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Going Nuclear: Frames and Public Opinion about Atomic Energy

Science and the Media

Matt Nisbet

June 1, 2006

The debate over nuclear energy is back. With rising concern over energy independence, and a focus on curbing greenhouse gas emissions, the Bush administration and even some environmentalists are calling for re-investment in nuclear power plants. Yet, the question remains, will the public support nuclear energy? Outside of a technical debate over benefits, trade-offs, and risks, at issue is the perception that public opinion rules out any serious new investment in the technology. In this column I take a look at the re-occurring ways that various players in the debate try to selectively frame the issue. I also review recent public opinion polls in an attempt to figure out exactly where the public stands on the matter.

Few Americans associate nuclear energy with slogans like “Atoms for peace” or “electricity too cheap to meter.” Yet before the 1970s, nuclear energy production was framed almost exclusively in these terms, with the technology defined as leading to social progress, economic development, and a better way of life. When President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 delivered his “atoms for peace” speech before the United Nations, demand for electricity in the U.S. was doubling each decade, while Europe faced severe energy shortages. The construction of nuclear power plants at home was expected to give the U.S. an important economic advantage, and the promotion of civilian nuclear technology abroad was considered a key diplomatic tool in winning allies against the Soviet Union.

The oil crisis of the early 1970s added a third positive interpretation to the technology, as the development of nuclear power was repackaged as a path to energy independence. Frames changed, however, in the mid-1970s as Ralph Nader and other consumer advocates re-interpreted nuclear energy in terms of public accountability, arguing that the industry had become a powerful special interest. Environmentalists also began to emphasize alternative paths to energy independence, with a focus on energy conservation, and solar, hydro, and wind generation. Other groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists emphasized that nuclear energy production was simply not cost-effective. Atomic energy also became wrapped up in the “nuclear freeze” movement, as the Jimmy Carter administration limited the export of civilian technology abroad, and as protestors swarmed nuclear power plants at home. (For overviews, see Gamson and Modigliani, 1989; Weart, 1988.)

The tipping point for the image of nuclear energy was the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. As Gamson and Modigliani note, several weeks before the TMI incident, the popular China Syndrome movie was released. With its focus on industry secrecy and incompetence, the film emphasized an interpretation of public accountability. More importantly, with the film’s reactor meltdown climax, the movie amplified a new frame focusing on the potential runaway nature of the technology. In this interpretation, nuclear power was portrayed as a Frankenstein’s monster beyond the ability of citizens to control.

When news reports of TMI galvanized national attention, the prevailing frames of public accountability and runaway technology became the major modes of interpretation. (Consider this Time magazine cover featuring an ominous picture of the reactor with the headline “Nuclear Nightmare.”) The accident helped set in motion a dominant media narrative that went on to spotlight additional examples of construction flaws, incompetence, faulty management, and potential risks at nuclear power plants across the country. Since 1979, no new nuclear power plants have been built in the U.S, though more than 100 power plants remain in operation.

The public accountability and runaway technology frames were only strengthened in 1986 with the Chernoybl disaster. The accident generated worldwide attention, and although U.S. journalists avoided excessive amounts of fear-inducing imagery, few media reports adequately contextualized the focusing event by providing details on the comparative safety record of the American nuclear energy industry (Friedman, Gorney, and Egolf, 1992.)

New Debate, Same Frames

In 2001, against the backdrop of rising energy costs, the newly elected Bush administration launched a communication campaign to promote nuclear energy as a path to energy independence. The terrorist attacks of September 11 dampened the viability of this frame package, as subsequent media reports focused on nuclear power plants as potential terrorist targets. But since 2004, as energy prices have climbed and as the dependence on overseas oil has been defined as a major national security issue, a renewed emphasis on the energy independence interpretation has surfaced.

The effort has been complemented by an attempt to sell nuclear energy as a technofix to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Former New Jersey GOP Governor and EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman along with Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore are pushing this theme in a national media campaign. Their tagline is that nuclear energy is “cleaner, cheaper, and safe.” According to their argument, if Americans are going to satisfy their energy demands while achieving the goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the country needs to re-invest in nuclear energy.

