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Nuclear power is more unpopular than we’re led to believe

9:00 am - July 5th 2010

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contribution by Leo

New polling sheds some light both on where the public stand in terms of different power options, and on the impact of arguments that make nuclear seem more attractive.

The polls are useful for understanding public attitudes towards nuclear power in two ways: they indicate how people regard nuclear at the moment, and they also help show the impact of arguments for nuclear power.

At a basic level, nuclear power is currently pretty much the least popular form of power generation in the UK.

1. When asked favourability towards different sources, it comes in at the bottom of the pile – around the same place as both coal and gas.

2. There is strong local opposition to the construction of new nuclear power stations. While three in four claim they would support wind farms being built within five miles of their home, only a quarter say the same about a new nuclear station.

However, the polls also show that this opposition is relatively soft. The arguments for nuclear power can change these attitudes quite strongly.

The lesson appears to be that nuclear is seen as a source of energy production that doesn’t contribute to climate change – and this is a strength, so nuclear does better relative to other sources when this is raised as an issue.

3. The other part of the argument is around energy security: this is just as effective in making the case for nuclear as climate change is.

So, nuclear starts is initially pretty unpopular, but has the potential to become much more accepted if the case is made based on tackling climate change and improving energy security.

4. But to be clear, this doesn’t overcome all doubts. Both of these arguments are challenged when nuclear is put directly in comparison with renewable sources, which remain far more popular until the case has been made convincingly that all other options have been exhausted.

So the results appear to show that there is a case (tackling climate change and improving energy security) that makes nuclear more accepted than other non-renewables (of course, I haven’t explored the impact of the pro-coal and pro-gas arguments…).

But nuclear would still only be grudgingly tolerated, not embraced like renewables, and there will be a powerful local resistance to any new plants.

This poll was carried out by Understanding Risk/MORI, and shows some similar results to one by EDF Energy/ YouGov a few months ago, which appeared to show that resistance to new nuclear power stations has decreased.

As we can see, support for nuclear power still pales in comparison to more renewable sources.

Click on the graphs for the full version. A longer version of this article is here.

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“But nuclear would still only be grudgingly tolerated, not embraced like renewables, and there will be a powerful local resistance to any new plants.

As we can see, support for nuclear power still pales in comparison to more renewable sources.”

Well yes. When asked, in abstraction, whether people want scary radiation and Cherynoble and 3 Mile Island and mutant fish with 3 heads, or nice happy clappy sunshine and waves, independent of any consequence to their answer and with no personal cost to be borne, they unsurprisingly prefer renewables to nuclear.

But that doesn’t follow that we should therefore only pursue renewables. Especially as they seem to simply lack the technological scope to fulfil our energy demands (and no, people are not going to start cycling everywhere and eating lettuce; the challenge is to meet energy demands not idly hope that they will magically fall to a level whereby green sources can supply to them).

Nuclear, insofar as its able to supply the world’s energy needs without cooking the planet, is probably the inevitable option, the possibility of disasters notwithstanding. The fact that the public may not like it is, in some senses, by the by. Not all virtues coincide, and the public isn’t always right.

Good piece right up to the last sentence, which is dreadful. “more PR-friendly”, rather than “more renewable”, would’ve been true.

I don’t know what “Cherynoble” is, but you should definitely get your facts and your spelling straight…the three-headed fish exist only in cartoons and radioactive fallout could probably kill people in Europe for the next millenium or so. That includes you as well, it’s not that UK didn’t get any fallout, plus there’s Sellafield.

Weird people are studying at universities nowadays…

Thanks to the author for a good article. 🙂

Wot Paul said.

We’ve got to replace about a third of our electricity generating capacity by 2020.

Of course nuclear is unpopular given the time its waste remains hazardous for and the incompetence with which it is handled (see the Windscale chimney fire cover up and the pollution of the Irish Sea. This government’s far sightedness can be seen in cancelling the £80 million loan to the Sheffield company, now those parts will have to be bought from Japan at a much higher price. The best idea would be to radically cut use of energy, all new buildings should be constructed on Passivhaus or Zero Energy principles and old inefficient buildings should be replaced

I have nothing further to add 🙂

Hi Paul 🙂

I do wish your last sentence would be cited more often when people are talking about democratic governance systems and the ‘mandates’ which result from an election. “The public” are in fact rarely ever right. “It is a sign of a base and low mind to side with the majority merely because it is the majority.” [1]

Regarding the actual issue; the difference between renewable sources and fossil fuels is not potential yield, it’s infrastructure. There is a functionally unlimited yield available from the four main renewable sources. Conversion is currently an issue, but given our remarkable success rate in the technological fields we have dedicated a phase of our society to developing, Moore’s Law could take care of the technology very quickly if we let it. The problem is we haven’t bothered: “we” have had other priorities.

