The evolving nuclear disaster in Japan raises an important question? How long do these events continue in our collective memory. Are they enduring or does our heightened fear give way to other salient issues?

We can only give our attention to a limited set of issues so without constant reminders, it may not be surprising that a public policy response advocated in the “heat of the moment” dissipates over time.

Several polls show that there has been an immediate public reaction to the nuclear-related events in Japan. For example, the Pew Research Institute found in a poll conducted between March 18 and 21, that opposition to promoting the use of nuclear power increased from 44% to 52%. Similiarly, a CBS poll (March 18 – 21) found that support for building new nuclear plants dropped from 57% to 43%.

It should be noted that despite the large changes, the long-term look indicates that the current support is not out of line with earlier levels of support. Nonetheless, support for nuclear probably declined further since the outlook in Japan has not improved since the surveys came out of the field over a week ago.

Nevertheless, early poll results indicate that while the disaster is a salient part of the discussion about nuclear power in the U.S., public opinion has not yet turned completely against nuclear.

  • 69% believe nuclear power plants in operation in the U.S. are safe (22% unsafe). Source: CBS Poll.
  • 53% are not more fearful about a nuclear accident (44% are). Source: CBS Poll.
  • Only 27% want to shut down existing nuclear power plants. Source: CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll. March 18-20, 2011.

Things are likely to get worse from a public opinion environment and much will depend on two things: (1) the ultimate resolution of the nuclear accident in Japan; and, (2) the media attention the issue continues to get (the news cycle for an accident is only so long).

Although many Americans have an ingrained fear of nuclear power, there is likely a significant group of believers that are unlikely to be completely moved away from their support for nuclear based on a single incident.

To better understand the long-term implications, it is interesting to look at the shock and recovery cycle from another recent accident/ disaster. Consider support for offshore oil and gas drilling.

Fortunately, we have extensive polling on this question before, during and after the accident in the Gulf of Mexico – the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill – April 20, 2010.

The impact is clear. Support for allowing more oil and gas drilling declined from 63% to 44%. Interestingly, by the end of March of this year, support had almost completely returned (57% in March 2011). 

This would suggest we are fickle when it comes to our immediate response to disasters – an immediate backlash (probably among people who have weakly held or poorly informed beliefs) – followed by a gradual return to status quo.

Why did public return (in this case) to support offshore drilling? Will the same happen for nuclear?

We can speculate that a big part of the reason for the return stems from the fact that accidents and disasters are easy to understand and pull at our heart-strings. Solutions, policy debates and etc. are dry, boring (and would require us to seek out the information) so we inevitably fall back on our slightly changed world view that helped us to our original opinion (and we rationalize, for example, that new safeguards are in place).

Since the disaster in Japan is far away, I expect that while public opinion might continue to move against nuclear in the U.S. (and in Canada for that matter), it is likely to be a short-lived phenomenon in the absence of a much bigger news story than we have seen so far.

[I am currently working on a historical review of POR in Canada on this topic]