US opinion divided on risks of nuclear energy

22 March 2012

The Fukushima accident in Japan has led to more Americans now believing that the risks of using nuclear energy outweigh the benefits, according to a new public opinion poll. The poll also found high support for natural gas, despite recent negative publicity about its extraction using hydraulic fracturing.

An online poll of 2056 adults surveyed between 6 and 13 February by Harris Interactive shows that 41% of US adults believe that the risks of nuclear outweigh its benefits, while 40% think the benefits outweigh the risks. A similar poll conducted in 2011, before the Fukushima accident occurred, indicated that 37% thought that the risks outweighed the benefits, while 42% believed the opposite. In an earlier poll, conducted in 2009, 34% thought the risks outweighed the benefits, while 44% thought they did not.

"At the end of the day, what matters most to Americans is how much they are paying to heat their homes and fuel their lifestyles."

Sarah Simmons, Harris Interactive

Harris noted that the poll results point to "some very distinct geographic differences among Americans." The southern states, it says, has the highest percentage of people believing the benefits outweigh the risks (at 43%), compared with 33% in the East and 41% in the Midwest and West. The South, Harris says, has twice as many nuclear power plants than the East, so the regional differences may be "a reflection of familiarity."

The poll also indicated that people aged 48 years or older are more likely to say that the benefits of nuclear outweigh the risks than younger people are.

Sarah Simmons, senior research executive at Harris Interactive, suggests: "Fukushima has been a reminder to Americans about the impact nuclear energy can have on communities." She adds, "As the lasting economic and environmental impact is revealed, American voters and policy makers are likely to have shifting opinions. As America's demand for inexpensive energy continues to grow, the nuclear industry, policy makers and regulators must focus on safety and transparency if they expect to gain the trust of Americans."

The results of the Harris poll are in marked contrast to those of a survey by Bisconti Research in February that showed that support for nuclear energy in the USA had increased slightly during the previous few months, but still remained lower than pre-Fukushima levels. That poll found that 64% of respondents favoured the use of nuclear energy as one of the ways to generate electricity in the USA. While about one-third of those questioned said they opposed nuclear energy, 81% believed that nuclear energy will be important in meeting the USA's future electricity needs.

In addition to opinions on nuclear energy, the Harris survey also look at other energy sources. The poll found that natural gas is considered a relatively cheap and clean source of energy, with 66% of Americans believing that the benefits outweighed the risks. This, Harris notes, is despite "intense media scrutiny on hydraulic fracturing, the manner in which most oil and natural gas companies access natural gas."

Some 42% of Americans thought that the benefits of using coal outweighed the risks, while 40% said the risks outweighed the benefits. This is a significant change from the results of the 2011 poll, when 38% thought the benefits outweighed the risks and 43% believed the risks outweighed the benefits. Some clear regional and generational differences were found in people's opinion of coal, Harris said.

"At the end of the day, what matters most to Americans is how much they are paying to heat their homes and fuel their lifestyles," said Simmons. "This may explain why natural gas has maintained a positive position relative to its risks. Natural gas is inexpensive, clean and accessible. Americans' view of coal suffers, especially when we look at generational breaks due to environmental factors."

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News