British public divided on nuclear power

The amount of people now supporting the use of nuclear power in the UK is roughly the same as those opposed, according to research published today by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC).

The findings show that opposition to nuclear power in Britain has fallen since 2005, despite the Fukushima accident in 2011, which led to a nuclear disaster with the plant causing significant radioactive contamination.

Researchers based at Cardiff University and the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Japan carried out a number of nationally representative surveys in Britain and Japan, both before and after the Fukushima accident.

They asked questions about attitudes to nuclear power and covered aspects such as perceived risks and benefits, trust in safety and regulation, and the future of nuclear power in the UK and Japan.

The research found that the Fukushima nuclear accident had virtually no impact on British public attitudes to nuclear power, despite being responsible for a “near-total collapse in public confidence in nuclear energy in Japan”.

Attitudes in Britain have become more positive in recent years, with similar proportions of people now supporting (32%) and opposing (29%) the use of nuclear power, compared to percentages of 26% and 37% respectively in 2005.

Despite there still being a substantial level of public concern over the storage of radioactive waste and nuclear accidents, concern over nuclear power in Britain has dropped since the Fukushima accident, from 58% in 2005 and 54% in 2010 to 47% in 2013.

While there has been a shift in recent years in favour of nuclear power, fewer people now than in 2005 and 2010 are willing to accept the building of a new nuclear power stations to tackle climate change (47% in 2013 vs. 55% in 2005 and 56% in 2010).

However, the research suggests that this may be associated as much with an increase in climate scepticism as with changing attitudes to nuclear power.

The survey found that just under three-quarters of the British public (72%) accept that the world’s climate is changing, while the proportion of people doubting the reality of climate change has risen to one of the highest levels since 2005 – 4% in 2005, 15% in 2010 and 19% in 2013.

Cardiff University lead researcher at the Welsh School of Architecture, Dr Wouter Poortinga said: “British attitudes towards nuclear power have been surprisingly robust in the wake of the Fukushima accident, and trust in regulation has held up fairly well. It even appears that the attitudes to nuclear have softened somewhat after Fukushima. However, in reality, nuclear power remains relatively unpopular as compared to renewable energy sources”.

Green groups have slammed the British Government for its backing of nuclear and last week, at its annual conference, the Lib Dems backed a new generation of nuclear power plants and fracking for gas.

Commenting on the party’s announcement, Friends of the Earth’s policy and campaigns director Craig Bennett said: “Backing for nuclear power punches a huge hole in the Liberal Democrats fast-sinking green credibility.

“Nuclear power comes with massive costs attached. Ed Davey is deluded if he thinks new reactors can go ahead without public subsidy – building them will result in the Liberal Democrats, yet again, breaking their promises,” he added.

In comparison, very few Japanese people want to continue nuclear at current levels (15%) or with expansion (2%), and a majority wants to see nuclear power phased out gradually (53%) or immediately (23%). Only 17% of the Japanese public are now willing to accept the building of new nuclear power stations to tackle climate change, as compared to 22% in 2011 and 33% in 2007.

While trust in the regulation of nuclear power was already low in Japan before the Fukushima accident (19% in 2007), it dropped to even lower levels after the accident (9% in both 2011 and 2013).

Leigh Stringer

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