WASHINGTON — Most Americans fear that the United States someday could face the kind of nuclear emergency that's plagued Japan in recent weeks, according to a new McClatchy-Marist poll.
"There's clearly a good deal of concern, and there's division about whether we're suited to handle this," said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in New York, which conducted the survey.
"Nuclear power is very controversial," he noted.
Last month's earthquake and tsunami on Japan's northeast coast badly damaged the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.
Tuesday, in its latest daily update, the International Atomic Energy Agency said the situation at the plant "remains very serious, but there are signs of recovery in some functions," such as electrical power.
The McClatchy-Marist survey found that a solid majority of Americans — 57 percent — think that a nuclear crisis is probable here; 41 percent thought such a crisis was likely, while another 16 percent said it was very likely.
Far fewer think it's not going to happen; 31 percent said it wasn't very likely, while 9 percent said it wasn't likely at all.
The April 10-14 poll surveyed 629 people nationwide. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
People split over the U.S. government's ability to manage such a disaster. Forty-nine percent said it was prepared or very prepared, but 48 percent said it wasn't very prepared or wasn't prepared at all.
If such an accident should occur, 56 percent thought it probably would be the result of an accident, while 40 percent feared a terrorist attack.
Few differences emerged among subgroups; generally, opinion divided the same way among people of all ages, political beliefs, education and from different regions of the country.
There was a bit of a gender gap, however. Women said an emergency probably would be the result of an accident, not a terrorist attack, by 50-45 percent, while men said an accident by 61-36 percent.
Overall, the poll's findings "are directed by attitude, not demographics. They cut across the traditional political demarcations. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue," Miringoff said.
The Japan incident led U.S. officials to re-examine nuclear safety policies.
U.S. power plant safety improved after the 1979 accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island plant. Equipment failure caused fuel to melt, but the containment structure kept radioactive material from leaking uncontrollably.
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