A couple of recent independent polls–from household names like Gallup and Harris–show clearly that nuclear power is at the bottom of the public’s preference for electricity generation; right down there with coal. At the top? Solar and wind power, of course.
The numbers are strong: the Harris poll, released March 20, 2014, finds that Americans believe solar (68%) and wind (57%) are the best energy sources for the environment. At the bottom was nuclear power, at 8%. Asked a different way, the public said coal was the worst source for the environment (53%) with nuclear coming in second-worst at 40%.
The Gallup poll, released April 2, 2014, though asking different questions, came up with similar preferences. By a margin of 67-32%, Americans support spending more money on developing solar and wind power. And by a margin of 51-47%, we oppose “expanding the use of nuclear energy.” Gallup said this latter number has remained relatively constant since 2001, save for a brief pro-nuclear bump in 2006 at the dawn of the now-failed nuclear “renaissance.”
Interestingly, the two polls showed somewhat disparate results on energy efficiency and conservation. Gallup found that the public prefers energy efficiency and conservation over any type of electricity production by a growing 57-34% margin–up from 48-41% in early 2011. This could well be a unheralded Fukushima effect. The Harris poll, however, asked people what measures they are actually taking to increase conservation, and found that there remains a large gap in what people are doing and what they are saying. For example, only half look for Energy Star ratings when buying new appliances, and far fewer than half undertake other common efficiency measures such as weatherstripping doors and windows. Only 10% have had a home energy audit.
These two national polls, as Gallup reminds us, are similar to dozens of other polls taken over the past decade and even longer. Renewables are constantly at the top of Americans’ energy agenda, the dirty triumvirate of nuclear, coal and oil are constantly at the bottom. A couple years ago, I examined a bunch of energy polls in detail (most showing similar results) and published the results on DailyKos; you can read that assessment here.
So how, then, does every poll commissioned by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) arrive at diametrically opposite conclusions?
Also on April 2, the NEI announced results of its own Spring poll, with a press release headlined Americans Want Diversified Electricity Mix, Survey Reveals Strong Support Continues for Nuclear Power’s Role in US Energy Portfolio. The lead in that poll, that 94% of Americans believe it is “important to maintain a diversity of energy sources to supply our nation’s electricity” isn’t particularly surprising. Indeed, it would be astonishing if Americans wanted to rely solely on one source of electricity. But a combination of solar, wind, energy efficiency, smart grids, some geothermal, etc would make for a very diverse electricity supply, so the question really tells us nothing about support for nuclear power. What it does tell us about are current nuclear industry talking points, which stress “diversity” as a major part of the industry’s rationale for seeking to rig electricity markets to avoid shutdown of uneconomic aging reactors in the face of competition from renewables and natural gas.
NEI’s pollster goes on to tell us that 74% “feel nuclear energy will be important in meeting U.S. electricity needs in the years ahead.” Again, so what? Nuclear power supplies some 19% of our electricity now, if answering honestly even I would have to answer it will be important in meeting our needs in the years ahead. But not for many years ahead. Of course, NEI doesn’t have a question about how quickly Americans believe nuclear will, or should, phase out.
Finally, NEI says, “A sizable majority of Americans—63 percent—favor the use of nuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity in the United States; 34 percent oppose.” To its credit, NEI does admit this is a six percent drop in support for nuclear just since last September. But note the phrase “one of the ways,” putting nuclear as just one of many generation sources. This is the type of adding qualifiers to questioning that can skew results.
A similar NEI qualifier is found in this question, which is part of the full poll (linked from their press release): “When their original operating license expires, we should renew the license of nuclear power plants that continue to meet federal safety standards.” Put that way–with an emphasis on “federal safety standards” that most people likely would assume mean current standards and not the standards that existed when the reactors were licensed in the first place decades ago, as is mostly the case–it’s might not be too surprising that NEI finds 82 percent strongly or somewhat in favor.
Another example: “Electric utilities should prepare now so that new nuclear power plants could be built if needed in the next decade.” Again note the qualifier “if needed.” This question doesn’t delve into the public’s preference, rather it subtly suggests that nuclear may be needed to avoid power shortfalls. Again, not surprising NEI finds 72% strongly or somewhat agree.
Here is where, however, NEI’s results seem to conflict with every independent poll: “We should definitely build more nuclear power plants in the future.” NEI reports 57% of the public agrees. But examining the numbers further, only 28% strongly agree while 25% strongly disagree. The rest are in the middle. Given the margin of error, that’s a tie.
When looking at public opinion polls, it’s important to look at the actual questions asked and how their wording is meant to affect results–as is the sequencing of questions, something NEI is accomplished at. For example, it frequently asks a series of agree/disagree questions touting the alleged benefits of nuclear power, then asks for an opinion on the technology as a whole after the pollee has just heard this litany of “benefits.” It’s also important to look at whether a poll is independent or commissioned by an industry. And, in the NEI’s case, it’s worth noting that it has used the same pollster (Bisconti Research) for many years. In that time, Bisconti has become quite expert in phrasing questions to achieve the desired results.
Finally, it’s important to look at the full range of polls that come out. When most agree, but there is one outlier (we’re looking at you, NEI), it’s most likely that the outlier is wrong. That is one of the lessons Nate Silver and 538.com taught the world during the last presidential election campaign. That’s precisely why he amalgamated and developed a formula to weigh all the many poll results coming in, and came up with a much more accurate picture of the electorate than any individual poll.
Looking for an even sunnier poll? Navigant Research, in a poll released April 3, found that support for solar power has reached its highest level in five years, with 79% viewing solar favorably. Even more importantly, a different Harris poll found that 56% of homeowners are planning to spend more money on home improvement projects this year–and installing new solar systems is one of the ways they plan to spend that money.
April 7, 2014
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