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Nuclear Accidents and Support for Nuclear Power

- March 16, 2011

While we are all still struggling to come to grips with the devastation, destruction, and death that occurred in Japan, a debate is already emerging about whether the explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant will undermine political support for nuclear power plants. The popularity of nuclear power had increased considerably in recent years as a consequence of concerns about global warming, the price of oil, and a relatively good recent safety record. How are voters likely to change their opinions? And are politicians likely to respond?

A good case study comes from the 1986 Dutch elections. The Chernobyl accident happened less than a month before the elections. Nuclear energy had been a polarizing issue in the campaign with the parties on the right (CDA and VVD) largely in favor of creating further nuclear plants, the main party on the left opposed (PvdA) and the D’66 taking its usual ambiguous centrist position. As it happens, the Dutch National Election Study surveyed voters both just before the accident and right after the election on both their attitudes towards nuclear plants and their perceptions if where parties stood on the issue. The figure below comes from an “article”:http://jtp.sagepub.com/content/13/1/53.abstract by “Wouter van der Brug”:http://home.medewerker.uva.nl/w.vanderbrug/ in the _Journal of Theoretical Politics_, who used the Chernobyl accident as a natural experiment to test theories of issue voting.

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We can see quite clearly that average voter opinion shifted rather dramatically towards opposition against more nuclear plants. Moreover, voter opinion pretty much stayed there for the next decade. The perceptions of party positions is also interesting. The parties opposed to nuclear energy tried to make the issue more salient during the election while those who had advocated more nuclear plants tried to downplay the issue but ultimately withdrew their explicit support for further construction. As Van Der Brug points out, voter perceptions of party positions changed in response to actual shifts in party platforms. No new power plants have been built in the Netherlands.

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It is not clear how the politics of this will play out where the issue is less polarizing. This “Gallup data”:http://www.gallup.com/poll/126827/Support-Nuclear-Power-Climbs-New-High.aspx suggests that Republicans are quite a bit more likely than Democrats to favor nuclear energy but even among Democrats a slight majority was favorable. I doubt that political entrepeneurs can use the Fukushima accident to great political advantage. I suspect that may be different in other countries, where the issue more clearly divides supporters along partisan lines and is more salient on the agenda. In the U.S., however, other issues (especially cost) are likely to be stronger determinants for whether more nuclear plants will be built.