FEATURE: Power Technology Focus – Are public attitudes to nuclear power still holding it back?

A new Lloyd’s Register report into low-carbon energy concludes that nuclear power is clean, affordable in the long term and reliable, but that challenges remain around public acceptance – but not everyone agrees. Heidi Vella spoke to US and UK-based experts to find out if public opinion is a major factor in prohibiting new nuclear capacity.

The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan dealt a significant blow to the public’s trust in nuclear power, not just in Japan, but globally.

Six years on from the accident, some large nuclear power users, including Japan and Germany, have dramatically rolled back capacity. Japan, which once had 50 nuclear reactors in operation, now has only three, while Germany went from 17 to eight.

The industry also faces other challenges, such as increasing cost competitiveness from renewables and cheap natural gas, especially in the US, which has an abundant supply from domestic shale reserves.

Yet, as the Lloyd’s Register report states, nuclear power’s low-carbon credentials ensure it will be integral to lowering global carbon emissions.

New capacity is still being built despite cost pressures and public wariness. In the UK, Hinkley C has been approved and the first small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) could be operational by 2030. Three new reactors are scheduled to come online in Japan and the US currently has four under construction– so is public opposition still a notable problem for the sector?

Heidi Vella discussed the trials of the nuclear sector’s development with energy experts: World Nuclear Association communications manager David Hess, UK-based National Nuclear Laboratory director of external relations Adrian Bull, US-based Union of Concerned Scientists senior scientist Edwin Lyman, and UK-based law firm DWF head of nuclear and joint head of environment Simon Stuttaford.

Heidi Vella (HV): Are consumer attitudes to nuclear prohibitive?

World Nuclear Association, David Hess (DH): It’s hard to say with certainty what the public attitudes towards nuclear energy are in countries such as Japan, South Korea and Malaysia. Certainly, media surveys started after the Fukushima accident suggest there are ongoing challenges with nuclear energy in Japan, but interestingly, this doesn’t seem to be influencing election outcomes. In the last federal election, the most openly pro-nuclear candidate, Shinzo Abe, won in a landslide and has introduced a policy, without much fanfare, that will see nuclear generating 22% of Japanese electricity in 2030.

National Nuclear Laboratory, Adrian Bull (AB): After Fukushima there was a dip in support but 12 months later it went back up. Most people tend to be concerned about nuclear waste rather than the danger of nuclear reactor operation incidents. There is some concern around the high capital cost of building nuclear stations.

Union of Concerned Scientists, Edwin Lyman (EL): I don’t think public perception plays a big role in the challenges nuclear is facing, certainly not in the United States or in most countries across the world, except Japan or Germany. Even after the Fukushima accident. In the 1980s, there was a significant anti-nuclear movement that was very vocal. Now it is very marginalised to environmental groups or those living near reactors.

“In the 1980s, there was a significant anti-nuclear movement that was very vocal. Now it is very marginalised to environmental groups or those living near reactors.”

DWF, Simon Stuttaford (SS): We have seen a noticeable shift in consumer attitudes to nuclear. Even some staunch opponents are beginning to appreciate the important role nuclear will play if the UK is to meet its ambitious emissions targets. Nuclear is now considered to be a safe industry, with an excellent safety record. However, understandably, the public still has concerns over the cost of new nuclear and the issue of safe and reliable waste storage.

HV: What can the industry do to garner more support from the public?

AB: I think it is important we engage with people, however there is a danger of over communication. We have done quite a lot of work in the industry, looking at how we can engage with the public and in what situation. If I was to go out into the street and start telling people how great nuclear energy was, people would probably walk away more concerned than before because they would wonder why that conversation was happening. It’s like the airplane industry – it doesn’t labour the point about how safe flying is. However, around policy and individual projects, it is important the industry is out there actively making information available so people can make an informed choice.

EL: I think it [the nuclear industry] does itself a disservice by not engaging about what it can and can’t do. It needs to stop worrying about messaging and deal with its own systemic problems and stop blaming regulators for its inability to form a financing mechanism that works.

SS: The nuclear industry must continue to communicate its benefits and promote itself in a more transparent and straightforward manner. It needs to build at least one plant on time and within budget, to prove it is possible and to instil faith in the industry.

HV: Can nuclear power compete against renewables and cheap natural gas, particularly in the US?

Read the full feature here