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Nuclear Spring?

Nuclear power station

Australians would prefer renewable energy sources over the nuclear option, but seem likely to accept nuclear power stations if it will help tackle climate change and improve energy security

By Deanne K. Bird, Katharine Haynes, Rob van den Honert and John McAneney

New research shows that the Australian public may accept nuclear energy if it will help tackle climate change.

In contrast to many other countries, and despite having large uranium reserves, Australia does not generate power from nuclear fission.

According to the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics, the production of energy for domestic consumption remains dominated by coal (39%), closely followed by oil (34.4%) and gas (21.4%), with renewable sources at only 5.4%. Australia does, however, export uranium and engage in a range of nuclear activities for medical, industrial, environmental and research purposes. These activities take place near Sydney at Lucas Heights, which is home to two nuclear reactors, only one of which remains in operation.

In 1972, efforts to build a nuclear power station at Jarvis Bay in NSW failed, and there have been no further attempts since. However, the arguments for and against nuclear power, from a range of sources including industry stakeholders, scientists and environmentalists, have continued to circulate.

In recent years the use of nuclear energy has been advocated, even by some environmentalists, as one means of helping to combat greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, as many countries signal their intentions to expand their nuclear energy capability, open political debate in Australia on this issue has been marked by a profound silence. This being the case, we investigated the public’s view on this issue.

A survey conducted last year resulted in 1085 valid responses from people aged 18 and older living in country and city areas in all states. The broad aim of this survey was to investigate what the Australian public thinks about climate change and energy options for the future. More specifically, we wanted to discover whether or not the Australian public is willing to tolerate nuclear power in relation to climate change and as a reliable source of affordable energy.

In order to avoid leading respondents, the first questions about energy sources were not posed in relation to any other factors, such as climate change or reliability and affordability. Instead, respondents were first asked to rate their level of concern that electricity will become unaffordable in the future and supplies of fossil fuels will run out. Some 86% of respondents stated they were very or fairly concerned that energy will become unaffordable, and 69% stated they were very or fairly concerned that supplies of fossil fuels would run out.

Respondents were then asked to rate their level of interest in climate change and then in nuclear power. The majority of respondents were fairly interested in both climate change and nuclear power, and there was a very strong statistically significant relationship between the two variables. In other words, those who are interested in climate change most likely have an interest in nuclear power as well.

Respondents were then asked to rate their personal feelings about nuclear power in Australia on a purely emotional level. The results showed that 36% of respondents were very or fairly positive and 36% were very or fairly negative, while a further 21% were neither positive nor negative.

When asked to select a statement that most closely reflected their opinion about the discussion of nuclear power in Australia at that time, 32% stated that they opposed nuclear power and 29% stated that they supported nuclear power (Fig. 1). A further 36% were not sure or responded that they “don’t know”.

Clear differences exist between respondents’ opinions in relation to gender, age and political preference. More men (47%) than women (14%) supported nuclear power, and more women (37%) than men (22%) were unsure whether or not they supported or opposed it. More respondents in the 18–54 age groups opposed nuclear power than supported it, while more respondents in the 55-plus age groups supported nuclear power than opposed it.

In terms of political persuasion, a majority of respondents who stated that they would vote for the Australian Democrats, Liberal Party or National Party also stated that they supported nuclear power (41%, 45% and 50%, respectively). A majority of respondents who stated that they would vote for the Australian Greens or Australian Labour Party also stated that they oppose nuclear power (53% and 37%, respectively).

No discernable difference was evident between the level of education achieved and respondents’ support or opposition to nuclear power. Similarly, an equal number of Christians of any denomination (30%) overall supported and opposed nuclear power, whereas slightly more (33%) respondents who were ‘not religious’ opposed nuclear power than supported it (29%).

In response to whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “I need more information to form a clear opinion about nuclear power”, 59% of respondents either strongly or tended to agree, 20% either strongly or tended to disagree, and 22% neither agreed nor disagreed or had “no opinion” or “don’t know” (Fig. 2). More women (68%) either strongly or tended to agree than men (48%) that they need more information in order to form a clear opinion about nuclear power.

When asked to choose up to three options for the best ways to tackle climate change, 75% identified expanding the use of renewable energy sources (e.g. solar and wind), 60% considered expanding the use of efficient energy technologies and 58% thought that changing people’s behaviour in order to reduce energy consumption was the best ways to go (Fig. 3).

Moreover, more respondents stated they would prefer to use nuclear power (20%) than continue to use fossil fuels even with carbon capture (9%) or by reducing energy consumption through regulation and taxes (9%). People most likely to support reduced energy consumption through regulation and taxes were those with a tertiary education (i.e. a bachelors degree or postgraduate qualification).

In response to the question as to whether or not they were personally in favour or against the development of nuclear power stations in Australia as one of a range of energy solutions to help reduce the impact of climate change, 42% stated they were either strongly or partly in favour, 31% were either strongly or partly against, and 27% were uncommitted.

In general, however, most respondents would much prefer to have a wind farm built within 20 km of their local area than a nuclear power station or coal-fired power station. And, if the costs of supplying Australia’s energy needs were the same, 63% would much prefer renewable energy sources over nuclear.

The survey results suggest that as the debate over how best to combat climate change continues, more people are likely to become interested in nuclear power. At present, Australians would prefer renewable energy sources over the nuclear option, but seem likely to accept nuclear power stations if it will help tackle climate change and improve energy security (that is, affordability and reliability). However, more education and public discussion is needed to help people to develop clear positions about where they stand on nuclear power.

Our results are similar to the situation in Britain, where the public is prepared to reconsider its stance on the expansion of nuclear power when it is reframed as a mitigation measure against climate change. Researchers at Cardiff University also found that the majority of respondents considered nuclear energy as one of a suite of energy sources needed to ensure a reliable supply of electricity.

Australians should have the opportunity to have an open and informed debate on future energy options. Current pressure by Labor backbenchers to include nuclear power on next year’s ALP policy agenda may serve to initiate greater examination of the issue.

Deanne K. Bird, Katharine Haynes, Rob van den Honert and John McAneney are with Risk Frontiers, Natural Hazards Research Centre at Macquarie University.