America and the World Divided: Nuclear Attitudes

David Llanos
February 23, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2015


Fig. 1: US support for nuclear energy power plants. [2] (Courtesy of the OECD.)

Ever since the advent of nuclear technology and its profound impact on the outcome of World War II, America, and similarly the world in general, has been divided on whether to use nuclear technology, specifically as an energy source.

United States

Polling in the United States regarding nuclear energy began during the 1970's and throughout that time American's perception of nuclear energy and its benefits and risk has fluctuated. In the inaugural poll in 1974 done by Cambridge Reports, the question asked was "Do you favor or oppose the construction of more nuclear powerplants?" and about sixty percent of respondents answered in the affirmative. [1] Support continued in this fashion until the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident in 1979 and by 1983 much of the support for nuclear energy had eroded with only about thirty percent of respondents in favor of expanding nuclear technology and building more power plants. [1]

Throughout the 1990's and through 2007 public opinion in the United States continued to fluctuate but generally increase with a high of about 70% in early 2001. [2] This can be seen in Fig. 1, which displays a 62% acceptance rate of nuclear power plant construction in 2007. This all changed once again following the Fukushima incident in Japan in 2011. According to a CBS news poll run immediately after the incident in Japan only forty three percent of respondents favored building more nuclear power plants in the United States. [3] This public support was slightly lower than immediately after the TMI incident. Another poll conducted in 2012 by the Pew Research Center showed that only forty-four percent of American respondents supported expanding nuclear power and building new power plants while forty-nine percent were opposed. [4] Also discovered during that poll was that sixty-nine percent of American respondents favored increasing federal funding for research on other renewable energy resources such as solar power, hydrogen technology, and wind power. [4]

Another main consideration for many respondents in the United States has been the problem of nuclear waste. In a 2007 study done by MIT the study asked respondents if the nuclear waste problem was solved would they favor expanding the use of nuclear energy technology. [5] Fifty one percent of the respondents answered in the affirmative, compared to only thirty four percent who answered that they favored an increase in nuclear energy technology in the United States. In that same study another question posed was whether respondents agreed that nuclear energy waste can safely be stored for many years. [5] Of those who responded with an opinion, only thirty-six percent agreed with the question's statement. Due to this, coupled with concerns about environment impacts and cost of these nuclear waste storage facilities, support for expanding nuclear energy and building more nuclear power plants has been dampened. [5]

The Rest of the World

Fig. 2: Image of Susquehanna Steam Electric Station. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Attitudes toward nuclear power around the world have followed a similar trend as in the United States. In 2005, the International Atomic Energy Agency ran various public opinion surveys and polls. In 14 of the 18 countries polled a majority of respondents answered that they believed the risk of terrorist activities at nuclear energy facilities was high due to poor protection. [6] A majority of respondents in this poll favored the continued use of currently existing nuclear power plants, but many did not support the building of new power plants and approximately twenty five percent supported getting ride of all nuclear power plants. [6]

A poll in late 2006 showed that only fourteen percent favored building new nuclear power plants, thirty-four percent supported remaining at the same number and thirty-nine percent supported reducing the number of operational plants. [7] Interestingly enough, this poll showed that public approval of nuclear energy rose with the level of education of the respondents and was generally lower for women.

Following the Fukushima incident support for nuclear power generally plummeted across the world. In a 2011 poll run by the BBC, countries with a nuclear energy program were significantly more opposed following the incident in Japan. Of those polled only twenty-two percent agreed that "nuclear power is relatively safe and an important source of electricity, and we should build more nuclear power plants." [8] Seventy-one percent of respondents believed that their country could completely replace nuclear energy and coal usage within 20 years by becoming more energy efficient and focusing on renewable energy resources such as solar and wind power. [8] In the same poll, thirty-nine percent of respondents supported the continued use of existing reactors while not building any new ones, while thirty percent of those polled favored shutting down all power plants immediately. [8] Fig. 2 shows a common type of nuclear energy power plant.

© David Llanos. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Nuclear Power in an Age of Uncertainty," U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, OTA-E-216, February 1984, Ch. 8.

[2] "Public Attitudes to Nuclear Power," OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, NEA No. 6859, 2010.

[3] M. Cooper, "Nuclear Power Loses Support in New Poll," New York Times, 22 Mar 11.

[4] A. Kohut et al., "As Gas Prices Pinch, Support for Oil and Gas Production Grows," Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 19 Mar 12.

[5] P. Sharp et al., "The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle," Massachuestts Insitute of Technology, 2011.

[6] "Global Public Opinion on Nuclear Issues and the IAEA: Final Report from 18 Countries," GlobeScan Inc., October 2005, p. 6.

[7] "Europeans and Nuclear Safety," European Commission, February 2007.

[8] R. Black, "Nuclear Power 'Gets Little Public Support Worldwide'," BBC News, 24 Nov 11.