How opposed to nuclear energy are liberals?

By Razib Khan | June 16, 2013 7:19 pm

The New York Times has a piece with the title A Rebel Filmmaker Tilts Conservative. What conservative tilt is being displayed here? It’s Pandora’s Promise, a film which serves as a sort apologia for nuclear power from environmentalists concerned about climate change. What confuses me is that I don’t understand the specifically conservative tilt here, as I have many friends who evince a nuclear-friendly tilt without seeming politically conservative. Perhaps a generation ago anti-nuclear sentiment was strongly ideological colored, but more recently there has been a boomlet on the enviro-Left in favor of nuclear energy.

The GSS has two variables which query this issue crossed with ideology rather well. Here’s the query so you can replicate:


Column: POLVIEWS(r:1-3″Liberal”;4″Moderate”;5-7″Conservative”)

Selection filter(s): year(2010-*)

Views on nuclear energy N ~ 400
Lib Mod Cons
Strongly favor 16 13 12
Favor 49 50 64
Oppose 28 27 16
Strongly oppose 7 9 8
Nuclear power dangerous to the environment N ~ 1300
Lib Mod Cons
Extremely dangerous 26 23 16
Very dangerous 25 29 23
Somewhat dangerous 33 32 31
Not very dangerous 14 13 22
Not dangerous 3 3 8

As you can see liberals do tend to be more skeptical of nuclear energy, but it is not stark. In fact, attitudes toward nuclear power seem to be as strongly, if not more so, variant on a populist vs. elite axis than conventional ideology. Here’s the second question replicated for education:

Nuclear power dangerous to the environment N ~ 1300
No college College
Extremely dangerous 26 11
Very dangerous 27 21
Somewhat dangerous 31 34
Not very dangerous 11 28
Not dangerous 4 7

But, when you look only at college educated individuals the ideology divide doesn’t go away. In fact, it seems more extreme.

Nuclear power dangerous to the environment N ~ 370
College educated only
Lib Mod Cons
Extremely dangerous 14 16 5
Very dangerous 28 22 14
Somewhat dangerous 38 35 28
Not very dangerous 15 24 42
Not dangerous 5 4 11

That’s strong circumstantial evidence that the gap here is one of cultural norms and values, and not facts.

  • Robert Ford

    Since no one has commented I’d purpose a question I asked in a Keith kloor thread: what is the most common denominator uniting lefties like this? (anti-GMO, anti-nuclear, etc.) A dislike for things that aren’t “natural”?

    • chris_T_T

      I think that’s part of it. There is a strong thread of romanticism on both sides of the political aisle; whereas the right tends to imagine a perfect previously existing human society, the left seems drawn to the idea of a perfect human relationship with the natural world once existing.

      An additional source of opposition to nuclear power is its association with nuclear weapons (which conservatives seem to be more accepting of).

      • FRE000

        One of the widespread problems is the lack of adequate knowledge. Very few people are aware of any nuclear technology except for the ubiquitous pressurized water reactor (PWR). There are many other ways to design nuclear reactors and I see our PWRs as a serious mistake, although still better than relying on fossil fuels.

        An effort should be made to inform people about the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) and the integral fast reactor (IFR). From what I’ve read, it appears that the LFTR would be safer, more economical, and generates less than 1% as much nuclear waste as our PWRs, but few people know about it.

        PBS will not objectively discuss nuclear power and will not inform people about other nuclear technologies. Under the circumstances, the public cannot be expected to be better informed.

  • Michele Garrison

    I consider myself moderate… I would not have a problem with nukes IF we could handle the waste (used fuel) AND were honestly, realistically prepared for problems. Too many old reactors that should have been phased out are still in operation, too many leaks and other problems all the time, most get hushed up… IF we could handle the long term responsibility of these plants, I would be all for them, but we are so far from being able to do that!

    • fiddie

      Michele, check out

      Molten Salt Reactors can burn thorium, uranium, and plutonium – including spent fuel rods!

