What difference did the Fukushima disaster make to attitudes towards nuclear energy?


9:28 am - August 21st 2011

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contribution by Climate Sock

With an event as prominent as the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the media tend to assume that the public have been paying attention, and that public opinion must have undergone a dramatic shift.

Sometimes this is fair. The MPs’ expenses scandal did capture public attention and brought attitudes towards politicians even lower than they had been before. But other high-profile media stories, like the UEA email release (aka ‘climategate’), came and went without having all that much impact on public opinion. In the UK and US at least, Fukushima is looking like the latter kind of story.

It’s certainly had a huge amount of coverage. Compare on Google Trends for the UK the words “nuclear” and “news of the world”, the other major story of the last few months (before the riots, which dwarf the others):

So “nuclear” seems to have got more news coverage than “news of the world”, but been used slightly less in searches. We get something similar (with fewer hits) if we use “Fukushima” or “hacking”.

Yet despite this widespread coverage – of something that isn’t the greatest ad for nuclear power – public opinion in the UK and US doesn’t seem to have changed that much.

The last time we looked at this we saw that support for nuclear power had been growing over the last decade or so. Now the polls have been updated since Fukushima, it looks like support has only fallen slightly, not undoing the gains that have been made in the last ten years.

In the UK, net support for replacement nuclear power stations (% who support, minus % who oppose) has fallen from +28 to +7 according to Mori’s regular tracking poll. It sounds like a big fall, but it puts opinion back only to where it was in 2007.

Results are similar in the US. Gallup found in a poll at the height of the media focus on the crisis that net support for the construction of nuclear plants in the US was at -3: a 16-point fall on before the crisis, and around where opinion was in ’01.

Remember that for each two points of net change here, only 1% of people need to change their mind. That is, if support falls from 60% to 59% and opposition increases from 40% to 41%, net support falls by two points.

So, in net changes of 19 points and 16 points, we’re seeing the effect of between 8-10% of people changing their mind. Those don’t strike me as particularly big changes, given the drama of the crisis and the impact it would have if it was replicated in the US or the UK.

Two possible – and very different – explanations for this occur to me.

One is disengagement. It wouldn’t be the first time that an issue has received a great amount of media attention, but hasn’t really captured the public’s interest. This, though, would need to explain why it seems to have triggered such a high level of internet searching.

An alternative explanation is a ‘rational’ response. Perhaps a nuclear disaster triggered by an earthquake and tsunami was seen as just not relevant in the UK and (much of) the US. But this doesn’t in itself explain why the reaction in Germany seems to have been so different.

Somewhere between the two explanations is the possibility that it was seen as a ‘foreign’ news story: something of voyeuristic interest but with no instinctive connection to people’s lives. It may have been of great interest, but many people may have not consciously associated it with their opinion on energy sources in their country.

Whichever explanation is more accurate (and I’d suggest each applies to different people), for all the assertions that attitudes to nuclear energy will force policy changes, the reality is that for most people in the UK and US, Fukushima changed little.

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Hat-tip @NeilStockley for latest UK poll

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Reader comments


Counterpoint. There’s been a dropoff, small, in support for nuclear power. Fine.

Your assumption is that Fukushima, automatically, means people should be less supportive. That isn’t true. Some people will have looked at a 40 year old due to be mothballed facing two different natural disasters, seeing three core meltdowns and no one dead, seeing the amount of contamination less, than, say, what residents of Dartmoor see naturally anyway, and decided that given how old the plant was, a modern plant built by modern standards is going to be even safer and actually provide us with large amounts of electricity.

Fukushima changed my mind about nuclear power plants. I now favour building more of them. I know I’m not the only person with that reaction as well.

MatGB – that’s not far from one of the explanations I suggested for why the drop off was small (“Perhaps a nuclear disaster triggered by an earthquake and tsunami was seen as just not relevant in the UK and (much of) the US”).

In itself this would be interesting. The disaster certainly looked and sounded scary (“nuclear meltdown”) and given what’s happened in other cases where perceptions of risk have been inaccurate/exaggerated (eg MMR), a thought out, non-emotional, response is noteworthy.

It’s also striking that the response in other countries doesn’t seem to have been the same, eg in Germany .

Yes. I’d be really interested in a directly comparable poll comparing more detailed aspects of public attitudes to nuclear power between the UK and Germany, to try and understand quite why the British public remained fairly sane about nuclear whilst the Germans completely lost all grip on reality…

Political lead? Green party is big in Germany, is a required coalition partner for the SDs, and has a big anti-science wing. Our Greens are even more anti-science (although slowly getting better) but are a lot weaker politically. The Lib Dem stated policy is anti-nuclear, but the support for that is a lot weaker than it was and Huhne’s keen to work to reduce emissions, if the only financially viable way is nuclear he’ll bite that bullet. Persuading LD conference to change policy would almost certainly be a lot easier these days, it’s an old policy that’s not really been updated for awhile, etc.

It may just be that the German press, which can be even worse than ours on occasion, went with it and they possibly had more actual problems from Chernobyl, plus inherited some rather dodgy soviet build reactors that they’d really rather not have to deal with?

5. Pomoloon - not!

Fukushima hasn’t really affected my perceptions of nuclear power, though I do think that quite a few people have adopted the attitude taken by MatGB.

As for the Germans’ attitude, they seem to have been quite irrational about nuclear stuff for some time.

Remember the last time when processed nuclear waste was transported back into Germany (where it was produced in the first place) from the reprocessing plant in France? Remember how German anti-nuke groups claimed it was too dangerous to move, so they protested, blocked railway lines, etc? Well, the funny thing was that when the waste was leaving Germany a few months earlier to go to France for the reprocessing, there where no protests, and the anti nuke groups didn’t try to stop the train.

It seems that they only seemed to think it was dangerous to transport it into the country,and not to transport it out.

“of something that isn’t the greatest ad for nuclear power”

I thought it was a bloody great ad for nuclear power personally.

As did G. Monbiot.

>It’s also striking that the response in other countries doesn’t seem to
>have been the same, eg in Germany .

You should realize that for Germany, Fukushima is just an excuse, although of course a highly popular excuse among the public. The actual change in German energy policy is, of course, towards fossil fuel with the right political connections. Yeah, I know, they *talk* a lot about renewables, but if you look at what actually happens just now, you’ll see that the Nordstream project, consulted by senior politicians such as Gerhard Schröder, is about to deliver gas. The first pipeline will be operational late this year, the second one is in the works.

So, you can shut down some nuclear reactors (many of them owned by foreign energy companies) and move the business to natural (fossil) gas. Throw in a bit of added domestic coal.

8. Leon Wolfson

Fukushima proves that even 70’s designs are safe, as Fukushima Dai-ni proved once again. 60’s designs…well, why are they still running? Oh, right, because the greens have made it impossible to build new designs, and hence old reactors have been kept running.

Modern designs are even safer than the 70’s ones, strangely enough…

Monbiot is right. Heck, I’m agreeing with Tim here.


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