Previously, support for nuclear energy - and for building more nuclear power plants - peaked after energy problems in California were widely reported in 2001. Support for building more nuclear power plants increased again after the August 2003 blackout, especially in those areas that were affected, the northeast and midwest. Between May and October 2003, acceptability of building new nuclear reactors at the nearest existing nuclear plant sites rose 18 percentage points in the northeast (40% to 58%) and 11 percentage points in the midwest (55% to 66%).
On other measures, 54% in April 2004 said that new nuclear plants definitely should be built to provide future electricity supply, 69% were in favor of keeping the option to build more nuclear power plants in the future, and 82% supported license renewal for nuclear power plants that continue to meet government safety standards.
The April survey also found that 74% agreed that government and electric companies should work together to develop state-of-the-art nuclear power plants that can be built to meet new electricity demand. This question was asked for the first time in April to assess support in principle for current provisions in US energy legislation that would promote public- private partnerships.
Perceptions of the safety of nuclear power plants continue to be much more favorable than in the 1980s and early 1990s. Sixty percent rated nuclear power plant safety high, and 19% rated safety low. A dramatic shift in perceptions of safety in the past decade (from 34% in 1984 to 60% today) corresponds with measurable improvements in plant performance and efficiency.
Also, perceptions of the nearest nuclear power plant were quite favorable: reliable (82%), safe (73%), and clean (70%). However, residual ambivalence is seen in the fact that 38% still feel uneasy with the nearest plant. Also, the public is divided about equally as to whether the nearest plant is good or bad for the environment.
One of the greatest challenges to the nuclear energy enterprise is to increase awareness of the environmental benefits of nuclear energy. Only 27% rated nuclear energy "one of the best" sources of electricity for air quality protection. However, of five considerations in the way electricity is produced - reliability, price, adequate supply, energy independence, and air quality protection - air quality protection was rated most important.
Advancing the Nuclear Option
In April 2004, three consortia of global energy partners were formed to test the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission's new process to obtain a combined construction and operating license for advanced nuclear power plants. The consortia include a total of 19 leading energy companies and reactor vendors from the US, Japan, France, and Canada. No commitment is being made to build a nuclear unit at this time.
The new streamlined licensing process was established in 1992 by the US Congress and includes putting public participation at the front end of the process where it is most meaningful. Successfully testing the process can reduce some business uncertainty for companies interested in building new nuclear plants.
The consortia plan to complete the licensing application and submit it the NRC in 2008.
Ann Stouffer Bisconti is President of Bisconti Research, Inc., a public opinion research group based in Washington, DC. Results of surveys are reported on the web site of the Nuclear Energy Institute at www.nei.org. Author E-mail: [email protected]