Political Climate in the U.S.: Is American Public Opinion a Cause or An Effect?
The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that you cannot measure the velocity and position of an electron and learn both simultaneously. You can measure velocity, but it reduces one's ability to pinpoint the electron's position; you can also measure position accurately, but then it will alter the electron's velocity. The reason is because the particle used to measure the electron is always another electron. Because this particle is at subatomic parity with the particle we desire to learn about, it alters the movement of the particle and changes its pattern.
For a more contemporary example, the popular novel Jurassic Park discusses the dilemma of the field biologist's research: simply by being present in his or her desired region of study, the researcher is altering the status quo of the environment no matter how hard the individual tries to maintain a low profile. Animals always know when a change has been initiated in their environment.
The purpose in detailing the above examples is to illustrate that the same is true of public opinion as measured by things such as the Gallup Poll and reported by the news. These measurements do not exist in a vacuum; their very presence means that they are having an effect on the public consciousness. Consider, for example, the following scenario: an individual approaches you on the street and assures you that they mean you no harm. They ask you a string of questions about your opinion of our tax code, our IRS, our government, and so forth. Maybe you have opinions on each question (if you're the average person, though, you'll focus on one area and leave generic answers for the other topics). Even if you do, how often does someone ask your opinion of our government? The conversation is not a typical one in many workplaces. I have rarely heard a conversation at work about the government scratch deeper than "...well, we should just have a revolution and start over."
The point, then, is that measuring public opinion changes it.
Even the words of this article are having an effect upon the consciousness of each individual that reads it, including me and you. This is the powerful effect of information on public opinion.
Although public opinion is a shifting sand, it is both a cause and an effect. Politicians use public opinion polls to garner support or to figure out which issues they should seek to advocate. The public then responds to the politician's actions and generates an opinion. This process holds true for each politician at every level of the government.
The facts, then, of the political climate of the United States as it currently exists are unsurprising, because you are a part of it. Obviously, political climate is a regional phenomenon, but certain issues and concepts cross all borders. Here is one perfect example of how international and domestic events and the spin the media puts on them fuel irrational hatred, fear, and paranoia of a benign concept.
The American attitude towards nuclear power is inherently hostile. Myriad reasons have come together in a perfect storm of anti-nuclear opinion. This source of power is undoubtedly the best applied use of nuclear physics yet discovered; ironically, it remains mired in baseless controversy. The first reason is because of World War II. Wars have a particularly powerful effect on the American consciousness, because we have a Napoleon-like inferiority complex that dates back to the American Revolution. World War II represented the only tactical use of atomic bombs on civilian targets in world history, and it is nothing short of irony that the country on the receiving end of this technological innovation was the one which entered the war because of its alienation from Western society. Seeing the aftermath of those nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities Nagasaki and Hiroshima and even hapless Bikini Atoll after the war (used as a testing site for the hydrogen bomb) caused a scar on the American public consciousness that may never heal.
The Cold War brought the spectre of nuclear holocaust home to the United States. It was the Cuban Missile Crisis that made Americans realize they were vulnerable and could be nuked in the same manner that Japan was just twenty years before. This reinforced negative impressions of nuclear technology already derived from World War II. There is a blatant difference between a controlled nuclear chain reaction for the purpose of generating power and an uncontrolled chain reaction. Unfortunately, the public is rarely given tours of nuclear plants and shown the numerous safeguards and safety equipment designed to protect against such an event. A nuclear reactor is designed with power generation in mind, and the control rods and coolant systems are meticulously maintained and observed by some of the best and brightest that our nation has to offer.
Three Mile Island is possibly the most misunderstood and grossly inflated circumstance since The Shot Heard Round The World and the events of Lexington and Concord. Links proving this are below. The 1979 event destroyed a reactor and released some radioactive gas, but caused NO effect on the population in the surrounding areas. There remains no proof of any effect of the situation on any citizen living near the plant. The only effect of Three Mile Island was to give the media a field day, and their exploitation of the situation warped the public consciousness and killed the bright future of the best form of alternative energy yet discovered. Three Mile Island's 1979 partial core meltdown was not a problem. Chernobyl was a problem, and the disaster's occurrence six years after the events of Three Mile Island only served to further reinforce a badly mistaken American perception. This is where we must take the time to thank mass media for their contribution to our current energy situation (heavy sarcasm).
After the small nuclear accident of Three Mile Island and the catastrophe of Chernobyl, the word "nuclear" immediately prompts flared nostrils and gives the mildly entertaining impression that the "fight or flight" response is about to send us into the next zip code. Don't believe me? Try it and see! Ask anyone their opinion of nuclear power and see what they say. It will be something to the effect of: "Couldn't it turn into a bomb and explode?" Or, my personal favorite: "Nuclear power is fine as long as it's NOT IN MY BACK YARD!" These reactions, however humorous, are blatant proof that nuclear power's future has been tarnished by poor media and public opinion. This is one classic example of NIMBY politics and the American political climate. We want the benefits of cheap electricity, but we don't want to have to deal with the reality of a nuclear power plant in our own back yard.
The last great blow to nuclear power was the events of September 11. After those tragic hours, conspiracy theorists began dreaming up every sort of nightmarish situation imaginable. The one that sound another death knell to the hope for nuclear power was the idea of a "dirty bomb." It was suggested that a terrorist could take nuclear waste and strap it around a bomb, then fly it in a plane and detonate it over a city, causing terrible suffering and massive carnage. This concept is ridiculous. Not only is this method relatively ineffective as far as death toll is concerned, but it supposes that a "terrorist" would have access to large amounts of nuclear waste. Nuclear waste facilities rival Area 51 (yes, it exists) in their level of security, and they are not likely to release nuclear waste out into the wild just to see what happens. However, public opinion took this idea and ran with it, and permits for new nuclear facilities are harder to acquire than ever as a consequence.
Perhaps a less visible influence on public opinion is that of business interests. In the case of nuclear power, we are cursed by the presence of huge amounts of coal and our reliance on fossil fuels. Natural resources have proven themselves the bane of our country's existence as far as the American energy mix is concerned, because disgustingly unhealthy coal continues to dominate over 40% of the energy market. We already have a power industry supported by the massive infrastructure of fossil fuel generation; therefore, the industry in not inclined to advocate change. Thus a silent war against nuclear power is raged by committees behind glass double doors.
What's the reality behind the hype, then? For starters, France has been operating a successful nuclear program beneath the radar of our incessant atomoelectrophobia (the preceding word is not in any dictionary) since 1973. There have been no accidents despite the presence of 59 reactors scattered across the French countryside. Nuclear power is quite popular in France, and the people are eating up the benefits of the program. France receives billions of Euros from exporting power every year! Nuclear power is an alternative and green form of energy that is typically painted as a gigantic biohazard symbol. It is safer and more effective than any other form of power, and it also produces the lowest environmental cost (this includes all nuclear accidents in the cost). The political climate, however, says that nuclear power is dangerous, and because that is what people think, then that is what people continue to think.
In this measurement of one small aspect of our political climate, the fact remains that the truth about nuclear power is being obscured by all the background noise. Where will this lead us to in the future? Only you as the voting public has the answer to that.