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40 Years After Three Mile Island, Americans Split on Nuclear Power

40 Years After Three Mile Island, Americans Split on Nuclear Power

Story Highlights

  • 49% of Americans favor use of nuclear energy; 49% oppose
  • 47% of Americans believe nuclear power plants are safe
  • 65% of Republicans, 42% of Democrats favor use of nuclear energy

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Four decades after a radiation leak at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania caused a national scare, Americans are evenly split on the use of nuclear power as a U.S. energy source. Forty-nine percent of U.S. adults either strongly favor (17%) or somewhat favor (32%) the use of nuclear energy to generate electricity, while 49% either strongly oppose (21%) or somewhat oppose (28%) its use.

Line graph. Americans are evenly split, with 49% supporting nuclear power and 49% opposing it.

These results come from Gallup's annual Environment poll, conducted March 1-10. The poll preceded the 40th anniversary of the March 28, 1979, TMI accident. That accident effectively halted the expansion of nuclear power in the U.S., with no new plants constructed for 30 years after the partial meltdown at TMI. Now, many of the country's existing nuclear power stations are potentially approaching the end of their service lives and the industry faces pressure from organized opposition to the use of nuclear power as well as competition from cheaper energy alternatives such as natural gas.

The current 49% of Americans who support nuclear power in the U.S. is a modest five percentage points higher than the 44% who said the same the last time Gallup asked about this issue in 2016. However, it is well below the record-high 62% who favored nuclear power in 2010. That high point came amid surging oil prices in the U.S. that made nuclear power a welcome alternative. Since then, increased production of domestic oil and natural gas has driven energy costs lower and Americans' support for nuclear power has subsequently trended downward -- perhaps causing the public to consider whether the risks of using nuclear power outweigh its benefits.

An earlier Gallup question asked in the 1970s and 1980s found that Americans' willingness to have a nuclear power plant built within five miles of their area plummeted from 42% in 1976 to 23% in 1986, spanning both the 1979 TMI accident and the far more severe 1986 Chernobyl disaster in northern Ukraine -- one of the world's worst nuclear accidents.

Republicans, College Graduates and Men Most Supportive of Nuclear Power

As with many other issues, Americans' views on the use of nuclear energy reveal a substantial partisan divide. Republicans (65%) are more likely than Democrats (42%) to favor the use of nuclear power. Republicans typically have been more supportive of nuclear energy throughout Gallup's trend dating back to 1994.

Americans' Views on Use of Nuclear Power, by Subgroup
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 U.S.?
Strongly/Somewhat favor Strongly/Somewhat oppose
% %
U.S. adults 49 49
Men 56 42
Women 39 58
College graduates 60 39
Some college 51 48
High school or less 37 59
Party ID
Republicans 65 34
Independents 42 54
Democrats 42 57
Gallup, March 1-10, 2019

Support for the use of nuclear power is higher among those with more formal education. Sixty percent of college graduates favor its use, compared with 51% of those with some college education and 37% of those with no college education. Additionally, there is a significant gender divide on the issue, with 56% of men in support of nuclear power, compared with 39% of women.

Americans Also Split on the Safety of Nuclear Power Plants

Roughly equal percentages of Americans say nuclear power plants are safe (47%) as say they are not safe (49%). This is the first time in Gallup's 10-year trend on this question that a plurality of Americans have considered nuclear power unsafe. Even in the 2011 poll, conducted two weeks after the high-profile Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan, a majority said they viewed nuclear power plants as safe.

Line graph. Forty-nine percent of Americans say nuclear power plants are unsafe, while 47% say they are safe.

As with support for nuclear power in general, perceptions of the safety of nuclear power plants vary significantly by party, education and gender. Sixty-nine percent of Republicans say that nuclear power plants are safe, compared with 33% of Democrats. Thirty-eight percent of those with a high school education or less say nuclear power plants are safe, compared with 48% of those with some college education and 57% of college graduates. Nearly six in 10 men (59%) believe nuclear power plants are safe, while fewer than four in 10 women (37%) say the same.

Bottom Line

Americans' views on the use of nuclear energy to provide electricity for the U.S. have fluctuated since Gallup first measured them in 1994, seemingly in reaction to domestic energy prices. Support for nuclear power climbed as the price of oil spiked in 2010. However, Americans' interest in nuclear power since then generally has trended downward as the prices of oil and natural gas have decreased and domestic production of these energy sources has increased. In early 2016, amid a glut of domestic oil and a price plunge, support for nuclear power hit a record low in Gallup's trend.

The latest results show a modest increase in support for nuclear power, possibly in response to increased oil prices in 2019. Or perhaps some of the increase in support stems from the fact that nuclear energy generates emissions-free electricity -- 60% of Americans favor dramatically reducing the use of fossil fuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, despite the modest increase in support, the public remains divided in their views on the use of nuclear power in the U.S.

View complete question responses and trends.

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