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Learning the lessons of Fukushima

Public polls don’t tell the whole story, warns Nick Pidgeon

A study for the British Science Festival into the UK’s attitudes to nuclear energy following the Fukushima disaster, has shown a striking gender split. While 37 per cent of the UK population supports the use of nuclear power for producing energy in the UK, 31 per cent are against it.  However, men are much more enthusiastic about it than women. About 70 per cent of people who are in favour of nuclear power are men, while about 63 per cent of people who oppose it are women.

Using tracking data from the Public Perceptions of Climate Change and Energy Futures in Britain Survey conducted by Cardiff University, the Association has found that in 2005, 59 per cent of the UK population were fairly or very concerned about nuclear power, but this dropped to 54 per cent in 2010 and to 47 per cent in 2011. Furthermore, those listed as being not very or not at all concerned about nuclear has seen a steady increase from 38 per cent in 2005 to 42 per cent in 2010 and stands at 45 per cent in 2011.

This result seems to indicate that Fukushima has had little impact on overall UK public concern about nuclear power.

Other results from this survey would seem to indicate that the UK public is in favour of a mixed nuclear and renewable solution to the UK’s future energy needs, and that energy security is a stronger motivation than climate change.

World wide                                    

Globally, the picture is rather different.  An Ipsos poll carried out after Fukushima found that global support for nuclear energy has dropped from 54 per cent to 38 per cent, fuelled by a 26 per cent jump in new opponents to nuclear power who say that Fukushima caused their decision. Particularly high levels of opposition were found in both Germany and Japan.

Globally, only 31 per cent support new nuclear build.  This average hides big differences between countries, with only 11 per cent of Brazilians supporting compared with 52 per cent of Poles.  In Britain, the figure is 43 per cent.

Research shows that people will be more accepting of nuclear power if they trust the people in charge. One component of that trust is how they perceive these people’s communication.  The same Ipsos poll found that, globally, 54 per cent of people assessed Japanese officials’ and institutions’ communications to be honest and 56 per cent assessed them as timely.  However, in Japan itself, only 28 per cent agreed that communications were honest and only 23 per cent that they were timely.

Implications for UK nuclear

The current UK policy focus is on the existing nuclear sites, and the current government seems determined to press on with its plans for new nuclear developments there.

The impacts of the Fukushima reporting on UK communities living near existing nuclear power plants are likely to be very complex indeed. My own research has shown that anxieties about nuclear always exist below the surface at such sites and external events such as at Fukushima have the capability to bring them to the surface for many people. Dialogue and engagement with such communities is likely to become much more difficult – both practically and ethically - as a result.

The events at Fukushima show us that, with any highly complex hazardous technology, accidents can always happen – something the sociologist Charles Perrow many years ago called a ‘Normal Accident’. While the impacts of the Tsunami have been a tragedy for the people of Japan, this should not deter us from drawing the right lessons from the Fukushima disaster.  It would be a mistake to approach community engagement without acknowledging that some profound lessons have to be learned - including that this technology remains very dangerous.

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Nick Pidgeon
Nick Pidgeon is professor of applied psychology at Cardiff University
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