The U.S. nuclear energy industry is entering a pivotal moment. Five new nuclear power plants – the first authorized in over 30 years – are on pace to come online within a few years. Industry-friendly Republicans will control Congress in January. And the final version of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan could make or break the industry.
Organizations like the International Energy Agency are calling this period the “nuclear renaissance.”
And though several green groups continue to call for a full shutdown of nuclear plants — which provide more than 19 percent of U.S. electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration — other environmentalists see the emissions-free power source as indispensable in order to achieve climate goals.
Despite this resurgence, recent polling figures suggest the political climate is cautiously supportive of expanding nuclear power.
On using nuclear as a source of electric power in general, a majority of Americans – 59 percent – “strongly support” or “somewhat support” its usage. That’s nearly double than the percentage of voters who say the opposite. But when it comes to increasing nuclear power, the American conscience isn’t nearly as defined: a small plurality, 47 percent, of voters support the increased use of nuclear, with 42 percent opposed.
The perceived risks of nuclear energy make the industry particularly sensitive to public opinion. After an incident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1978, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission didn’t license a new facility until 2012.
Support is also lacking among key demographics. Fifty-six percent of women oppose increasing nuclear power, compared to just 30 percent who support it. Further, neither a majority of Democrats nor Independents want nuclear to be a greater part of the energy mix.
Still, it’s clear that there are more voters who support new and existing nuclear plants than those who oppose them.
But it will take more than the five facilities currently under construction to boost nuclear beyond present generating levels – current projects will only just makeup for recent plant closures, according to EIA data. That means growth in nuclear power will need a nod from the federal government.
A decision on how to handle nuclear waste, for example, could be critical to the industry’s future. The federal government does not have a plan on what to do with nuclear waste. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s switch to minority leader in the next Congress means the proposed Yucca Mountain waste storage facility in Nevada will likely get an opportunity to be considered by the full Senate.
With public opinion on its side and the government stacked with industry supporters, this could be the best opportunity in decades for nuclear advocates to implement a more favorable regulatory landscape.
The Morning Consult poll was conducted from Dec. 6-9, 2014. Results from the survey have a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.