Thursday, February 17, 2011

Public Opinion on Nuclear Energy:

Are People Finally Getting It...or Not?

I recently discovered several items I had squirreled away a couple of months ago for possible use in a future blog, along with notes on what I wanted to say. They related to the same subject--public opinion on nuclear energy. The only trouble is, the items led me to very different conclusions about whether the general public, and even the technically savvy general public, is "getting it."

On the one hand, I ran into was a couple of articles in the press that seemed to suggest that some people, at least, are finally starting to understand the issues that the nuclear industry has been struggling with in recent years. Two articles, in particular, struck me:

The first was a column by Christopher Booker published in The Telegraph on a new wind farm off the Kent coast. Billed as "the world's largest wind farm," the site opened to claims that the wind turbines had "the capacity" to produce 300 MW of electricity. "Not so," said Booker, citing the British government's own numbers that the load factor for Britain's offshore windmills was only about 1/4 of their capacity last year. Accounting for that, plus the substantial subsidies the wind farm will receive over its lifetime, Booker paints a far different picture.

The second piece I saw was an editorial entitled "Energy Roulette" in my own "local" newspaper, The Washington Post. The editorial explicitly calls for a technology-neutral carbon reduction standard, saying that, if "the government interest is in reducing climate change...why should government aid only wind and solar?" Why not nuclear power? And why not include natural gas "in some way"? The editorial takes on the usual counter claim--that nuclear power requires fuel and produces waste, so isn't truly renewable--saying "that's just the sort of thinking that leads to ever more distorted energy markets" and cites the complex and sometimes unwanted effects of the multiple government interventions. "Lawmakers should put their carbon-cutting policies in terms of carbon reduction and stop trying to decide who wins and who loses."

With more of this kind of enlightened assessment, I thought, maybe there is hope for the future!

Then I read an issue of Scientific American with a report on a survey of its readers on how they view a number of scientific issues. My first reaction on reading about this survey was that it just had to show positive results for nuclear power--after all, this was an audience of people who understood technology.

I was therefore surprised to find that the results were much more mixed than I had anticipated. A surprising 47% thought that nuclear power should be phased out, and only about 1/4 of Americans (and far fewer Europeans) were "totally comfortable" with nuclear power.

Now, I don't think we should make the mistake of assuming all readers of Scientific American are scientists. I remember subscribing to this publication when I was a kid. Still, the readership is one that has a strong interest in science, and hopefully, a reasonable level of scientific literacy.

Therefore, while I don't think too much importance should be attached to any one survey, these results make me wonder if attempts to educate the public on nuclear power need to start with the so-called scientifically literate population.

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