In a May 24 speech at the Limerick Generating Station in Pennsylvania, President Bush employed these two frames in promoting his nuclear energy proposal. First, rather confusingly he argued: “People in our country are rightly concerned about greenhouse gases and the environment, and I can understand why—I am, too. As a matter of fact, I try to tell people, let’s quit the debate about whether greenhouse gases are caused by mankind or by natural causes; let’s just focus on technologies that deal with the issue. Nuclear power will help us deal with the issue of greenhouse gases.”

Then Bush moved to pushing nuclear energy as a step towards energy independence, increased national security, and enhanced economic development. “For the sake of economic security and national security, the United States of America must aggressively move forward with the construction of nuclear power plants. Other nations are. Interestingly enough, France has built 58 plants since the 1970s, and now gets 78 percent of its electricity from nuclear power.... China has nine nuclear plants in operation and they got—plan to build 40 more over the next two decades. They understand that in order to be an aggressive nation, an economic nation that is flourishing so that people can benefit, they better do something about their sources of electricity. They see it. India—I just came from India—they’re going to build some nuclear power plants.”

The frames used to argue against nuclear energy also remain familiar, paralleling the interpretations first introduced in the mid-1970s. Groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists push a public accountability interpretation, demanding that nuclear plants be tightly regulated. “We continue to find and expose safety problems at individual plants, in industry standards, and in the failure of regulators to take effective action,” reports UCS on their Web page. Other groups like Public Citizen, the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace emphasize in their opposition not only the potential runaway dangers, but also the absence of cost-effectiveness. They advocate instead soft-path alternatives like increased energy efficiency and the development of solar, wind, and hydro energy production. They use the tagline that nuclear power is “not safe, not cost effective, and not needed.

Where Does the Public Stand?

As is common in policy debates, advocates on both sides claim that the public backs their preferred policy options. Take for example Christine Todd Whitman and Patrick Moore. In a May Boston Globe op-ed, they write: “A recent nationwide poll by Bisconti Research found that 86 percent of Americans see nuclear energy as an important part of meeting future electricity needs and 77 percent agree that utilities should prepare now to build new nuclear plants in the next decade.” But is this an accurate characterization of public opinion?

The Bisconti polling was commissioned by the Nuclear Energy Institute, a pro-industry think tank. As a general rule, polls commissioned by advocacy groups often paint things in rosier terms than polls conducted by news organizations or independent outfits like Gallup or the Pew Center for the People and the Press. The polling on nuclear energy is no exception. The problem, however, is that the NEI surveys are by far the best historical record of public sentiment, with items asked consistently every year since the early 1980s. Other surveys have been administered only intermittently.

Figure 1. NEI: Percentage of Public Favoring Nuclear Energy

Figure 1

Note: The Nuclear Energy Institute asked respondents: “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 in the United States?” Survey results based on nationally representative samples of U.S. adults. (Data not available for 1997.)

Figure 1 plots the results of one of the standard items asked nearly every year by NEI since the early 1980s. Notice the variations in public support over time, particularly the drop in support after Chernobyl in 1986. The dip again in 1995 and 1996 is not as easily explained, though it could be attributable to negative news attention brought about by the ten year anniversary of Chernobyl. The trend in rising public support appears to recover in 1998, peaks in 2001 during that year’s energy debate, declines in 2002 and 2003 with the threat of terrorist attacks on power plants, and then climbs to historic highs in 2004-2006. Today, according to the NEI polls, roughly 70% of the public say that they favor the use of nuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity in the U.S.

Figure 2. Percentage of Public Favoring Nuclear Energy

Figure 2

Note: Gallup asked respondents: “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 (United States)?” ABC News asked respondents: “In general, would you favor or oppose building more nuclear power plants at this time?” CBS News asked respondents: “Would you approve or disapprove of building more nuclear power plants to generate electricity?” Survey results based on nationally representative samples of U.S. adults.

It is not surprising that independent polling, conducted intermittently across years, reflects lower levels of public support than the NEI surveys. For example, using almost identical question wording, Gallup finds that in 2006, only a little more than a majority of American adults favor nuclear energy. However, similar to the NEI results, the Gallup trends do reflect an aggregate increase in public support over 2001 levels. Yet, when asked in 2005 by ABC News using different question wording, only a little more than 30% of the public say they favor “building more nuclear power plants at this time.” For the ABC News polls, there is also a decline in support between 2001 and 2005.

