Survey says…not what the nuclear industry would like.

Americans' thoughts on energy issues are not what the nuclear industry wants to hear. Gallup poll, April 2, 2014

Americans’ thoughts on energy issues are not what the nuclear industry wants to hear. Gallup poll, April 2, 2014

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.”

Americans prefer energy efficiency/conservation to new power plants of any kind.

Americans prefer energy efficiency/conservation to new power plants of any kind.

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 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.

Michael Mariotte

April 7, 2014


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7 thoughts on “Survey says…not what the nuclear industry would like.

  1. Don Richardson

    The uninformed public makes for phony polls. Why bother? Ask uncontrolled experts what they think. Don Richardson The country that most threatens US security is…….the US.

    1. Michael Mariotte Post author

      I disagree. Polls may not reflect what you want them to say, but calling them phony doesn’t change reality. There are bad polls out there–deliberately slanted to promote a view, as I tried to show the NEI polls usually are–but most independent national polls have at least some degree of reliability. And, the more polls one examines and the deeper one delves into the specifics of them–how the questions are worded, how they are asked, in what order, etc., the more one can get a truer picture of what people think. This is the lesson taught so brilliantly last election cycle. And we have to deal with the reality of what people think, whether they are informed or uninformed, if we are to be successful in getting our message across.

  2. William Goldman

    Why is it necessary to have a “nuclear-free” future? First, it’s not a realistic goal, as China will tell you. Second, what you call a diverse energy portfolio is just a bunch of renewables and conservation, more pie-in-the-sky thinking. The people in your circles may think that’s a brilliant energy “strategy,” but in the real world it’s a farce.

    Yes, the Gallup poll shows (two weeks after the Fukushima anniversary) a slight minority favor expanding nuclear energy. Given the overwhelming anti-nuke media sentiment, it’s actually a remarkable number. Bill Clinton became president with a lower percentage, afterall.

    How about asking this question: “Would you favor utilizing only wind and solar energy resources, even if it meant sometimes you didn’t have electricity in your home?” Wonder what the approval numbers would be? That’s an honest question, even if you don’t want to face up to it.

    1. Michael Mariotte Post author

      A nuclear-free, carbon-free future is not only a realistic goal–more than a dozen serious studies since 2007 have demonstrated that conclusively (you can find some of them here:–it is a necessary goal for the survival of the planet. Perhaps it is unfair, but it seems to me that pro-nukers as a group (and I’m sure there are individual exceptions) have remarkably little understanding of renewable energy technology. The only things solar, wind, and geothermal have in common are that their “fuel” is clean and free. Otherwise, the technologies have no similarity whatsoever. Solar and wind have the benefit of unlimited “fuel,” geothermal is limited by geology. Other renewable technologies (sustainable biomass, small-scale hydro, etc.) are also quite different. Add in energy efficiency and 21st century energy technologies like smart grids, distributed generation and battery storage and yes, you indeed have the makings of a very diverse, robust energy system. Certainly more diverse than the existing dominant coal, gas and nuclear fuels, which are similar to the extent that all are extractive technologies–meaning their fuel is extracted from the Earth–and all are polluting technologies. Distributed generation means smaller-scale power located closer to the point of usage and by its nature requires fewer power plants since there is less need for back-up power–when a 1,000 MW nuclear reactor goes down, 1,000 MW of other power must be brought online. When the wind stops blowing for a while at a 100 MW wind farm, it’s not that big of a deal–a modern grid can bring in power from a different site where the wind is blowing, or the sun is shining, or just use conservation measures if even necessary. Distributed generation can include everything from onshore wind farms to rooftop solar–which as we’ve written here many times is, coupled with battery storage, the real game-changer. Finally, your last question is absurd. What would the approval numbers be if you asked people if they would support using only nuclear power, even if it meant you would be without electricity for several weeks every 18 months when reactors shut down to refuel? Ask a silly question, you’ll get an appropriate answer.

      1. William Goldman

        The difference is no one is saying we should only use nuclear power, rather that it should be part of a diverse mix that includes renewables, nat gas and conservation. However, you believe you can cobble together a bunch of intermittent resources and call it good. It’s silly.

        Also, a study is one thing. The real world is another. You seem to lack real-world electricity generation knowledge, which is why you rely on “studies” to claim something is actually achievable.

        The statement about the 100MW wind farm proves it. The wind blows over wide areas, even regions. Check wind power generation trackers and it is surprising how the peaks and the valleys are so uniform.

        Maybe in 50 years we will live in the world you picture, but until then I like the electricity to come on when I flip the switch. Thanks, nuclear!

      2. Michael Mariotte Post author

        The only silly thing here is pro-nukers’ dismissal of renewable energy technologies they don’t understand. Europe is already proving that renewable power works, with countries like Denmark and Spain frequently getting 50%+ of their power from renewables and even heavily-industrialized Germany reaching that level at times. And the trend is in the positive direction, with a greater and greater percentage of renewables.

        No one is calling for reliance on only solar power, or wind power, or any single renewable. Lumping them all together as one shows a misunderstanding of the technologies and the grid of the future. Gas obviously is a major factor in electricity generation right now (for that matter, so are nuclear and coal–though they are shrinking while gas and renewables are growing). The point is not that we can switch today to a fully nuclear-free, carbon-free energy system; we can’t. The point is that such a system is indeed feasible, actual industrialized countries are moving toward it, and the U.S. (and the rest of the world) should be (and many, including the U.S., actually are–which is what is behind the panic in the nuclear industry that more reactors will shutdown this year, next year, and every year). But policies can be adopted to accelerate this transition and this blog is dedicated to examining, discussing and promoting those policies and that transition. If we can have an energy system without carbon and radioactive pollution, why wouldn’t we choose that? We can and we will.

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