New poll reveals Washington state opinions on nuclear energy

New public opinion polling of Washington state residents by Bisconti Research/Quest Global Research found that a large majority favor the use of nuclear energy as part of the U.S. energy mix. (Find the Nuclear Energy Institute national numbers here).

According to Bisconti, the survey was conducted through telephone interviews Feb. 19 – March 4, with a sample of 504 people from Benton, Clark, Franklin, King, Pierce, Skagit, Snohomish, Spokane, Thurston, and Whatcom counties, proportional to population, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

If you aren’t familiar with Washington geography, Benton is the home county of Columbia Generating Station and Franklin County is next door. King County is home to Seattle. Snohomish County is adjacent to King. Tacoma is in Pierce County.

Overall Results

On the question of general favorability to nuclear energy, respondents were asked if they strongly favor, somewhat favor, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose the use of SupportNuclearEnergynuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity in the United States? Sixty-three percent strongly favor or somewhat favor the use of nuclear energy. (See bottom of post for more details).

That support number jumps when residents are asked if utilities should prepare now so that new nuclear power plants could be built if needed in the next decade: 69 percent strongly agree or somewhat agree. Fifty-three percent agree we should definitely build more nuclear power plants in the future.


When asked what attributes they associate with nuclear power (a lot, a little or not at all), the list from most to least is:

  • Advanced technology
  • Reliable electricity
  • Efficiency
  • Clean air
  • Electricity source of the future
  • Energy security
  • Affordable electricity
  • Economic growth
  • Job creation
  • Climate change solution (also the largest “not at all” response)

For safety, on a scale of 1 – 7 (7 being very high safety), 49 percent gave nuclear energy a high safety rating (5-7); 16 percent a middle rating (4); and, 34 percent a low safety rating (1-3).

Who was Surveyed?

Of the people who were surveyed, 64 percent consider themselves environmentalists and 72 percent had never visited a nuclear energy facility. Fifty-three percent of those surveyed had a bachelor’s degree or a graduate degree. Ninety-three percent are registered voters. The survey reached out to both land-line and cell phone users.

On the overall favorability index score, which includes nine measures, including some mentioned above, the Washington state score (53.2) comes in below both the Western U.S. (57.5) score and the national score (60.8).

This tells us we have more work to do to educate the public and our stakeholders about the benefits of clean, reliable and safe nuclear energy.


(Posted by John Dobken)

The next generation… and nuclear energy

Recently we had a chance to visit the nuclear programs at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash. and Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore. Both universities are home to TRIGA research nuclear reactors. And some pretty amazing students.

We wanted to talk to the students in these programs about nuclear energy, what drew them to it, what did they think about it, and why they thought nuclear energy is important to the future energy mix. We compiled their answers into three short video clips you can find on our YouTube page.

Some of the students are considering a future career working at a nuclear energy facility. But others were looking at careers in medical research, academia, nuclear regulation or other fields. They are bright, sharp, in short, very impressive.

Jackson is a nuclear engineering student at Oregon State University.

Jackson is a nuclear engineering student at Oregon State University.

Jackson, for instance, is at Oregon State University and is pursuing a PhD. in nuclear engineering. It’s quite a change from his past life: a chef at restaurants in Portland and San Francisco. He explained his research and it sounded suitably complicated. But he’s fascinated with nuclear energy and the benefits it can bring society as a carbon-free source of energy.

Katie studied biology at Washington State University and on the side became a reactor operator for the one megawatt TRIGA research reactor. TRIGA stands for Teaching Research Isotope production General Atomics. These small reactors were installed at universities around the country as part of President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program.

Katie operates the research reactor at Washington State University.

Katie operates the research reactor at Washington State University.

Like many of the other students, she fielded the inevitable questions/comments about working in a nuclear facility (many involving the color green), but once the conversation moved beyond that, she says there is a genuine interest in the work she does – and in nuclear energy.

“I think a lot of my peers have a positive outlook about nuclear energy,” she told us. “We’re very concerned about the environment and climate change and we’re starting to look more toward nuclear energy as something that can combat climate change.”

Sophia is a nuclear engineering major at Oregon State. She grew up traveling the world in a military family and told us her first nuclear energy experiences came from learning

Sophia studies nuclear engineering at Oregon State University.

Sophia studies nuclear engineering at Oregon State University.

about the reactors that power aircraft carriers and submarines. Her future interest is perhaps working for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

If you would like to find out more about each nuclear research facility, visit their websites:

Washington State University

Oregon State University

As some may be aware, Oregon State is the birthplace of NuScale Power, the company at the forefront of small modular reactor development.

This experience showcased STEM education in action. Serious students in pursuit of knowledge – not just how things work, but how life can be made better through learning and applied research.

In this season of college basketball madness, a nuclear reactor pulse is as close as you can come to the thrill of a buzzer-beater off the court.

An iPhone was floated in a Plexiglas container in OSU's TRIGA Reactor to film a pulse -- a rapid insertion of reactivity, bumping the power from 15W to about 400MW and then back in a fraction of a second. (Courtesy OSU)

An iPhone was floated in a Plexiglas container in OSU’s TRIGA Reactor to film a pulse — a rapid insertion of reactivity, bumping the power from 15W to about 400MW and then back in a fraction of a second. (Courtesy OSU)

A sincere thank you to both schools for allowing us to talk to their students and visit their facilities.

