Nuclear power gains public support
The Associated Press surveyed more than a thousand Americans to gauge public opinion about the nuclear power industry. Half of those questioned favored using nuclear plants to generate electricity and only 30 percent opposed nuclear power.
Two years ago, the AP poll showed 45 percent of Americans favored nuclear power. The increase in public support is relatively small, but it almost certainly reflects growing concern about energy shortages and the impact on the environment of coal-fired electric generating plants.
Interestingly, the recent AP poll indicated that Americans are gaining confidence in the safety of nuclear power. Almost two-thirds of the poll respondents said nuclear power plants are safer today than they were 10 years ago.
These results should provide encouragement to Vice President Dick Cheney and the other members of a panel President Bush appointed to develop a national energy policy.
Last month Cheney made it plain that he believes nuclear power should be included on the list of solutions for the nation's growing energy crisis.
"If you're really serious about greenhouse gases, one of the solutions to that problem is to go back and ... take another look at nuclear power, use that to generate electricity without having any adverse consequences," Cheney told MSNBC.
Environmentalists object to coal-fired power plants because they emit greenhouse gases that some scientists have linked to global climate changes.
Years ago many environmentalists supported nuclear power as an emission-free alternative to coal-fired power plants. But the Hollywood-fueled hysteria that followed the accident at Three Mile Island — the only major accident in the history of the U.S. commercial nuclear power industry — turned fear of nuclear energy into a staple of the environmental movement.
Fortunately, it appears that fear has gradually receded. Judging by the AP poll and other surveys, most Americans now see nuclear power simply as another energy source — one that carries some risks but that offers benefits far greater than the risks.
This maturing public view of nuclear power should give momentum to the recommendations of Bush's energy panel, which is expected to urge that the nation build more nuclear plants.
Highly efficient nuclear plants already supply 20 percent of the nation's power. However, no permits to build nuclear plants have been granted in more than 25 years.
During this quarter-century the industry has greatly improved its efficiency and safety. Production costs have declined since 1990, making nuclear an increasingly appealing alternative to high-priced natural gas.
Nuclear power plants are now a familiar sight in many areas of the world. In 1997 there were 430 nuclear plants in 31 countries.
The French and the Japanese depend on nuclear as their main power source. Reporters for the PBS "Frontline" show found widespread and even enthusiastic support for nuclear power in France.
There is no logical reason for the United States to continue burning huge amounts of pollution-emitting coal and costly natural gas when nuclear plants can help meet the rising demand for power without fouling the atmosphere.
The biggest obstacle to expanding nuclear power is the problem of how to dispose of high-level nuclear waste. This is indicated in the AP poll by the large percentage of Americans who don't believe nuclear waste can be safely stored.
For the most part, however, this is a political problem, not a technical problem. The federal government has chosen a repository for high-level waste in a remote area of Nevada, but public opposition in that state has prevented the site from being used.
The French and the Japanese reprocess spent nuclear fuel. A hope is that the Bush administration will explore reprocessing, which was abandoned in the United States as a result of an executive order issued during the Carter administration.
Nuclear power may have been the first victim of political correctness in this country. But reality has a way of undermining false ideologies, and the reality of power outages in California and high energy bills across the nation is bringing Americans around to the realization that nuclear energy doesn't have to be destructive.