U.S. Public Opinion of Nuclear Energy in the Wake of Three Mile Island

Thomas Blackwood
February 24, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: The Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Middletown, Pennsylvania. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Since its introduction into the public sphere, nuclear technology has maintained a mythic quality. Indeed, the destructive power demonstrated in the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima became the primary prototype of nuclear death immersion, the perceived threat of extinction via nuclear technology. [1] With the dramatic birth of the nuclear age came a public uncertainty and fear. Despite nuclear energy's remarkably low "deathprint" (90 deaths per trillion kWhr globally, including those related to Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi; 0.01 deaths per trillion kWhr in the United States), it has continued to be associated with popular culture and science fiction doomsday scenarios, byproducts of the death immersion. [2]

Novels and films such as "Alas Babylon," "Planet of the Apes," and "The China Syndrome" have perpetuated the perception of nuclear technology as something incomprehensible, something futuristic and disassociated with daily life. [1] The association of nuclear technology with science fiction and popular culture is often most evident in the aftermath of power plant disasters, as people try to draw analogies between their feelings and relevant pop culture. Three historically prevalent disasters are Three Mile Island (TMI), Chernobyl, and Fukushima Daiichi. This text will focus primarily on what shift, if any, occurred in public opinion in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island emergency - the most serious nuclear power plant crisis on U.S. soil - and contemporary perceptions of nuclear energy production.

Three Mile Island

As the preface to President Carter's "Commission On The Accident At Three Mile Island" reads: "On March 28, 1979, the United States experienced the worst accident in the history of commercial nuclear power generation". [3] The accident was the result of a string of mechanical malfunctions and human errors in response, and in the days following the gravity of the accident was unclear to all parties, particularly the general public. [3] The uncertainty and confusion experienced by the American public was further fueled by mass media, the national media being consider "more 'sensational' than local or expert sources." [1]

Rapidly, Three Mile Island (shown prior to the accident in Fig. 1) became a symbol associated with nuclear technology and disaster, second only to Hiroshima, an icon of a worldwide nuclear community. The aftermath of the emergency was framed in myriad lights. Proponents of the technology and the nuclear power industry "viewed the destruction of the reactor core as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to glean actual data and experience on reactor accidents". [4] Others used TMI as a rallying cry to highlight the potential danger associated with nuclear reactors. Less dramatically, the optimistic view people held of nuclear technology (apparent in concepts such as the Ford Nucleon) in the 1950's and 1960's had been shaken. [5] More cynically, the accident at TMI worsened the public perception of nuclear power's safety. [6]

Regardless of the spin, the disaster had a number of lasting impacts on public opinion. Interestingly, the rapid dissemination of information via mass media following TMI ushered in a new vocabulary into the American mainstream. Terms such as "reactor," "cooling towers," and "hydrogen bubble" took on new meaning following 1979. [1] An interesting parallel to this shift in public awareness and opinion was the shift to more conservative insurance policies for nuclear reactors. Three Mile Island lent support to the credibility of insurers' claims previously considered too pessimistic when dealing with nuclear reactors. Indeed, this pessimism led to the consideration that truly catastrophic nuclear accidents would have social costs exceeding the cost of plant damage, reflecting growing public safety concerns. [6]

Public Opinion - Past and Present

The accident at Three Mile Island, as noted, became a rallying cry in both pro- and anti-nuclear camps. However, studies conducted in as little a six months after the accident indicate that a significant portion of the American public remained unchanged in its perception of nuclear energy as a perfectly appropriate technology for electrical power generation. [1] Historic polls conducted to determine public attitude toward nuclear power show an initial drop in approval in post-TMI years, falling from 60 to 45 percent. [7] However, regularly conducted surveys indicate that this approval rate has remained steady in the subsequent decades. Indeed, the sharp initial decline in public approval of nuclear power can possibly be attributed to a strong pro-nuclear media bias in the decades prior to the accident. [7] A recent poll conducted in September 2016 by the Nuclear Energy Institute indicates that 65% of those Americans polled were in favor of nuclear energy. The study indicates a long-term trend upward across 33-years of regular polling. [8]

However, these results indicate a consistent approval rate when considering nuclear energy in the abstract, a viable option as an energy source. But similar polls demonstrate that, when asked about the construction of new nuclear plants (including potential sites near those polled), people demonstrate a much stronger opposition. [9] As such, public approval appears to differ between accepting nuclear energy's legitimacy and shunning continued (local) construction of nuclear plants, indicating a "not in my backyard" mentality.

Clearly, understanding the motivating factors behind shifts in public opinion toward nuclear energy is a daunting, if not impossible task. In the aftermath of Three Mile Island, public interest sharply increased, partially because of national media coverage, and an secondary symbol of the atomic age was born. Three Mile Island became the prototype for both arguments outlining nuclear risk scenarios and those outlining the efficacy of nuclear reactor safety measures. More than anything, TMI became a benchmark for nuclear risk and potential. While public approval of nuclear energy production in general did not fall after the accident, it did increase the public's wariness of the technology, seen in the aversion to local construction of nuclear power plants and an increase in the "not in my backyard" sentiment.

© Thomas Blackwood. 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] L. M. Malmsheimer, "Three Mile Island: Fact, Frame, and Fiction." Am. Quart. 38, 1, 35 (Spring 1986).

[2] J. Conca, "How Deadly Is Your Kilowatt? We Rank The Killer Energy Sources," Forbes, 10 Jun 12.

[3] J. G. Kemeny et al., "Report of the President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island," U.S. Government Printing Office, October 1979.

[4] "In the Wake of Three Mile Island." Science News 115, No. 18, 292 (May 1979).

[5] L. J. Carter, "Political Fallout from Three Mile Island," Science 204, 154 (1979).

[6] W. C. Wood, "Nuclear Liability after Three Mile Island." J. Risk Insur. 48, 450 (1981).

[7] T. Bolsen and F. L. Cook, "The Polls-Trends: Public Opinion on Energy Policy: 1974-2006," Public Opin. Quart. 72, 364 (2008).

[8] "Majorities of Clinton, Trump Supporters Favor Nuclear Energy, New Survey Finds," Bisconti Research, October 2016.

[9] E. A. Rosa and R. E. Dunlap, "Poll Trends: Nuclear Power: Three Decades of Public Opinion," Public Opin. Quart. 58, 295 (1994).