WisBusiness: Pollster says support for nuclear energy growing

By Brian E. Clark

Support for nuclear energy by Americans as grown significantly in the past three decades, a speaker at a UW-Madison conference on the controversial power source said Wednesday.

Likewise, opposition to nuclear power has dropped, said Ann S. Bisconti, a Maryland-based pollster who discussed her research at a Wisconsin Public Utility Institute gathering.

Bisconti, whose research was sponsored by the Nuclear Energy Institute, said support by the public has grown from 49 percent to 64 percent since 1983, when she first conducted the poll. During the same period, opposition to nuclear power has dropped from 46 percent to 30 percent, Bisconti reported.

She said part of the reason is because Americans are concerned about global warming and view nuclear power as a relatively clean alternative.

Bisconti was one of a half-dozen speakers at the conference, dubbed “Advances in Nuclear.” Some said nuclear plants are becoming safer and more reliable, while others argued they remain risky, too costly and lack proper oversight.

Bisconti said her polls also show that support for building new power plants has risen from 49 percent to 62 percent over the past decade, while opposition has declined from 47 percent to 32 percent.

More striking, she said 85 percent of respondents said they agreed with the statement: “We should take advantage of all low-carbon energy sources, including nuclear, hydro and renewable energy, to produce the electricity we need while limiting greenhouse gas emissions.”

The surveys are significant here in Wisconsin because the Governor’s Task Force on Global Warming is considering new nuclear power plants as part of the state’s energy future.

Wisconsin has several nuclear facilities, but the state currently has a moratorium on construction of new plants until there is a permanent federal repository to store nuclear waste.

While some members of the group – which includes utility executives, environmentalists and industry representatives – favor the idea, task force co-chair Roy Thilly has said he doesn’t think the state will build any new plants in the next decade. Thilly is president of the Sun-Prairie-based Wisconsin Public Power Inc., a regional utility that serves 49 customer-owned electric utilities.

At Wednesday’s conference, Charlie Higley, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, said discussion about new nuclear plants has been lively at meetings.

Because the group is using a consensus approach, he said he had his doubts if it would be included in the task force’s final report.

Frank Jablonski, a founder of Madison’s Progressive Law Group and former general counsel for Wisconsin’s Environmental Decade, told the conference he now supports nuclear energy and believes new plants should be considered.

“Nuclear energy should be on the table,” he said.

But David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the nuclear industry and federal regulators have a poor safety record.

And he argued that it is only because of “luck” that the United States has not had more Three Mile Island accidents.

But other speakers, including Michael Corradini and Paul Wilson, UW-Madison nuclear engineering professors, said they believe new generations of plants will be much safer than those built in the past.

And Wilson argued that the United States needs to follow the lead of France and begin recycling used nuclear fuel as a way to minimize storage problems.