THURSDAY, March 31 (HealthDay News) -- Almost three weeks after
a massive earthquake and tsunami crippled four nuclear reactors in
Japan, American public opinion on the risks and benefits of nuclear
power hasn't shifted much compared to three years earlier, a new
Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll finds.
The U.S. public is almost equally divided on whether or not more
nuclear power plants should be built on American soil, with 41
percent supporting the idea and 39 percent opposed. This represents
only a slight change from three years ago, when 49 percent
supported nuclear plants and 32 percent opposed them.
"The problems with Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have clearly influenced American attitudes to nuclear energy, but not by as much as I expected," said Humphrey Taylor, chairman of the Harris Poll, a service of Harris Interactive. "Support for building more nuclear power plants in the United States is down," he noted , but "that still leaves the public split, 41 percent to 39 percent, with 20 percent not sure. Most people recognize the potential dangers of nuclear accidents but continue to think that nuclear power plants are at least 'somewhat safe.'"
This isn't the first time a nuclear accident has influenced
public opinion. According to previous Harris Interactive polls, in
the mid-1970s, almost two-thirds of Americans were in favor of
nuclear power. Following the 1979 Three Mile Island accident,
however, only 47 percent were pro with 45 percent against.
In this new online survey of about 2,100 U.S. adults, conducted
March 23 to 25, 73 percent of respondents believed that nuclear
waste disposal remains a "major problem," while 55 percent thought
that the possible escape of radioactivity into the atmosphere is
Again, these numbers were only slightly above those of a similar
Harris poll from three years ago, when the ratio was 72 percent and
51 percent, respectively.
Almost a third of all adults (29 percent) still consider nuclear
power plants "very safe," with another 34 percent saying they are
"somewhat safe." In 2008, those numbers were very similar, at 34
percent and 33 percent, respectively.
Still, in the new poll almost half of all adults (46 percent)
agreed that, "The risk of accidents and radiation exposure from
nuclear power plants is too high to be acceptable."
But most people seemed able to see both sides of the debate.
More than half (55 percent) agreed that "We need to build
nuclear power plants because they do not produce greenhouse gases
that contribute to global warming and climate change unlike those
that use oil, gas or coal," while 59 percent agreed that, "It is OK
to build nuclear power plants if we build them far enough away from
earthquake fault lines and areas with large populations."
But when presented with the other side of the argument,
majorities agreed that accidents similar to the one in Japan could
also happen in the United States (74 percent), and that people
living near nuclear power plants are more likely to develop cancer
than people who live farther away (54 percent).
However, the relative equanimity of the American public may not
be so surprising after all, especially given the thousands of miles
that separate Japan and the United States, several experts
"There's this idea that a disaster unhinges people left and right," said George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City.
But when the disaster is remote, "people tend not to be affected
by the disaster unless they lost somebody in the disaster or have a
preexisting psychopathology. So there's no real lasting
psychological impact," he said.
"We are remote observers," added Bonanno, who is the author of
The Other Side of Sadness. "We go around our daily lives and tend not to think about those things very often."
Ellin Bloch, a professor at the California School of
Professional Psychology in Alhambra, agreed. "Psychologically, we
pay attention to what's right in front of us, so if you're not in
direct proximity to an event, then it seems further removed. You're
not going to see it as immediately impacting you," she said.
Other factors that could be playing into a relatively muted fear
response might include the fact that the health risks from
radiation are not immediate, and that the American public is now
overwhelmed with other world events, such as the situation in Libya
and in Egypt.
"There's so much going on in the news right now that [the Japan nuclear disaster], for better or worse, may have taken a back seat," Bloch noted.
Nevertheless, spurred by the catastrophe in Japan, the U.S.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission has initiated a review of nuclear
power plant safety in the United States. And other nations are
reviewing their use of nuclear power as well. Germany, in fact, has
announced that it intends to wean itself off nuclear energy
altogether over the coming decades.
The U.S. Department of Energy has more on
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