclear energy will depend on a better public understanding of the urgent need not just for energy sources but for nuclear energy in particular. Our research shows that Americans want both reliable electricity and clean air. Most do not know that nuclear energy is the only source that provides both. Only nuclear energy is both a 24/7 baseload energy source like coal and natural gas and also a carbon-free energy source like solar and wind.
Challenges to building that awareness are considerable, NEI surveys showed:
- In an open-ended question, only 10 percent of those favoring nuclear energy mentioned clean air, no pollution, or climate change as one of the reasons for their opinion (Spring 2015).
- 67 percent of the public believed that nuclear energy releases greenhouse gases (Spring 2014)
- 70 percent did not know that nuclear energy is the largest source of low-carbon electricity today—when, in fact, it is the largest source by far (Fall 2015).