Figure 3. Percentage Favoring Local Construction

Figure 3

Note: NEI asked respondents: “If a new power plant were needed to supply electricity would it be acceptable to you or not acceptable to you to add a new reactor at the site of the nearest nuclear power plant that already is operating?” Gallup asked respondents: “Overall, would you strongly favor, somewhat favor, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose the construction of a nuclear energy plant in your area as one of the ways to provide electricity for the US (United States)?” No data available for 2003. Gallup data not available for 2002 and 2004.

Context, however, also matters. For example, the public may favor investment in nuclear energy generally, but when asked about the possibility of a nuclear power plant in their area, the “Not in My Backyard” syndrome may apply. In this case, NEI and Gallup have asked about the issue somewhat differently. NEI has been more technical in their word choice, asking about the construction of a new nuclear power plant in an area where a nuclear plant already exists. The question wording implies a more remote location for the respondent. In these NEI polls, support has increased since 2001, rising to roughly 70% in 2006.

Gallup polls find a similar increase in support across years, but when asked specifically about the possibility of “future construction of a nuclear energy plant in your area,” the percentage of the public favoring construction is only slightly more than 40% in 2006.

Figure 4. Nuclear Energy Compared to Other Environmental Proposals

Figure 4

Note: Gallup asked respondents: “Next I am going to read some specific environmental proposals. For each one, please say whether you generally favor or oppose it. How about... opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil exploration?... expanding the use of nuclear energy?...setting higher auto emissions standards for automobiles?... more strongly enforcing federal environmental regulations?... spending more government money on developing solar and wind power?...setting higher emissions and pollution standards for business and industry?” Solar and wind not asked in 2003.

Context also matters when thinking about how the need for nuclear energy is defined. When asked by Gallup in survey questions about nuclear energy as an “environmental proposal,” the public offers far stronger support for other policy measures than for nuclear energy, though support for the nuclear alternative has indeed increased since 2001. In the poll results displayed in Figure 4, nuclear energy scores only just above drilling in Alaska’s Artic National Refuge in terms of favorability, and does not have nearly as much support as curbing auto emissions, enforcing environmental laws, investing in solar or wind power, or cutting industry emissions.

Figure 5. Nuclear Energy Compared to Other Energy Proposals

Figure 5

Note: Pew asked respondents: “As I read some possible government policies to address America’s energy supply, tell me whether you would favor or oppose each. Would you favor or oppose the government...promoting the increased use of nuclear power?... spending more on subway, rail and bus systems?... giving tax cuts to energy companies to develop wind, solar and hydrogen technology?... requiring better fuel efficiency for cars, trucks and SUVs?

However, even when framed directly as a possible solution to the national energy problem, investment in nuclear power is still not a preferred option in comparison to other policy proposals. When Pew asked in 2005 and 2006 about nuclear energy as a specific way to address the country’s energy supply, it ranked well behind other policy options, including expanding forms of public transportation, incentives for developing renewable energy sources, and requiring better automobile fuel efficiency.


Nuclear energy is likely to remain a “third rail” of environmental politics, with many environmental groups willing to devote heavy resources to opposing any new plant construction. Nuclear energy is also likely to remain an ambivalent issue for the generation of Americans who lived through Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, with the images and frames of a runaway technology easily evoked by carefully designed message strategies. However, the more time passes with no new focusing events related to the dangers of nuclear energy, and as the perceived urgency of energy independence and global warming increases, public support in the aggregate is also likely to increase, as recent poll trends suggest. Framing will be the central device by which both advocates and opponents of nuclear energy manage public opinion at the national level. However, if and when the decision is made to build a new nuclear power plant in a specific area, mobilized minorities of local citizens will prove decisive. Who shows up to protest, vote, or speak out at the local level will have a stronger impact on the future of nuclear energy in the U.S. than the current struggle to shape national opinion.


Matt Nisbet

Matthew Nisbet is Associate Professor of Communication at Northeastern University and a CSI technical consultant.