Core Opinions: Americans and Nuclear Power

by Darren K. Carlson, Government and Politics Editor

This past February, President Bush selected Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a permanent site for storing thousands of tons of America's nuclear power plant waste. Nevada's Republican governor, Kenny Guinn, opposes the decision, contending that it would be unsafe to transport the waste to Yucca Mountain and store it there. With concerns about the United States' dependence on foreign oil driving the exploration of alternative forms of power, nuclear energy is being re-examined; and the nation's leaders and public must weigh their energy concerns against environmental ones.

When asked about expanding the use of nuclear energy in this country, the public is lukewarm. A poll from March of this year* shows that 45% of Americans favor the idea of expanding nuclear energy, while 51% are opposed. These findings are almost identical to poll results collected in March 2001. One of the reasons for the finding that less than a majority support expanded use of nuclear energy may be the belief that alternative energy forms can be found elsewhere. In that same poll, a majority (76%) said they favored "spending more government money on developing solar and wind power."

Who are the biggest proponents for expanding the use of nuclear energy? Opinions on this issue appear to vary by gender, age, income and political affiliation. More than half of American men (56%) favor expanding the use of nuclear energy, while just 35% of women do. Willingness to favor the idea also varies with age; as the youngest age group interviewed (18- to 29-year-olds) is the least willing to favor it. Regional differences of opinion are also evident. Just a third of those living in the East (34%) and 42% of those living in the West favor expanding the use of nuclear energy, compared to 49% of southern residents and 53% of those in the Midwest. Political affiliation is another key variable, as 53% of Republicans favor expanding the use of nuclear power, while just 39% of Democrats do.

The public has expressed significant concern about contamination that nuclear facilities may cause. A poll from March 2001 shows that roughly half of the public (49%) worry a great deal about "contamination of soil and water by radioactivity from nuclear facilities." Twenty-two percent (22%) said they worry a fair amount, while 19% worry only a little and 10% do not worry about it at all. This level of anxiety has been relatively consistent since Gallup began asking about the issue in 1989.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,006 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted March 4-7, 2002. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3%.

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