American attitudes on nuclear power have shifted following the Russian invasion


It’s a safe bet that the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl wasn’t on Americans’ radar screens until the bullets started flying and Russian forces captured the plant on February 24. A training facility was damaged in the attack, and Russia now controls the site and the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine as well.

Pollsters in the US have not focused regularly on US opinions of nuclear power, but we now have new questions that might provide some insight into current opinions.

In its March 5–8 and March 12–15 online poll, Economist/YouGov asked Americans about the safety of nuclear power plants and about their concerns about the likelihood that a nuclear power accident would occur in Ukraine because of the Russian invasion.

The results were similar. In the latest poll, 34 percent said nuclear power plants in general are safe, while 42 percent said they are not. Nearly a quarter, 24 percent, were not sure.

The poll produced some familiar divisions on the issue: Women, who tend to be more risk averse in their responses to a variety of poll questions, were much less likely than men to say the plants were safe (19 and 49 percent, respectively).

In a 2020 global study with a question about expanding nuclear power, the Pew Research Center reported large gender differences in many countries, including differences of 30 percentage points or more in Sweden, the Netherlands, and Australia.

Concerns about safety no doubt explain the public’s long-standing tepid responses to questions about expanding the use of nuclear power.

In an April 2021 Pew poll, 50 percent favored more nuclear plants to generate electricity, while almost as many, 47 percent, were opposed. When Gallup last asked more generally about the use of nuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity for the US in 2019, people split evenly 49 to 49 percent.

Gallup first asked this question in 1994 and then started asking it again in 2001 as a part of its excellent yearly coverage of environmental and energy issues. In a different 2021 Gallup question, 39 percent said the US should put more emphasis on nuclear power than it does now, 28 percent less, and 32 percent said about the same.

Q: Overall, do you strongly favor, somewhat favor, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose the use of nuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity for the US?

The US gets 19 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, and the Biden administration committed in its infrastructure bill to supporting existing plants and developing new designs. In early January, the EU proposed including nuclear power under very specific conditions as “green” and eligible for EU funding in its transition plan to cleaner energy for the community. A number of EU countries objected while France, which gets about 70 percent of its power from nuclear, championed it. Some European Greens, whose opposition to nuclear power is deeply entrenched, seem to be rethinking their positions in light of the developments in Ukraine. EU countries and the European Parliament have four months in which to block the rules, but the thresholds to do so are steep.

The European community clearly has other things on its mind now with the Russian invasion and the specter of a nuclear accident at one of Ukraine’s nuclear reactors. More than 200 technicians and staff at Chernobyl are still being held hostage at that site. Americans share the concern. Fifty-seven percent in the new mid-March Economist/YouGov poll said it was very or somewhat likely that a nuclear power accident will occur in Ukraine because of the Russian invasion, while 20 percent said it was not very or not likely at all.

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