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Friday, April 22, 2011

Reflections on public opinion after TMI

Considering the number of articles being published world wide, the bailout on nuclear by Germany and Italy, the ongoing bad press TEPCO and the Japanese government are getting about Fukushima Daiichi and the fact that it's Earth Day 2011 I though we might take a little walk back in time to a period long enough after the last accident here in the United States that the immediate furor had settled; this was the partial core melt due to a stuck open relief valve and many, many human errors at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station, involving Unit No. 2. What I'm interested in is the public opinion at that time.

Below, an illustration of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station from a brochure printed by the owners of the plant (Metropolitan Edison, Jersey Central Power & Light, and Pennsylvania Electric Company - all subsidiary companies of General Public Utilities Corporation) before the plant was completed, and which is now in the APRA library.

There might be no better volume to reference to take a brief look at what public sentiment was like a sensible period after the TMI accident than "Public Opinion and Nuclear Energy" by Stanley Nealey / Barbara Melber / William Rankin and published in 1983 by Lexington Books. This book, by the way, is one of a series of studies performed by the Battelle Human Affairs Research Center.

The year 1983 is long enough after TMI that the immediate fear .. and fearmongering by the media .. had faded out so that people expressed opinions based on both their previous knowledge of nuclear energy and the things they'd taken the time to learn - rightly or wrongly - since that time. Few people can read of the events such as at TMI or Chernobyl or now Fukushima Daiichi and not want to know more about what happened, what could have been done and so forth; it's the quality of material they consult that determines how realistic their knowledge base becomes, and that's often (very highly) limited by the media.

The book we're referencing here is quite voluminous in the number of opinion polls taken over a time period years before TMI and up to roughly the printing date of the book. Instead of doing a full report on this report, let's take a look at the summary conclusions offered in the book with the following premise: It's generally printed in the media that TMI killed nuclear energy in the United States. This is of course wrong; as readers here already know, the orders for new nuclear plants in this country ended the year before TMI happened, and it was economics that stopped the flood of new plant orders. Yes, TMI caused major delays in plants under construction, and many under construction were abandoned, but the flood gate had already closed before the accident. Now, keeping that in mind we recall again the standard line that TMI killed nuclear energy in this country. That's odd when you compare it to the following quotes from Battelle-HARC's study:

"Through mid-1981, however, the percentage of the public who supported the continued building of nuclear power plants in the United States was 5 percent to 10 percent more than the percentage of the public who opposed such construction."

"Although public support for nuclear power has decreased as a result of the TMI accident, the public is not favorable to forgoing the nuclear option."

And perhaps most relevant to what's going on worldwide right now, especially in Germany and Italy, also from this study's summary conclusions: "While a slight majority favors cutting back on operations until certain safety questions are answered, a majority is against prohibiting the construction of any more plants, and a large majority is against shutting down all nuclear plants forever."

Clearly this is not overwhelming opposition to nuclear energy as we might have been led to believe. In fact, it's a continued support. But how is this possible given the still recent memory of the TMI accident? Here are some suppositions on my part which are also supported by data in this study.

1. No one got killed, or seriously hurt, or close, and neither did any animals. We don't need the BARC study to tell us this; this is actually a supportive point for nuclear energy, in that it's possible for a serious accident to occur with no direct casualties.

2. Much of the blame was not placed generally. On pages 86 and 87 of "Public Opinion and Nuclear Energy" we find that 55 percent of the public believed that human error was to blame for the accident (mostly the case, actually) and we find that the entities disliked for their handling of the accident were mostly the owning utility companies and the company who designed the plant (we must assume they mean the reactor vendor, Babcock & Wilcox.) We already know that Babcock & Wilcox's image was bruised inside and outside the industry. So what we see here with this point is that the public didn't go off half-cocked and start believing that all nuclear power plants were unsafe; the public instead knew who to blame, even if at that pre-internet time they had no technical detail to tell them how it happened or how to avoid it in the future.

3. People still felt the effects of the "energy crisis." The doom and gloom days of supposedly dwindling oil, and a lack of energy sources, were still in the minds of many (noting the Arag oil embargo six years before TMI) Few were willing to think about discarding a sizable source of energy in this country so easily.

We can now see very easily that even in the period soon after TMI happened, the public was not in the majority against nuclear energy in principle (even though the study did state that there was 'majority opposition' to having a nuclear plant built near one's home, which is not surprising, really.) People were informed enough about the energy situation that they knew nuclear had to play a role, although interestingly the study pointed out the general lack of knowledge about nuclear energy and a serious misconception about the potential of solar energy far beyond any realistic capability at the time. Reports of the nuclear energy industry's demise at that time in today's press are thus incorrect, both from the standpoint of actual nuclear power plant operation and from the standpoint of public opinion.

Perhaps the most important phrase in the entire Battelle-HARC study, not really relevant to TMI but relevant then and now generally is this one, speaking about persons "on the fence" or uncommitted one way or the other: "It does seem, however, that negative information, particularly involving emotional issues of safety and health (Three Mile Island, for example), is more likely to seize the attention of the uncommitted than is information supporting nuclear development." Truer words have never been written. The same could have been said for steam trains when they were new. And we knew this long ago here; this is why we have the tireless campaign mounted and continuing against fear-mongering and misrepresentation in the press at large.

Opinion now about nuclear energy is only just forming, nation-wide, in the USA. In some places, it's become very polarized, such as in Vermont; in other places, early attempts to stir the public into a frenzy (northern Ohio) by politicians have failed spectacularly and rightly. As the details about Fukushima Daiichi emerge over the weeks and months, the fate of the embryonic Nuclear Renaissance we have been seeing in this country hangs in the balance, and it is likely on the quality of the reporting of details and failures and comparisons to US plants that the renaissance's fate depends. Nuclear power plants are not places where trench-coated TV reporters can barge in with a camera running to look for dirty dishes, but the public will be waiting to see how the nuclear energy establishment responds to their concerns about plants both old and new, and ordered, and projected. Hopefully the establishment knows the things we now do after having looked at this fine Battelle-HARC report and is ready to oblige the public.

2:40 PM Eastern Friday 4/22


  1. In many ways, TMI represents a missed opportunity.
    The industry had a serious accident, with many wrong decisions, but withstood the test.
    That success was not adequately recognized, publicized or exploited.
    Given the environmental advantages nuclear offers, no heavy metals emissions and no massive fossil fuel mining or combustion, now combined with demonstrated safety, it should have swept the field. The leadership vision was not bold enough.
    Now there is a more serious challenge. Hopefully the industry will again rise to the occasion and resolve the problem. This time though, that eventual success should serve as a springboard for a broader nuclear power renaissance.

  2. Nuclear plants worldwide operate with insufficient private insurance coverage for serious accidents and require government (taxpayer) guarantees. The DOE estimates that the value of the Price Anderson Act subsidy to the nuclear industry at $3.05 billion per year.

    TMI resulted in the industry paying out some $77 million in pooled insurance payments (mostly for litigation, apparently) without invoking Federal coverage.

    Do we know who paid for the 11 year, $1 billion partial cleanup? Could the industry operate at all if it had to pay for it's own liability insurance for accidents with up to trillion dollar consequences?