Published on 17 Mar 2011 Sections , ,

A shift in public attitudes to nuclear power?

What impact will Japan’s nuclear disaster have on future power station plans? Environmental psychologist Professor Nick Pidgeon, reports on how disasters like these alter our perception of risk.

Japanese woman wearing face mask (R)

The unfolding disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant is a human tragedy for those workers who have already lost their lives, as well for the many people who may, as a result, be subsequently exposed to radiation.

Coming as it does alongside the devastating earthquake and tsunami one could hardly envisage a worse situation for the government and people of Japan. But the long-term effects of this catastrophe are unlikely to be confined to South East Asia, as governments around the world begin to re-evaluate their plans for the future expansion of nuclear power.

Although economic and safety issues are likely to dominate that debate, this disaster also brings into sharp relief the critical role that public perceptions will play in the future of nuclear power in Britain as elsewhere. How might opinions and perceptions change over the coming months and years as a result of the disaster? And what will be the implications for the UK government’s current energy policy?

Research stemming back to the 1970s shows how the risks of nuclear power are almost unique in their capacity to instil public concern. Worries about major accidents and radioactive waste storage, the invisible effects of radiation, and distrust brought on by the early secrecy and hubris of the nuclear industry, all combined in a lethal cocktail which very quickly served to stigmatise civilian nuclear power. One clear effect of the ensuing public pressure was a failure of the nuclear industry to expand further after the 1980s.

Research stemming back to the 1970s shows how the risks of nuclear power are almost unique in their capacity to instil public concern.

The past 10 years has shown a gradual reversal in fortunes for the industry. Opinion polling indicates a reduction in opposition amongst the public in Britain over that period, as compared to the very high levels of opposition reached after the last nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986.

In nationwide polling conducted in early 2010 we found a very balanced picture, with 46 per cent of those questioned favouring replacement or expansion of the existing nuclear capacity in Britain as compared to 47 per cent who wanted it closed or phased out. This softening in opposition clearly reflects the arguments being advanced regarding nuclear power’s possible contribution to combating climate change and to delivery of future energy security, as well as the fading collective memory of Chernobyl.

A closer look at the polling data shows a more complex picture, however, with a large proportion of recent national support being fragile -a very reluctant acceptance at best. While many in Britain have indeed come to support nuclear power over the past decade they do so while viewing it only as a “devil’s bargain”, a choice of last resort in the face of the severe threat of climate change. The events this week in Japan are, for many, likely to test that acceptance to breaking point.

A particular focus of concern this week will be for those communities at locations which house existing nuclear power plants, as people there ask whether their own local facilities are safe, and what the plans for new nuclear build in this country will mean for them and their children.

Again, research suggests a complex picture and the need to look beyond headline statistics. Although people living nearby such sites do tend to be more favourable towards nuclear power than the general public, the issue can still elicit a very wide range of strongly-held opinions which defy simple labels such as acceptance or rejection.

Until this week many living in such communities will have viewed their existing local stations, which in many cases have been operating for well over 40 years now, as familiar and unremarkable features of the local landscape, generally operated efficiently and safely by the local plant management, and providing a contribution to both national energy security and the local economy.

But in interview work conducted between 2004 and 2007 around three such UK nuclear power stations, we also found that people reported the ways in which events such as the Chernobyl accident, the London terrorist bombings, or even unannounced emergency drills at their local plant, brought home to them the extraordinary nature of nuclear risk in their locality, and led them to question official assurances of safety.

The events in Japan have raised once more the reality of nuclear catastrophe for us all. Only time will tell precisely how this will impact upon long-term public perceptions and attitudes to nuclear in Britain. But the likelihood now is that the proposed move to new nuclear power will not go ahead unchallenged. And both the government and the utilities will have to carefully re-evaluate their current assumptions about nuclear, and the means for delivering a reliable and low carbon electricity supply which is also safe for many years into the future.

Professor Nick Pidgeon is director of the Understanding Risk Research Group at Cardiff University’s School of Psychology