The Current Situation and Perspectives on the Use of Nuclear Energy for Electricity Generation:The Public Opinion

The Public Opinion

In October 2001, a survey was carried out within the EU that shows that the majority of people would support the nuclear energy option for the generation of electricity, if and only if problems related to the final disposal of high-level radioactive nuclear waste are properly solved. Only in Austria, the numbers of people that were against the use of nuclear energy for electricity production out- number those who agree. When citizens from EU-25 were asked what national governments should focus on in order to reduce its energy dependency, only 12 % answered that first the use of nuclear energy should be further developed.

Between February and June 2005, the EC carried out another survey of nuclear energy waste and public acceptance of nuclear power in the EU. The survey high- lights the following important aspects. For example, people who consider them- selves well informed clearly show a better acceptance in all phases of nuclear waste. However, it should also be noted that only 25 % of the citizens of the EU consider themselves well informed. The situation is especially negative, in terms of the opinions of women and young people aged between 15 and 24 years old. The vast majority does not want further delays in setting up national strategies for high-level radioactive waste. They clearly want to be involved in the decision- making process and in the selection of the disposal sites. Harmonized strategies and management policies for radioactive waste are needed for the whole of the EU. Environmental non-governmental organizations are considered the most trust- worthy sources of information, followed by independent scientists and the authorities. Far less trusted are national agencies responsible for nuclear waste. Across the EU, 37 % of the people surveyed were in favor of nuclear energy, while 55 % were against it (World Energy Council 2007).

The real impact of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident on public opin- ion in the EU still needs to be assessed. The results of the Eurobarometer survey, Attitudes Towards Radioactive Waste, published in 2008, showed that since the previous Eurobarometer in 2005, there had been a gradual and significant evolution of public opinion in favor of nuclear power. There were as many citizens who were in favor of nuclear energy (44 %) as were against it (45 %). This com- pared with 37 % in favor and 55 % against in 2005. The survey also shows that if those against nuclear felt the issue of radioactive waste management were solved, four out of ten would change their mind. A majority of EU citizens would then be favorable to the use of nuclear energy for the generation of electricity (61 %). It also shows a huge gap between the views expressed in countries with an antinu- clear culture, such as Austria, Cyprus, Malta, and Portugal and those in countries where support for nuclear is strong such as Hungary (63 %), Sweden (62 %), the Czech Republic (64 %), and Lithuania (64 %).

The results of the Eurobarometer on nuclear safety published in 2010 revealed that 56 % of EU citizens wanted nuclear energy to be maintained or increased (up 8 % of the 2007 survey results). On the other hand, the Eurobarometer on nuclear safety also showed that a majority of Europeans (51 % against 35 %) believed that the risks posed by nuclear power outweigh its advantages. And yet a majority of EU citizens (59 %) were confident that nuclear power plants can be operated safely. The issue of public acceptance is, therefore, complex and these results demonstrate that it is necessary to give a more accurate view of the state of public opinion in Europe.

On the other hands, it is important to note that due to the increasing focus on climate change, particularly in the mass media, a shift toward a more positive perception of nuclear power after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident seems to be taking place in some countries within the European region. Given the different approaches to nuclear power, European countries can be classified as follows:

• Those using nuclear power;

• Those using nuclear power, but with phase-out policies such as Germany, Sweden, and Belgium;

• Those not using nuclear power (for example, Poland), but with plans for the introduction of a nuclear power program in the future;

• Those that have no plans for the use of nuclear energy for the production of electricity and have no intention to adopt such plan in the future as Italy, Austria, Portugal, and Denmark among others.

The perception of the public opinion regarding the use of nuclear energy for the production of electricity in group (a) is not homogeneous. According to WANO sources, it ranges from very negative (Croatia) to very positive (Finland, Czech Republic, Romania, and Bulgaria). Over the last 25 years in Finland, a positive perception of nuclear power has increased from only 25 % in 1982 to 50 % in 2005. In the same period, the negative perception of nuclear power has dropped from almost 40 % in 1982 to 20 % in 2005. Thus, Finland has seen a complete shift in the public opinion and perception of nuclear energy over the past 25 years. In the UK, there is also a trend toward a better public attitude toward nuclear energy. Polls conducted in December 2005 showed that 41 % of those interviewed were in favor of new nuclear power plants, whereas a year earlier, the share was only 35 % (World Energy Council 2007).

The share of nuclear power in the overall power production does not seem to play any role for public acceptance in some European countries. For example, in Spain and Switzerland, the main issues of concern are nuclear waste and its final disposal. At the same time, the political process for building new nuclear power plants is extremely complicated in several European countries.