We have an 800-year infrastructure investment underneath fossil fuels. We’ve dedicated vast resources to finding, getting, processing, and shifting them about. That provides immense economies of scale, and very high immediate energy yield. That infrastructure is currently owned by, but was not paid for by, a small section of the population who constitute more or less the definition of a ‘vested interest’.

We have no infrastructure at all, really, supporting renewable sources at the global scale. In order to get such an infrastructure to replace the current one, we’re going to need to spend an epic quantity of money on a fairly biblical logistics exercise.

What everyone seems to forget is that this is exactly how we got the infrastructure we currently have for exploiting fossil fuels. We invested a vast amount of money, time, effort and human lives in building it, over several centuries. This time around it’ll be much faster, cheaper, and safer.

What nuclear power offers is high yield fast. What sustainable solutions offer is permanent energy security, eventually, after spending a lot of money and effort. What fossil fuels offer is inescapably temporary.

The real argument here is cui bono? Social order permitted top-down infrastructure development when we were ruled by aristocrats. No-one in this system (except the commonality, actual people rather than corporations) benefits now from spending money on sustainability. But smart money is starting to move into developing sustainable tech, because smart people can see what they’ll get then if they’re the only game in town when the public and the boardroom catch up to reality. Something similar happened with computers in the late 1970s.

The French are in that position regarding civilian nuclear technology. They’re simply better at it than anyone else. Nuclear power could fill our energy budget deficit inside the next 20 years if we got right on it, right now. The infrastructure for full-scale delivery of renewable power given current usage curves will not exist in that time. If we got right on it in 1973 instead of rolling to OPEC and the Texas oilmen, if we’d put the entire resources of the last four oil wars into developing renewable energy, then we might have it in the next twenty years. But now? Now is too late.

I’m a shameless hippy with heavy sustainability/self-sufficiency movement connections. [2] I remember Chernobyl and grew up with Evangelical parents who genuinely taught me to believe that when (not if) “they” nuked Israel and America, Jesus would come back. I have marched with CND, and I still back nuclear power for Britain. It’s the only short-term answer I can see that will actually work.

Long term? There are better answers, but only if we spend the money.

[1] Giordano Bruno

[2] Also, I grew up in a 3rd World nation which exports hydro-electric power. There was no power grid up country, though, because 80% of all power generated, to this day, is the property of a US power company and cannot be used to power Ghana itself.

So I grew up in a solar-powered house, right through from the 1970s when it was flaky tech and difficult to obtain. It worked, though, it worked fine. We could have done this then. We chose not to. Dumb move.

#2 is a non-question. The plans are that new nuclear build will be on the existing sites. This decision was taken to streamline the planning process. So it is irrelevant whether local people want it or not because they already have a nuclear power station and that means that they’ll get a new one.

Anyway, I like to be able to flick a switch and the lights come on. I like the fact that I have a fridge that has the constant cold temperature for the medicines that I inject to keep me alive. It is irrelevant to me If that electricity comes from nuclear. It is having a reliable supply that is important.

Is it important? Well ask the people of San Fransisco about the case a few years ago when they suffered rolling blackouts how important they thought reliable supply was.

Richard: rolling blackouts have been a feature of competition between providers in the Californian power market for a number of decades. The problem has never been quantity of power available to California, it’s always been about infighting between a small cabal of power company owners. Oh, yeah, and the fact that Southern California really needs that water for things other than power, but so do Arizona and New Mexico.

[3] Iva

Perhaps you should talk to a few nuclear engineers. The reactor design used in the Chernobyl power station is not used here. The nuclear new build will use a design that has fail safes that will make Chernobyl or Three Mile Island disasters impossible.

But just like there are some people who get nervous when they enter an elevator fearing what will happen if the cable breaks (the answer is: you will not drop, the elevator will simply stop where it currently is, they have very reliable fail safes) there are people who will not believe the fail safes in the current reactor design.

There is an interesting table in Lovelock’s “The revenge of Gaia”. He lists the number of deaths for the provision of various energy generation. Hydroelectricity has 100 times the fatalities as nuclear. Clearly because hydro projects are big construction projects in often dangerous places. Lovelock also makes the point that if a hydro dam breaks then millions will be affected. The chances of another Chernobyl is no more than the chance of a hydro dam collapsing.

