Is the Debate on Nuclear Being Fixed?

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Nuclear spin.png This article is part of the Nuclear Spin project of Spinwatch.

This article formed part of the analysis of claims about nuclear energy during the first phase of SpinWatch's NuclearSpin project (2008-09)

The Reluctant 38 Per cent

A central theme of the British Government and the nuclear industry’s strategy to convince people to embrace a new generation of nuclear power plants is that it is a solution to climate change and energy security.

But this strategy throws up obvious dilemmas, not least that support for new build is becoming dependent on the public believing that nuclear is actually the answer to those two pressing issues. If this belief evaporates, so does public support for new build.

The crucial section of public the government need to convince concerning these two factors are those that live near a nuclear power plant and who must be convinced of the need for new reactors to be built near their homes.

It is generally assumed that people living near existing nuclear sites will be more supportive of new reactors. Although a recent opinion survey seems to confirm this, it also shows how vulnerable the government is if people change their mind about nuclear being the solution to either climate or energy security. Because the survey shows that as much as 38% of the population living in close proximity to reactors are only willing to accept new ones reluctantly if they are essential for energy security and tackling climate change.

This group of people formed the biggest grouping among the local residents in relation to nuclear power in a recent survey conducted by researchers from Cardiff and East Anglia Universities: [1] [2]

  • "Reluctant acceptance": 38% of the respondents viewed the technology as potentially risky, but were willing to accept it because of concerns about energy security and climate change.
  • "Beneficial and safe": 34% of the respondents viewed their local power station as being a source of benefits and essentially safe. The nearby reactors were not considered to be a risk to the community's well-being.
  • "Threat and distrust": 16% of the people surveyed believed the risks associated with nuclear power far outweighed any benefits. This group was also highly suspicious of claims made by the government and nuclear industry.
  • "There's no point worrying": 12% of those questioned expressed few concerns about the technology, but were still critical of government and industry. But they also expressed distrust of environmental groups that "exaggerated" the risks. [3]

One of the scientists involved, Professor Nick Pidgeon, of Cardiff University, admitted that the acceptance of the 38 per cent that showed “conditional support” for nuclear was “potentially quite fragile”. This means that, rather than the local community offering unconditional support for nuclear power plants, if the argument that nuclear provides no solution to climate change were to prevail, we could see a majority being against new nuclear build. [4]

This throws up a real dilemma for the government as local communites are meant to be more supportive of building new reactors than the UK population in general. Moreover, other, earlier surveys have actually found that very few people would actively prefer new nuclear power as an energy source over renewable sources or demand reduction, given the choice. [5]

Nuclear Only Reduces Carbon By 4 Per Cent

In addition few people realise that nuclear power’s contribution to reducing carbon emissions will only ever be quite small – perhaps around 4% if existing reactors are replaced. [6]

But if the huge sums of money expected to be spent on new reactors were spent on alternatives such as energy efficiency and combined heat and power plants this could save between two and eleven times more carbon dioxide per pound spent. [7]

It's Being Fixed

Given these statistics, there is evidence that the government has tried to “fix” the debate in favour of nuclear, when it launched a second consultation in May 2007, after the High Court ruled its previous consultation was procedurally flawed. [8]

For example, twenty senior academics, who examined this second consultation, accused the Government of deliberately skewing the results by linking nuclear to fears about climate change, and burying the fact that nuclear power can only make a small contribution to reducing the UK's CO2 emissions.

One of those academics, Paul Dorfman, senior research fellow at the National Centre for Involvement at the University of Warwick, said the exercise was designed to come up with a popular mandate to proceed with nuclear power by giving the public biased and incomplete information. [9] [10]

Imbalanced, Misleading Information

Furthermore, in October 2008 there was a further damning rebuke for the government’s objectivity in the nuclear power debate. A year earlier, the environmental group Greenpeace had complained to the Marketing Research Standards Board about the government's second public consultation on nuclear power.

The Marketing Research Standards Board sets the standards for opinion research. After a year long investigation it found that that the market research company Opinion Leader Research, which conducted much of the public opinion work on nuclear power for BERR, breached its Code of Conduct. The board concluded that Opinion Leader “information was inaccurately or misleadingly presented, or was imbalanced, which gave rise to a material risk of respondents being led towards a particular answer”.

The Marketing Research Standards Board also said it “was unsatisfactory that it was ultimately Opinion Leader’s client (BERR) who reviewed the final stakeholder comments and decided how to respond to them, preparing the final written drafts for sign-off.” [11]

The more the government tries to “fix” the debate on nuclear power, the more greater the risk it runs that when people realize what is happening, public support will evaporate.

Under the Strategic Siting Assessment arrangements, companies that want to nominate a site must be able to demonstrate that that have taken steps to engage local communities living in the vicinity of those sites.

The problem for both the government and industry is that – the more people find out the government is “fixing the process” and how little nuclear can combat climate change, the more hostile they are likely to be to a generation of new nuclear plants.


  1. James Randerson, Nuclear plants’ neighbours back expansion, The Guardian, 30 September, 2008.
  2. Nick Pidgeon, Karen Henwood, Karen Parkhill, Dan Venables and Peter Simmons, "Living with Nuclear Power in Britain: A Mixed-methods Study", Cardiff University and the University of East Anglia, 30 September, 2008.
  3. Mark Kinver, "Mixed views on new nuclear build", BBC, 30 September, 2008.
  4. Greenpeace, “The Convenient Solution”, Greenpeace UK, 18 July, 2007.
  5. Prof Nick Pidgeon et al, Brief memorandum on Public Attitudes to Climate Change, Nuclear Power and Energy Futures, submitted to the DTI Energy Review 2006, 13 April, 2006.
  6. David Adam, "Nuclear Power Cannot Tackle Climate Change", The Guardian, 17 January, 2006.
  7. Amory Lovins, Lovins on CNN, CNN, 16 October, 2008.
  8. DTI, The Future of Nuclear Power: the role of nuclear power in a low carbon economy, DTI, May, 2007.
  9. Julian Rush, Spinning a nuclear consultation, Channel 4 News, 19 September, 2007.
  10. Paul Dorfman (Ed) Nuclear Consultation: Public trust in Government, Nuclear Consultation Working Group, 2008.
  11. MRS Market Research Standards Board, Complaint by Greenpeace, October, 2008.