A surprising 59 percent of Californians now support building more nuclear plants, according to a poll released Wednesday.
The pollsters said the findings suggest how deeply the power crisis has affected people in the state, which has been hit by rolling blackouts and soaring electric bills over the past few months.
The last time the organization polled Californians about nuclear energy was 1984 – five years after the accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania – and it found 61 percent opposed to nuclear power.
“In my interpretation, the current energy crisis has some bearing on the public’s changed attitudes on nuclear power,” said Mark DiCamillo, spokesman for the Field Institute, a nonpartisan polling organization. “The public is searching for clean ways to add to the capacity. I think the poll is saying that nuclear should be included in that consideration.”
The Field poll comes as the Bush administration pushes for a renewed look at nuclear power.
Vice President Dick Cheney, who heads the president’s energy task force, has promoted nuclear power as essential to America’s energy needs and said that at least some of the 65 power plants that need to be built annually to meet future electricity demand ought to be nuclear.
No utilities have ordered any new nuclear power plants in the United States since 1978.
The poll of 1,015 California adults was taken May 11-20. It showed that 59 percent of Californians favor nuclear power and 36 percent are opposed. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
Carl Zichella, the Sierra Club’s regional staff director for California, Nevada and Hawaii, said Californians have not thought about nuclear energy for about 20 years and do not have as much information as they did around Three Mile Island.
“I think this number really reflects a lack of knowledge on the part of the public about the problems that drove nuclear power underground,” he said. “The more people know about nuclear power, the less they’re going to like it.”
Getting a new nuclear plant built faces two major problems: financing and siting, said Rich Ferguson, research director for the Sacramento-based Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technology.
“We have just not seen any interest in the financial community to invest the billions of dollars,” he said. “That’s one problem the nuclear industry has is it’s very capital intensive.”
Finding places to put natural gas burning power plants is already a difficult task with neighbors to proposed sites often voicing strong opposition.
“As far as the public goes, this is a pretty theoretical thing,” Ferguson said. “I don’t think it means very much until somebody tries to build a power plant and people find out it’s in their backyard.”
California has two nuclear power plants currently producing energy — the 2,254-megawatt San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in San Clemente owned by San Diego Gas and Electric Co., and the Diablo Canyon power plant near San Luis Obispo, owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
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