(Posted by John Dobken)

Me and Pico – Nuclear Power and Scare Stories

(Post by Meredith Angwin)

Me and pico

Pico is the metric term for one-trillionth. That’s ten-to-the- minus twelve, or one-thousandth of a billionth. In other words, it takes one thousand pico-meters to equal one billionth of a meter.

But of course I am not talking about meters. I’m talking about radiation here. There’s almost nothing else that you can measure in picos. One gram of radium releases one curie of radiation. Radiation limits of various sorts (tritium or strontium 90 in water) are generally expressed as pico-curies.

Trillionths of a curie. Why do we measure them as trillionths of a curie? Why don’t we just measure them as parts-per-trillion of water, or as grams of material? Basically, such measurements are just not practical. We can’t measure grams-per-liter effectively at the trillionth level. A pico is just too small.

In my working life as a chemist, I was once involved in trying to find a possible water contaminant at the parts per billion level. I worked with a lab that specialized in ultra-pure water. I was a friend with the founder of that lab, Marjorie Balazs. When you are trying to measure something at low parts per billion levels, everything gets in the way of getting a decent measurement. For example, ions will cling to the side of the flask, and the flask may be shedding parts per million of other ions. In short, measuring the ion content of ultra-pure water (measuring individual ions at the parts per billion level) is a field of highly specialized expertise.

Below the parts per billion level, it is even harder to measure the presence of most ions. Measuring parts per trillion is close to impossible (though not impossible). However, if the ion is radioactive, it is relatively easy to measure very low levels of the material. You can measure parts per billion and smaller. There’s that “pico” term again. You can measure pico curie levels.

The ease of measuring radiation makes it easy to scare people with the “fact” that radioactive ions are present. If a radioactive ion is present, you can find it easily. At very low levels.

Scare stories and people

A set of anti-nuclear organizations has put together a set of scare-story videos about nuclear energy. David Ropeik has written an article about these videos: Naive Anti-Nuclear Videos Demonstrate the Danger of Thinking with Our Hearts, Not Our Brains. These videos appeal to our emotions and our fears.

These videos are pretty much what you would expect: the anti-nuclear video contains lots of buzzing noises, and has a lying and condescending man “explaining” the situation. It even admits some positive things about nuclear (the material coming out of the cooling towers is steam, not carbon dioxide) but says these things in a nasty manner, as if they weren’t really true.

These videos make for effective propaganda. Radiation is constantly referred to in emotional terms. Radioactivity glows and pulsates. The assumed future (if nuclear energy is used) is very frightening. They don’t say how much radiation is present in their various scenarios: they just say “radiation.” In one part of the video, the needle on the radiation measurement meter goes from “low” to “holy crap!!” (I am not making this up, just like I am not making up an article that claims “most people” in North America would be killed by radiation if anything bad happened at Columbia Generating Station.)

“Low” (no numbers) leads directly to “Holy Crap!!” Indeed. The implication is that any amount of radiation is a huge and dangerous problem. No “picos” in these videos.

But the lack of numbers isn’t the real problem. Ropeik describes the ways that people have strong motivations to fit in with their group. If their group says radiation is unacceptable, then they will agree that it is unacceptable. The purpose of the anti-nuclear video is to encourage people to agree that radiation is unacceptable. The people making this video don’t have to prove this; they just show frightening images. After all, most of us are just “getting through” most aspects of our lives. We are more comfortable when we believe what our group believes, and we don’t have time or willingness to investigate everything.

Scare stories and pico

We can measure extremely low levels of radiation, far more easily than we can measure low levels of other substances. Unfortunately, this leads to easy attacks by people whose groups are against nuclear energy. They found radiation in the water! It must be a terrible problem!

I understand that this is just an example of groupthink. However, if we could measure in the parts per billion range easily for other substances, perhaps we wouldn’t drink any water at all. Most natural water on this earth has urea in it, at some level. And often even worse things. But we can’t detect them. Radiation … we can detect it at the trillionth level. Pico. Pico measures of radiation lead to reinforcement of the “unacceptability” of nuclear energy.

Talking to real people

Following Ropeik’s lead, however, we can hope to realize that this is a fight about values, not picos. Pro-nuclear people value clean air and small footprints and abundant energy. Anti-nuclear people might say they value some (only some) of the same things, but they place other goals at a higher level. Their values often include moving the world toward an imagined rural utopia of low energy use.

Actually, low energy use scenarios are more likely to be dystopias, especially in rural areas. Before abundant fossil energy was available for farming, farm labor was backbreaking, travel of over ten miles was nearly impossible, and rural health care was extremely poor. (Think of the energy requirements of a modern hospital and ambulance services that can reach twenty miles for sick or injured people.)

So, ultimately, it isn’t about picos. Trillionths of anything shouldn’t be scary, but this is hard to explain to people. Instead, pro-nuclear people can stress the health and happiness and flexibility of a high-energy society. This will be more effective than talking about pico-curies.

Stressing the importance of a small footprint (not every stream with its mini-dam, not every hill with a wind farm) can also be effective. People don’t want to hear about picos. They want to hear about having a safe and healthy life on a healthy planet.