The thing to remember with failsafes are that they aren’t, actually, failsafe. I think the current state of the gulf of mexico demonstrates that quite well.

If a failsafe on a huge hydroelectric dam isn’t, then a massive flood happens, and hundreds to hundreds of thousands die. Ten years later, the land is usable again – and probably quite fertile, all told.

If the failsafe on a nuclear power station isn’t, then the stakes are a bit higher than that.

Still, the risk is acceptable and probably one that we should be taking in the energy-short-term.

12. Luis Enrique

“than we’ve been led to believe” … by who? when?

[9] John Q. Publican

Oh sure, it wasn’t that there wasn’t the power, just that people could not get it. (A bit like global food supply, no?) It’s the concept of living with an unreliable supply that I was trying to get across. In the UK we have grown used to taking electricity for granted. As you eloquently explain above, we have got to sort out the immediate demand, and renewables simply cannot do that in the time scale.

Addition to Richard @10: there is also a loss of life expectancy that can be associated with insufficient access to energy.

Hasn’t nuclear power always been an unpopular option? Might this polling actually show it is gradually getting more popular?

Richard @13; aye. Mind you, for all we take power ‘for granted’ in Britain, I’ve managed a number of ‘I told you so’ days with housemates who couldn’t understand why I keep fuelled up bat-lamps and candles in a house with mains power.

“I know it was different in Africa but power cuts don’t happen here”
“yes they bloody well do.”

This amazing news item from mid June seems not to have received the attention it deserves:

“Firms paid to shut down wind farms when the wind is blowing – Britain’s biggest wind farm companies are to be paid not to produce electricity when the wind is blowing.”

I’ve no information on how this policy will be affected by the forthcoming cuts in public spending.

For info: “As of 1 June 2010, there are 262 operational wind farms in the UK, with 2,896 turbines and 4,532 MW of installed capacity. A further 2,320 MW worth of schemes are currently under construction, while another 6,824 MW have planning consent and some 9,755 MW are in planning awaiting approval.[2] 1.6 GW of this capacity is forecast by National Grid plc to be the maximum available for use to supply the UK, although this is expected to rise significantly over the next 10 years”

Nuclear is the ONLY option. Two reasons: Baseload and footprint. There is no green alternative that can compete with nuclear quickly enough or on an adequate scale to meet existing demands, let alone the increasing needs of the majority world.

Anti-nuclear people need to move on. It is unsustainable to continue burning fossil fuels and it is wrong to assume that the majority world should be happy with standards of living we find unacceptable.

These slides by Saul Griffiths go some way to explaining the scale of the problem we face:

“As we can see, support for nuclear power still pales in comparison to more renewable sources.”

Well, yes. Although I’d love to see whether that still holds true when people are asked this question:

“Do you prefer nuclear power at 10 p a unit or solar power at 40 p a unit?”

I have a feeling that feelings might change.

How about wave power?

“TWO concrete blocks on the bottom of the sea off the north coast of Scotland are all that’s left of the world’s first attempt to build a commercial wave power station. When Osprey, a large yellow 2-megawatt generator, was wrecked by waves that were meant to power it, hope died. Before its steel ballast tanks could be filled, heavy seas scoured the sand from beneath them and they ripped open. The engineers who designed the machine were ‘absolutely gutted’ and Lloyds insurers had to pick up a bill for more than £1 million. . .

“But appearances can be deceptive. Wave power is not so easily scuppered. Even as Osprey went down, researchers had a number of other devices ready to be tested in the water. They learnt lessons from Osprey just as they had from other disappointments. They revised their designs and created new ones. . . ”

21. Roger Mexico

Everyone’s missing the point here. The real problem with nuclear power isn’t three-headed fish or public fears or even if, unsubsidised, it costs the earth. It’s that it’s a wonderful excuse for procrastination.

For decades investment in power generation (especially renewables) or power saving could be put off. Nuclear was seen as a backup possibility and nuclear industry lobbying kept it that way, while not being able to overcome the financial arguments and public opposition and actually build new generating capacity.

Politicians hate spending money on long term projects – some else might get the credit. Unfortunately building new nuclear power stations is also a long term investment and one that requires government subsidy – direct or indirect. It’s also an uncertain enterprise given how few have recently been built.

So the possibility of nuclear power sits there, giving an excuse to do nothing. And because the right time to start planning a new station is always five years ago, the possibility is never achieved.

Surround half the UK with wave generators and you’ll get about 4kWh/day/person of electricity. We need around 20 times that amount.