      • Michele Garrison

        Fiddie – this is so good to hear about! Question though – why aren’t we utilizing this tech? We Have thousands of barrels of “spent fuel” rotting away right now!

        • fiddie

          So true. Simple answer? Uranium industry has a strangle hold on govt funding, regulations & college programs (many professors don’t even know!). There was a thorium conference in Chicago a few weeks ago – so for an updated answer check youtube for TEAC5 vids in the coming weeks (& watch TEAC4 also). Several countries are looking at TH for use in existing reactors (inefficient). China currently has a massive govt tech program that includes getting an MSR running within 8 years, likely that will be the first. If you have spare time to learn more; unedited videos of Kirk Sorensen are long but worth it (Protospace, with Dr. Kiki, interviewing Engel & Ball). Also watch Robert Hargraves’ videos.

  • GRLCowan

    One traditional difference between liberals and conservatives is on what fraction government income should be of all income. Nuclear energy affects this fraction somewhat: it replaces natural gas at $4/MMBTU, of which at least $0.50, an eighth, is government income (royalties), with uranium at $0.20/MMBTU, including a royalty fraction that I would guess is somewhat smaller than an eighth (but it hardly matters, since even if it were an eight, it would be an eighth of something 20 times smaller).

    This means, for instance, that the unbearable regulatory delay of San Onofre’s partial return to service ensured government would continue to get at least $56 million a year on $450 million in gas, rather than whatever it might have made on $26 million a year in mined uranium.

    Because gas costs about four times more in Japan, a much larger windfall came to Japanese government — $6.6 billion per year if it takes the same one-eighth royalty — when it forbade Japanese nuclear power operators from restarting most of their reactors.

    When you google the phrase “violent demonstrations in Japan”, you discover there is some history of this, but the demonstrations against nuclear power plant restarts are very peaceful. They aren’t really against government policy at all; they are against its declared policy but in favour of its real one.

  • GRLCowan

    So if you could put one ten-word meme in every head, what would it be?

    Use fewer words if you find yourself looking for ways to pad it.

    • tweenk

      Ten-word meme:
      Fear of radiation is far more dangerous than radiation itself.

      That’s what can be concluded from consensus reports on Chernobyl and Fukushima. The health effect were minor and localized, while the financial and social costs of extensive evacuations ordered without any kind of risk-benefit assessment were extremely large.

  • Michele Garrison
    • bwdyke

      Hanford’s tanks of radioactive waste are the byproducts of our nuclear weapons program. Those tanks are very old and not as well thought-out as they should have been. We were rushing to make as much plutonium as possible in the name of national defense.

      The takeaway is that you really can’t equate the liquid waste from the weapons program and the more easily manageable solid waste from the civilian nuclear power industry.

    • GRLCowan

      Not a good example, as bwdyke explains.

      Here are two good examples: fuel that became waste seven or more years ago, , and fuel that has not yet become waste, and so is 1000 times more radioactive than the seven-years-retired,

    • Jortiz3

      That comment is a prime example of what I am talking about.

  • Susan Ward

    This not a matter of sniping about who is liberal and who is not. It’s true that nuclear energy does not readily destroy the atmosphere, but it does incalculable damage to land, water, and air (Japan, Chernobyl, and the land and biology of the Columbia River, to name a very few). In Pandora’s Promise, it seems to be taken as a given that nuclear is the only choice in slowing down climate change. This a huge assumption and it won’t stand questioning. There is no non-toxic solution to the storage of nuclear waste.

    But there are alternatives, which money were invested in them, could make all the difference in our environment. I reject that this is an either/or problem, that bigger is always better, that governments are powerless to act without the concurrence of big established industries. I suggest look from a different perspective. Thanks.

    • tweenk

      There was a natural nuclear reactor in Africa 2 billion years ago. When it was discovered in 1972, its waste was still in place, even though it was not even isolated from groundwater. Google “Oklo natural nuclear reactor” for more information. Since this happened essentially by accident, nuclear waste storage cannot be a hard problem.

      The Chernobyl exclusion zone is home to a large population of wolves (over 120) – this is an indication of a thriving ecosystem.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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