Diablo Canyon, the only operational nuclear plant left in California, is scheduled to be decommissioned by the end of 2025.
Diablo Canyon, the only operational nuclear plant left in California, is scheduled to be decommissioned by the end of 2025. (George Rose/Getty Images)

A broad majority of Americans (69%) favor the United States taking steps to become carbon neutral by 2050, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in January. But while some advocates suggest that nuclear power – a source that emits no carbon – should have a more prominent role in the nation’s energy makeup, the public continues to express mixed views about it as an energy source.

Around a third of U.S. adults (35%) say the federal government should encourage the production of nuclear power, while about a quarter (26%) say the government should discourage it. Another 37% say the federal government should neither encourage nor discourage the production of nuclear power. The survey was fielded before Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine and the renewed discussions about nuclear power and other current energy sources it has prompted.

To measure U.S. public attitudes toward the use of nuclear power, we surveyed 10,237 U.S. adults between Jan. 24-30, 2022. Everyone who took part is a member of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology. The analysis also incorporates findings from a global survey of 20 publics from fall 2019 to spring 2020 and a U.S. survey conducted in April 2021.

Here are the questions used in the January survey, along with responses, and its methodology.

We tracked the number of U.S. nuclear power reactors over time by analyzing data from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Power Reactor Information System (PRIS). PRIS classifies a reactor as “operational” from the date of its first electrical grid connection to the date of its permanent shutdown. Reactors that face temporary outages are still categorized as operational. Annual totals exclude reactors that closed that year.

A bar chart showing that a majority of U.S. adults say federal government should encourage production of wind and solar power

Americans are far more likely to say the federal government should encourage the production of wind and solar power (72%) and the use of electric vehicles (51%) than to say the same about nuclear power. In fact, the public is about as likely to say the government should encourage oil and gas drilling as it is to say the government should encourage nuclear power production.

Previous surveys by the Center have also found Americans are closely divided in views of nuclear energy. In an April 2021 survey, half of U.S. adults said they favored expanding nuclear power plants in the country to generate electricity, compared with 47% who opposed it. Views on this question have fluctuated somewhat, but no more than half of adults in any survey since 2016, the first time this question was asked, have favored expanding nuclear power plants to generate electricity.

The U.S. currently has 93 nuclear power reactors, plus two that are under construction. These reactors collectively generated 18.8% of all U.S. electricity last year.

A chart showing that the number of U.S. nuclear power reactors gradually declined in past three decades

The number of operational nuclear power reactors in the U.S. has steadily declined since peaking at 107 reactors in 1990. Still, nuclear power is a part of many state governments’ plans to transition away from fossil fuels. About two-thirds of states have reported plans to incorporate nuclear in their energy policies, according to a recent Associated Press analysis. The nuclear power sector has also garnered some federal support through the $6 billion Civil Nuclear Credit Program included in the recently enacted bipartisan infrastructure law.

Some policymakers laud nuclear power’s potential ability to cut greenhouse gas emissions, while others cite radioactive waste storage issues and notorious accidents to make the case against nuclear. In Japan, for example, the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident led the government to drastically decrease reliance on nuclear power. The accident also led to reappraisals of nuclear energy production in other countries. More recently (and after the January survey was completed), Russian military attacks in Ukraine have raised fears of accidents at several seized nuclear power plants in the area – including the Chernobyl site, which experienced a nuclear disaster in 1986.

Gender, partisan differences in views of nuclear power

There are long-standing differences by gender and party affiliation in views about the federal government’s role in nuclear energy production and nuclear power more broadly.

Men are nearly twice as likely as women to say the federal government should encourage the production of nuclear power (46% vs. 25%). Views differ by gender globally, too, according to a Center survey conducted from fall 2019 to spring 2020. Men were more likely than women to favor using more nuclear power as a source of domestic energy in 18 of the 20 publics surveyed across Europe, the Asia-Pacific region, Russia, the U.S., Canada and Brazil.

Republicans and GOP-leaning independents are 10 percentage points more likely than Democrats and Democratic leaners (42% vs. 32%) to say the federal government should encourage the production of nuclear power. Conservative Republicans (45%) are most likely to say the government should encourage nuclear power production, while 36% of moderate and liberal Republicans say the same. Democrats are 13 percentage points more likely than Republicans to say the government should discourage this activity (31% vs. 18%).

A line graph showing that in 2021, Republicans were still more likely than Democrats to favor expanding U.S. nuclear power plants

Partisan differences were also evident in the Center’s earlier surveys. In April 2021, six-in-ten Republicans favored expanding nuclear power plants to generate electricity in the country, compared with 43% of Democrats. Republicans have expressed support of nuclear power expansion in greater shares than Democrats each time this survey question has been asked since 2016. But there are larger partisan gaps on views of other energy sources, such as fossil fuels. In 2021, Republicans were far more likely than Democrats to support more offshore oil and gas drilling in U.S. waters (69% vs. 22%) and more coal mining in the country (60% vs. 17%).

Topic
Energy
Rebecca Leppert  is an editorial assistant at Pew Research Center.