Wave isn’t a credible /replacement/ for nuclear – which can feasibly provide a good third of our total energy requirement. To be frank, I’m quite skeptical of wave /in toto/, given the low yields and environmental impacts thereof (loss of habitat being quite nasty, and all that).

23. Yurrzem!

How about putting the requirements for power generation into less abstract terms: We currently need about 16TW globally. Factoring in an increased demand and improved efficiency we might argue for a need for 18TW in the next 25 years. using renewables that would require the installation of 100m2 of 15% efficient photovoltaics per second for 25 years plus 50m2 solar thermal generators at 30% efficiency per second plus 12 3MW wind turbines per hour plus an olympic-sized pool of algae for biofuels every second for 25 years…

Or we could build some nuclear power plants as well, take a little pressure off and research into new nuclear technologies. (I quite like the idea of one of those sealed-unit nuclear plants to power my community).

All options are expensive.

We cannot continue to use fossil fuels in the same way as we currently are. (Burning coal releases more radioactivity into the environment than nuclear power, including the accidents).

This isn’t just some abstract dinner party debate. This is about our legacy for the future and its very much mud-huts-and-oxen vs health, wealth and wellbeing.

“How about putting the requirements for power generation into less abstract terms: ”

Agreed. So one other less abstract point. The sheer amount of time it takes to develop, properly, a new technology.

Take solid oxide fuel cells. We’ve known about them generally since the 1850s. Only in the late 80s, early 1990s, did people really get serious about developing them: for climate change reasons.

Westinghouse, just as one example, did a whole heap of development work, to the point that there was one metal they really needed to make them work and they went and worked out (and patented) a method of extracting that metal, back in 1992.

I supplied Westinghouse with some of that metal in, umm, 1996 I guess, for them to play with.

One problem with SOFCs is that they crack as they cycle from room temp to 800 oC or so. That was solved in about 2002 at St Andrew’s University (again with my metal actually).

We’re only just now getting (the Bloom Box is an example) these SOFCs coming to market and they’re still not quite right. Another two or three iterations of manufacturing needed (as John Q mentions, let’s get Moore’s Law onto this) probably. We can see where it needs to go: using thin film techniques rather than physical deposition, we need much more reliable large scale manufacturing, but we can see that it will come together. It’s engineering now, not research science.

Oh, and someone needs to find a way of getting that magic metal in quantity (the Westinghouse method no longer works) which is what I work on.

But my point here is simply to try and point out that these new technologies do not spring fully formed when desired. They take decades to bring to a usable, economic form. SOFCs will be, my estimation, about 2020.

This is a bloody unusual comments section, in that everyone on it is sensible, correct, thought-provoking and interesting. Is it just that the topic is too boring and non-partisan to deter the trolls?


There was no power grid up country, though, because 80% of all power generated, to this day, is the property of a US power company and cannot be used to power Ghana itself.

What on earth do they do with it? Aluminium electrolysis? I can’t think of anything else you could sensibly do with electricity in Ghana other than sell it to Ghanaians…

“What on earth do they do with it? Aluminium electrolysis?”

Bingo! JohnB wins the internets.

Valco, used to be an Alcoa affiliate, now Govt owned.

The essential system is hydro, and when you plan large hydro schemes you often plan to have smelters by them to be the base customers.

Ghana also has its own bauxite, so they’re using the mineral and the great river jointly in a nice bit of absolute (not just comparative) advantage.

The French are laughing:

“Nuclear power is the primary source of electricity in France. In 2004, 425.8 TWh out of the country’s total production of 540.6 TWh of electricity was from nuclear power (78.8%), the highest percentage in the world.”

28. gastro george

The problem with nuclear proponents is that they are incurable optimists, and fail to grasp a simple fact. Nuclear technology requires precision technology but nuclear power plants are civil engineering projects, which are by their very nature somewhat imprecise. And then faults in construction are very costly to remedy [how do you fix a leaking concrete pool full of radioactive liquid?]. So any cost and time estimates are almost worthless.

A more dirigiste government like France that is used to grands projets can make it work – but at some cost. For a prevaricating build-it-and-patch-it culture like ours, it’s just asking for trouble.

gastro george @28, what proportion of nuclear plant projects run over time and/or over budget? And how does that compare with other power plant and civil engineering projects?

What Tim said re the cost. Everybody likes renewables until they have to pay.

Surprised no one’s mentioned this.

Islanders have been rewarded for their “green” power projects just days after a shortage of rain has meant them having to revert back to fossil fuel. The Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust has been named overall UK winner in the Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy. Residents of Eigg usually get most of their electricity from hydro, solar and wind schemes. But they have been using diesel generators until hydro-electric generation can be resumed.