In the case of the group (b), there is also a clear trend toward higher acceptance of the use of nuclear energy for electricity generation in several countries included in this group. The high acceptance of nuclear energy has significantly risen in Sweden in the last years, despite the adoption of nuclear phase-out policy by the government and the decision to implement such policy during the coming years. In polls conducted in 2005, a total of 83 % of those interviewed either wanted to keep the country’s nuclear power reactor in operation or replace them with new ones. In the polls carried out in 2006, a total of 85 % wanted to keep the countries’ ten nuclear power reactors operating or support the construction of new ones. However, this situation changed after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident and the energy policy adopted by the new Swedish government. In Germany, polls show unclear results, 54 % of those interviewed believe that, despite the phase-out policy, nuclear energy should continue to play a role in the generation of electric- ity for a long period of time, but only 22 % want nuclear energy to secure the German electricity demand for the next 20 or 30 years.

In the group (c), the countries included in this group viewed nuclear energy rather differently. Due to its attempt of reducing power production from coal, Poland public opinion is very positive toward the use of nuclear energy for electricity production. In Italy, a shift in the public opinion has also taken place in recent years. In polls carried recently, 54 % of those interviewed think that Italy should build new nuclear power plants instead of importing electricity produced in French using nuclear energy. At the same time, 70 % of the Italian people interviewed thought that it does not make much sense for Italy not to have nuclear power plants on its own territory, while being surrounded by countries with nuclear power plants in operation. However, after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, the Italian public opinion changed significantly and forced the government to cancel all plans approved for the introduction of a nuclear program for the generation of electricity in the country in the future.

It is important to note as the impacts of climate change and the vulnerability of the European economy to foreign fuel imports become more evident and when the cli- mate change benefits of nuclear energy are explained, the support for nuclear energy among respondents increases significantly. Similarly, if the radioactive waste disposal issue was satisfactorily resolved, support would again significantly increase, it is likely that the gradual shift in public opinion of the last decade will further develop toward less skepticism or in favor of nuclear energy, at least in some European countries.

Summing-up can be stated that the public attitude to the use of nuclear energy for electricity production has had a major influence on the use of this type of energy for this specific purpose in most of the European countries. In some specific cases, the negative reaction of the public opinion to the use of nuclear energy for the generation of electricity has prevented utilities to enter into commercial operation or to force government to adopt a nuclear phase-out policy or to cancel the construction of approved nuclear power plants. Public opposition banned nuclear power in Denmark and Ireland, prevented the operation of an already built nuclear power plant in Austria, led to a short-term phase out in Italy and to long- term phase out in Belgium, Germany, and Sweden.

The public opinion regarding the use of nuclear energy for electricity generation varies widely among countries within the European region. The highest acceptance of the use of this type of energy for electricity production seems to be in the Nordic and Eastern European countries, while the lowest is in the non-nuclear and Southern countries. Spain is a noteworthy. It has several operating nuclear power reactors with a very low acceptance. In Fig. 8.10, a map with the result of the public opinion poll carried out by the EC in 25 countries of the European region in September 2006 is shown.

Finally, while many governments are reconsidering the role of nuclear energy in their national energy mix, particularly after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, the use of nuclear power for electricity generation is still a contentious issue with respect to public opinion. As a result of the consideration of a variety of public opin- ion poll data carried out within the EU in the past, the following can be stated:

• Nuclear energy does not feature among most people’s highest concerns. The highest energy-related concerns are those of price and security of energy supply;

• Public opinion on nuclear energy seems to change slowly and is not normally

volatile. Not surprisingly, however, dramatic events (e.g., the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accidents) can cause a rapid drop in public support, which only recovers slowly;

The Current Situation and Perspectives on the Use of Nuclear Energy for Electricity Generation-0212

• The data clearly show that countries that already include nuclear power in the energy mix have publics that are more knowledgeable on the issues and are more supportive. Which comes first is not clear;

• There are large sections of the public with no firm views for or against nuclear

energy in many countries. If governments want to introduce or continue to use nuclear power in the energy mix, the attitudes of this middle ground will be critical;

• There is a clear correlation between knowledge and support. Large parts of the

public are still unaware of (or choose not to believe) the potential benefit of nuclear energy to reduce the emissions of climate change related carbon dioxide;

• The factors that reduce public support for nuclear energy are concerns with respect to terrorism, radioactive waste disposal, and the misuse of nuclear materials, in that order. The concern with respect to terrorism still seems to be strong, well after the events of September 11, 2001.

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