For all its problems and setbacks over the years, nuclear power has long been broadly popular in the United States. But there are signs that may be changing.
This doesn't seem to be driven by radiation fears or safety concerns. The reactor meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011 barely moved the needled on US popular opinion (as it did in Germany, Japan, and other countries). Instead, writes Gallup's Rebecca Riffkin, the biggest change seems to be the plunge in gasoline prices over the past year. Note that nuclear's popularity also waned in the late 1990s, when gasoline was similarly cheap.
That seems odd at first glance. Gasoline and nuclear power aren't really substitutes. We use gasoline to fill up our cars, while nuclear power generates electricity for our homes.
But gasoline prices have long had an outsized effect on the American psyche. They are what most people see each and every day, so they often become a proxy for the overall energy situation. "As Americans have paid less at the pump," Riffkin writes, "their level of worry about the nation's energy situation has dropped to 15-year-low levels." And when there's less worry, people feel less of a need to rely on energy sources that they have qualms about — like nuclear.
What's more, the connection isn't entirely tenuous. One big reason gasoline prices are so low is due to the US fracking boom, which has produced a glut of oil from places like Texas and North Dakota. But that same fracking boom has also led to a glut of natural gas, which is used to generate electricity. Low natural gas prices have been making both existing nuclear reactors and new reactors in the United States less economical.
Why public opinion on nuclear matters
So does this public opposition matter much? It matters quite a bit for many of the existing reactors around the country, which are currently facing brutal competition from cheap natural gas and wind power. In places like Vermont where nuclear power faces fierce local opposition, regulators have moved to shut down existing plants rather than pay for needed upgrades. (That's typically bad news for climate change, since these reactors often get partly replaced by natural gas, which emits far more CO2.)
This is likely to become a bigger story in the coming years. In southern California, there's a large and brewing fight over whether to renew the license for Diablo Canyon, a reactor that provides about 7 percent of the state's electricity. Some conservationists are pushing to save this massive source of carbon-free power, while anti-nuke activists are pushing to shut down the state's last remaining reactor.
And, of course, if the United States is ever to build a new generation of nuclear reactors in order to help tackle global warming, then public opinion will prove even more important.
Right now, there simply aren't very many new nuclear plants being built in the United States. During the 1980s and '90s, prices for new reactors soared as a result of regulatory delays following the meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979. Utilities canceled hundreds of orders, and not a single new reactor began construction between 1978 and 2013.
Today, just five new reactors are under construction: two in Georgia, two in South Carolina, and one in Tennessee. These next-generation reactors are all being built at existing plant sites, which helps minimize public opposition. But these projects have also been plagued by delays and cost overruns: The two reactors at the Vogtle Plant in Georgia, for instance, are now estimated to cost $16 billion, some $3 billion over budget and three years behind schedule.
Getting those costs down will be absolutely crucial if nuclear is ever to play a bigger role in the future. Nuclear has a history of troubling cost escalation in the US. And public opinion research by Stephen Ansolabehere and David Konisky has found that the high cost of nuclear power is likely one reason people oppose it. (People also tend to think of it as more harmful to the environment than natural gas, despite the fact that it has way less of a climate impact.)
As I've written before, pushing nuclear costs down is at least theoretically possible. South Korea has managed to reduce the cost of building new reactors over time. And there's hope that a new generation of safer, smaller modular reactors could help the technology compete against cheaper sources like gas and wind. But that hasn't happened yet — and unless it does, nuclear power could continue to find itself on the ropes.