Most people don’t know anything about energy policy and have been led to believe all sorts of rubbish by the more irresponsible elements of the environmental lobby. All this is is evidence of that.

32. gastro george

@29 ukliberty
I’ll be brave. Do you want to name me one in the UK that was completed on the original schedule and for the original price?

@28 “Nuclear technology requires precision technology but nuclear power plants are civil engineering projects, which are by their very nature somewhat imprecise.”

I wouldn’t say civil engineering projects are “imprecise” by any means. We work out acceptable tolerances and construct to within those tolerances, but that doesn’t make the work imprecise at all! And as long as everything is done correctly (and we have a staggering amount of civil engineering expertise in this country, both in engineering and construction), there’s no reason why the projects can’t be constructed on-time and in-budget; just like many other civil engineering projects are.

(slightly OT so apologies, but I felt the need to stick up for my profession :-P)

To all appearances, the French experiment with high dependence on nuclear power for electricity generation has been a success story and nuclear power in France has produced relatively inexpensive electricity as compared with other west European countries. What’s more, I don’t know of any evidence showing widespread popular disapproval of nuclear power in France.

35. rwendland

@10 Richard Blogger “The nuclear new build will use a design that has fail safe [unlike] Three Mile Island”

The Areva EPR that EDF is proposing to build in the UK does not have passive cooling after shutdown (part of fail-safe), as you seem to be suggesting. (Perhaps you are thinking of the AP1000.)

The EPR is really in principle much like the old generation of PWRs, but with extra emegency equipment such as “Four independent emergency cooling systems” to achieve the extra safety levels now being sought (largely to withstand smart terrorist attack without the core subsequently melting from residual radioactive heating post shutdown).

36. rwendland

@19 “Do you prefer nuclear power at 10 p a unit or solar power at 40 p a unit?”

Tim, not solar, but note that the largest nuclear plant operator in US says wind is cheaper than nuclear in the U.S. (or less uneconomic to be precise).

CEO of Exelon says $75/ton CO2 pricing is needed for economic deployment of new nuclear power in the US, compared to $45 to wind in the best locations.

Speaking to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works October 29, 2009:

“New wind generating capacity ranges from $45 to $80 per ton depending on the location. New nuclear generating capacity is $75 per ton. A new integrated gasification combined cycle plant with carbon capture and sequestration costs $160 per ton.”

EDF is looking for a commitment to a high floor CO2 price before finally authorising new nuclear build in the UK. And if they get that, they will be laughing all the way to the bank with the super-profits they will get from the old ex-British Energy nuclear fleet they now own, until they can no longer be life-extended.

“Do you want to name me one in the UK that was completed on the original schedule and for the original price?”


As far as I’m aware, it’s the only govt run large scale engineering project to come in under budget and under time in the modern era.

38. gastro george

@33 Dickie
I’ve no problem with civil engineers and their abilities. Like you say, if you work to your tolerances, then everything generally works out fine. My point is that nuclear is different. As a civil engineer, you’ll recognise that things do go wrong during the project. But these mistakes are usually easily recoverable. At the bottom end you get the lump hammer out to make things fit. Further up the scale, you might be a bit more sophisticated. The problem with nuclear is that almost nothing is allowed to go wrong. Open the wrong tap at the wrong time (c.f Dungeness), or lay the concrete incorrectly (c.f current build in Finland) and you can add years to the construction time.
@37 TimWorstall
The last time I looked Polaris wasn’t a nuclear power station.

39. rwendland

@34. Bob B: “nuclear power in France has produced relatively inexpensive electricity”

That’s only because the govt provided the finance at govt long-term project discount rates (about 3.5% in the UK), with no risk premium. That does not transfer across to the modern privatised electricity genertion industry – the respected MIT study uses a 11.5% discount rate for private finance (split equity/debt model). Finance is key – funding finance accounts for around 65% to 70% of the eventual per MWh cost (wind is similar).

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    RT @libcon: Nuclear power is more unpopular than we're led to believe

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    RT @nukereaction: RT @libcon: Nuclear power is more unpopular than we're led to believe

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    RT @nukereaction: RT @libcon: Nuclear power is more unpopular than we're led to believe

  5. Simon Davies

    People would prefer a new wind farm in their neighbourhood over a nuclear power station >

  6. Andrew Davies

    RT @nukereaction: RT @libcon: Nuclear power is more unpopular than we're led to believe

  7. Kirk Sorensen

    There's some interesting poll results in this article.

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