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U.S.: Poll Finds Support for Freeze on Nuke Plants

NEW YORK, Mar 24 2011 (IPS) - The United States government has been accused of failing to read growing public concern about the future of the country’s atomic energy programme, as the crisis at Japan’s stricken Fukushima nuclear plant continues to unfold.

Although President Barack Obama has ordered a review into the safety of U.S. plants in the wake of the Japanese disaster, he has continued to reaffirm his commitment to nuclear power as “an important part of our energy future”.

However, a new survey released this week by the nonpartisan Civil Society Institute (CSI) found a majority of U.S. citizens back moving away from nuclear power.

The poll of more than 800 people showed 53 percent of the respondents would support a freeze on new nuclear reactor construction, in favour of renewable technologies such as wind and solar.

There was also majority support for ending additional federal loan guarantees for new reactors, and eliminating the indemnification of the nuclear power industry from most post-disaster cleanup costs.

“The survey findings suggest that Americans would like to see the brakes applied to more nuclear power,” said Graham Hueber, from research company ORC International.

“This goes beyond the simple gut-level question of whether nuclear power is supported or opposed,” he added. “When Americans are asked about their views on specific policy questions that go to the future of nuclear power, there is majority support across the board on every question for moving away from greater reliance on this power source.”

In the 2012 budget, President Obama has requested an additional 36 billion dollars in loan guarantees for new reactors in the U.S., to add to the 104 already in operation across the country.

Against the backdrop of the unfolding disaster in Japan, where engineers continue to battle against nuclear meltdown, environmental advocates have questioned the U.S. government’s unwavering commitment to atomic energy.

“The fact is you’ve got these nuclear power companies that have very concentrated and effective lobbying campaigns,” Tyson Slocum, director of the Public Citizen’s Energy Programme, told IPS.

“A perfect example is the Democratic National Convention to be held in the summer of 2012 to re-nominate Barrack Obama as his party’s nominee for president. You have a nuclear power utility called Duke Energy that is fronting 10 million dollars for that (convention). You don’t see that with solar or wind companies.”

While nuclear companies in the U.S. have attempted to re- label atomic power as a clean solution to global warming, green groups say the recent public polls supporting alternative technologies should be the catalyst for a renewed debate about transitioning from nuclear energy.

“Clearly, Americans don’t want their tax dollars used to support the expansion of dangerous and unnecessary nuclear power when we have clean renewable energy that we can deploy now,” Jim Riccio, nuclear policy analyst for Greenpeace USA, told IPS.

“We know that investing in real solutions like energy efficiency and wind and solar power would reduce emissions faster, create millions of jobs, and wouldn’t put communities at risk of the inherent dangers of nuclear power. How long will President Obama and some in Congress maintain their deference to nuclear industry lobbyists in the face of this widespread opposition?” he asked.

Pam Solo, founder of CSI, said while Obama has long been a proponent of nuclear energy as a way to reduce coal-based greenhouse gases, public concern about the risks was mounting.

“There is increasing momentum for energy efficiency and off- the-shelf renewable technologies, which can, over time and with concerted leadership and planning, replace these dangerous and unsustainable energy choices,” she told IPS.

“However, the Obama administration has made reducing CO2 [carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas] its primary objective at the expense of leading toward an energy path that could protect communities, the environment and people’s health while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” Solo said.

“It is going to require a willingness to step outside the influence of the coal, oil and nuclear energy lobbies. Right now, the policy debate is really held hostage by special interests,” she added.

In Japan, the death toll from the recent earthquake and tsunami has risen past 9,000, with a further 13,500 people still missing. However, international media attention has largely been focused on the stricken nuclear plants

According to Slocum, in light of the events at Fukushima, the U.S. government’s continued commitment to nuclear power amounts to hedging on public safety.

“They’re just assuming that the risks are so small as to not be a major consideration,” he told IPS. “But we think the risks given the implications of a disaster are too great to ignore.

“The Japanese are arguably the best prepared to deal with earthquakes, yet they failed to adequately plan for the impact of a tsunami,” Slocum said. “This demonstrates the difficulty in planning for both the ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ that impact nuclear reactors from natural disaster and terrorism.”

Last year, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission launched 14 special inspections in response to “near misses” at U.S. nuclear plants, a figure the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) says is a cause for concern.

“While none of the safety problems in 2010 caused harm to plant employees or the public, their frequency – more than one per month – is high for a mature industry,” said David Lochbaum, the director of UCS’s Nuclear Safety Programme.

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