A survey for the Nuclear Energy Institute shows Southern nuclear plant neighbors who live within 10 miles of a nuclear plant have more confidence in nuclear industry than any other region of the country. Below is the percent in each region that would support a new reactor nearby.
* South — 75 percent
* West — 68 percent
* Midwest — 67 percent
* Northeast — 55 percent
Source: Bisconti Research Inc.
With deep under-eye shadows and painted-on blood stains, zombies brought a nuclear protest to the TVA headquarters on Market Street on Wednesday.
Holding signs that read "No new nukes" and "Bellefonte = Danger + Debt," about 50 protesters ranging from young teens to grandparents crowded the sidewalk at the Tennessee Valley Authority building downtown to ask CEO Tom Kilgore and the TVA board to say no to more nuclear reactors in the Tennessee Valley.
"We don't want our children to have to have this kind of test," said Sandy Kurtz, holding up a radiation Geiger counter like those in photographs of Japanese health officials scanning children on the heels of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear meltdowns in March.
According to a number of recent polls, Chattanooga's protest may be just the tip of the cooling tower of America's frosty attitude toward nuclear power after an earthquake and tsunami led to multiple meltdowns in Japan.
An ABC and Washington Post poll in mid-April found an 11-percentage point increase in the number of Americans opposing the building of new nuclear plants.
That poll found that 64 percent of respondents now oppose new nuclear plant construction, while 33 percent support it.
In a similar poll in 2008, 53 percent of Americans opposed new nuclear plant construction.
But in the South, acceptance of nuclear power among residents who live within 10 miles of a nuclear plant but don't work there is stronger than anywhere else in the country, said Steve Kerekes, communication director for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a nuclear power trade group.
And TVA spokesman Ray Golden said a separate poll TVA recently contracted shows that 86 percent of people living around Bellefonte supported the plant being built and operating.
"Even after Fukushima," Golden said.
Neighbors vs public
Zombies protest Bellefonte revivalAbout 40 people, some dressed as zombies, gathered in front of the Tennessee Valley Authority headquarters Wednesday to protest TVA possibly reviving the Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in Hollywood, Ala.
Ann Bisconti, president of Bisconti Research Inc., the firm that has conducted the biennial Nuclear Plant Neighbor Survey for NEI for the past decade, said it is a given that people willing to live near a nuclear plant have fewer concerns about nuclear safety than most people.
"We find there is a real familiarity in these communities. Maybe their kids play baseball with someone whose dad works at the plant, and they trust that guy to perform his job well," she said.
But even in those communities, she said, the Fukushima disaster rattled support -- especially when those people were asked if they favored a new reactor being built at the plant nearest them.
Nationally, support for a new reactor next door dropped from 76 percent in 2009 to 67 percent in June 2011, when the most recent survey was made, Bisconti said.
She declined to provide specific plant survey numbers, deferring to the utilities.
TVA's Golden on Wednesday only offered the number for Bellefonte -- taken in a special survey because the biennial report only involves operating nuclear plants. He said the full results of TVA's special survey may be released later this year.
The Bellefonte question
The zombies' protest of Bellefonte was prompted by TVA President Kilgore's plan to put the plant's completion and restart on the Aug. 18 agenda for the utility's board of directors.
"Given uncertainties regarding TVA financial status, Bellefonte's location, questionable reactor design and the future of the nuclear power industry in general, we believe it is ill-advised and premature to approve construction at this time," said a letter the group presented to Kilgore's secretary at the end of the protest.
"We're concerned over the danger and debt of all of this and the fact that we have other answers and solutions that don't create nuclear waste," Kurtz said.
She said the four groups involved in the protest are hoping TVA will discontinue all nuclear power, but especially Bellefonte, which already is nearly 40 years old.
Calling Bellefonte a "corpse" and "nuclear zombie," Lou Zeller, with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, said the plant has a questionable reactor design and many of its vital parts were sold for scrap and cannibalized for spare parts in other reactors.
Garry Morgan, a retired U.S. Army nuclear biological and chemical warfare protection officer, said the plant sits on sinkhole-prone terrain two miles away from a seismic fault that wasn't factored into it's safety design.
"I am very concerned over the deceit of TVA management's reporting to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the public," Morgan said, referring to problems at Browns Ferry during the week after tornadoes forced the plant into emergency shutdown and several systems at the plant failed. He also cited the problems discovered in TVA operations and communications in 2008 involving the Kingston ash spill.
"There can be no compromise of trust and reliability of personnel as it relates to nuclear programs," Morgan said.
Shaping public opinion
TVA's Golden said the peaceful protesters' display "was creative," and those in the gathering had a right to make the display and voice their opinions.
"But TVA disagrees with them. We think Bellefonte is important to our future ... and nuclear power is safe. Can it be safer? Absolutely, and we're committed to making it so." he said.
But can TVA turn fear to confidence after Fukushima?
"Time will tell," he said. "Right now I think a lot of people are asking what happened? And could it happen here? Our job is to try and reassure folks that these plants are built safe, they were designed safe, and they're operating safe."
Golden said TVA will tackle the task one attitude at a time.
"We're not going to go into some slick ad campaigns," he said. "We're not adding additional dollars to go out and better inform people about nuclear power."
Instead he said the utility will use "dialogue."
"We may start more plant tours of Bellefonte. I think it's more a one-person-at-a-time thing, and we'll offer availability and use our website and maybe social media a little more," he said.
Kathleen Ferris, a grandmother who drove from Murfreesboro, Tenn., to be part of the protest, said it will take more than that to change her mind.
"I have two grandchildren, and the whole world has grandchildren," she said.
"Nuclear reactors emit radiation. Radiation causes cancer. It causes childhood leukemia. It can cause genetic defects," she said. "I don't want the grandchildren of the world to be genetically modified. I just want a healthy, clean world for them to live in. And that's why I'm carrying a sign that says 'Go green!'"
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...