Sep 16, 2011
UK public confidence in nuclear remains steady despite Fukushima
The survey, carried out by Populus last month and commissioned by the British Science Association, found that 41% of respondents agreed the benefits of nuclear power outweighed the risks, up from 38% in 2010 and 32% in 2005. Those who said that the risks greatly or slightly outweighed the benefits of nuclear power in 2010 numbered 36%, and in 2011 this dropped to 28% of respondents.
The nuclear power plants at Fukushima in northern Japan were damaged during the magnitude 9 earthquake and the resulting tsunami that hit the country in March. Three of the six nuclear reactors suffered meltdowns in the biggest nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986. There were concerns that the event would irrevocably damage the case for nuclear power around the world – in the months after the Fukushima accident Germany announced the cancellation of its future programme. And a referendum in Italy in June voted down the government's plan to start a programme of new nuclear reactors.
"It's genuinely surprising to me that views have returned to these early 2010 levels quite so quickly and slightly more positively," said Nick Pidgeon of the University of Cardiff, who discussed the findings of the latest poll at a briefing to mark the launch of the British Science Festival, which starts in Bradford on Saturday. "There's been a lot of speculation about the impacts of Fukushima on public attitudes – this is the first fully independent study we've had in the UK."
Though overall support was up, there was a striking difference between men and women, with 53% of men in favour of nuclear power but only 21% of women supportive. "If you dig into the data, you see that men in particular become much more confident about nuclear energy," said Pidgeon.
He also said that blanket media coverage and commentary - something he referred to as the "George Monbiot effect" – may have had a positive effect on public attitudes because, despite the severity of the crisis, no one has so far died.
Populus interviewed 2,050 adults between 26 and 29 August and weighted its results to ensure they were representative of the British population.
Overall, the support for nuclear power has been gradually increasing for about 10 years, said Pidgeon, and, in the past five years, the majority of people in Britain has come to support the renewal of the nuclear programme.
Pidgeon said that polls in the direct aftermath of the Fukushima accident had showed a dip in support for nuclear in the UK and elsewhere, though confidence did not collapse. "There were still more people, even immediately afterwards, in favour of nuclear energy than against in Britain," he said.
The focus of potential concerns has also shifted in the wake of Fukushima. "If you asked people why they were unhappy about nuclear energy a year ago, they would have brought waste up," said Pidgeon. "What is clear from other polling is that accidents have gone to the top of what people are now concerned about with nuclear energy, the waste has dropped further down."
Bryony Worthington, a Labour peer and environmental campaigner, said that for the general public the perception of the main cause of the Fukushima problem had not been the design of the reactor but the siting of the power plant. "Most people said, hang on, why did you put them all on that eastern seaboard, which is a seismically unstable region?"
The withdrawal of support for future nuclear power stations by the German government, she said, was political. "For Angela Merkel to reverse her decision and phase out the nuclear, Fukushima gave her a good opportunity to do it. She was already under huge political pressure to do that and Fukushima was just the trigger she found politically expedient to do it."
Thorium reactors are safer
Scientists at the briefing discussed the future of nuclear power, arguing that thorium, rather than uranium, was the safer alternative fuel. Bob Cywinski, of the University of Huddersfield, said: "One tonne of thorium is equivalent to 200 tonnes of uranium and it doesn't need processing or enriching – 57 kilotonnes of thorium would provide the total energy need of the planet for a year, not just electricity but transport."
Though thorium has been used as a fuel in experimental reactors in the past, it was sidelined in favour of uranium. "Why did we stop using it? It's the unfortunate fact that civil nuclear power has been so closely linked with the military. And thorium, unfortunately, does not produce plutonium and is useless as far as proliferation is concerned. The linking of civil nuclear with military nuclear has probably done a great disservice not just to thorium but to nuclear energy in general."
Kirk Sorensen, president of the Weinberg Foundation, a new NGO launched on Thursday to promote the cause of thorium around the world, said the design of thorium reactors had always focused on safety first. The intent was to eliminate the root causes of danger in existing nuclear reactors, such as high-pressure coolants and chemically reactive situations. In addition, thorium reactors only operate as long as there is a source of neutrons being beamed in to split atoms. If this is switched off, the reactor shuts down without any human intervention.
"Reasonable estimates suggest there is no more than 100 years of uranium left, maybe it is time we started turning to thorium," said Cywinski. "Thorium is four times more abundant than uranium. In principle, there is something like 10,000 years of energy left in our thorium reserves."
About the author
Alok Jha is a science correspondent at the Guardian.