The most recent public opinion poll published by the Nuclear Energy Institute (Perspective on Public Opinion, June 2010
One element of the study struck me as particularly curious. It seems that although 70% of Americans polled believe electric utilities should definitely build more nuclear generating facilities, those same Americans believe that their view is in the minority. When asked if they thought the American public in general supports or opposes building more nuclear power plants, the poll found that only 42% believed that the public in general supported building more nuclear plants. In rough terms, this means that if you had a random group of 10 people, 7 would support building new nuclear, but each of the 7 would assume that only 3 other people in the whole group of 10 shared that view while thinking 6 would it oppose it. In actuality, 6 others would support the view and only 3 would oppose it. Apparently, we have the support of a “Silent Majority” that is not only silent, but also doesn’t seem to realize that it is the majority view.
This is not an earthshaking finding. It’s fairly well known that, in almost all areas, people tend to overestimate the numerical support attributed to highly vocal minority views. The media contributes to the confusion through the formulaic “point-counterpoint” presentation of all controversial issues. We’ve all seen the formula in operation in tiresome repetition. Typically a reporter will bring out one proponent for an interview, then, to be fair, bring out one opponent. This often leads to the erroneous impression that support for sides of issues is nearly always a 50-50 split. Clearly, we are not in support of suppressing minority views, nor even proportional coverage. But this result does point up two areas of communications strategy where nuclear energy proponents need to place more emphasis.
First, we must do a better job of popularizing the true measure of public support that nuclear energy has today. The concept of building new nuclear plants is not an unpopular opinion and its supporters should not be laboring under the belief that they face a huge, majority opposition.
Second, we need to continue to evolve and reinforce the educational aspect of communications. Our supporters must understand the truth about nuclear energy and its advantages well enough to confidently discuss nuclear energy with their parents, children, friends, and neighbors. We need to arm them with facts, confidence, and enthusiasm, and encourage them to speak out. Rebuilding nuclear energy in the U.S. is a huge undertaking that will require sustained political support. The support of a “Silent Majority” is simply not enough. We need the outspoken support of a “Vocal Majority!”