What difference has Fukushima made to attitudes to nuclear power?

One of the idiosyncrasies of the nuclear industry is that they love polling. As a result we have a pretty good idea of what the world thinks of nuclear power, and how it’s changed over the years.

Charmingly, they’ve kept at the public polling after Fukushima, and so we can see how opinion’s changed after that, too. This is really useful because with an event this prominent, the media tend to assume that the public have been paying attention, and that public opinion must have undergone a dramatic shift.

Sometimes this is fair. The MPs’ expenses scandal did capture public attention and brought attitudes towards politicians even lower than they had been before.  But other high-profile media stories, like the UEA email release, came and went without having all that much impact on public opinion.

In the UK and US at least, Fukushima is looking like the latter kind of story, where a lot of media attention doesn’t lead to much of a change of attitudes.

It’s certainly had a huge amount of coverage. Compare on Google Trends for the UK the words “nuclear” and “news of the world”, the other major story of the last few months (before the riots, which dwarf the others):

So “nuclear” seems to have got more news coverage than “news of the world”, but been used slightly less in searches. We get something similar (with fewer hits) if we use “Fukushima” or “hacking”.

Yet despite this widespread coverage – of something that isn’t the greatest ad for nuclear power – public opinion in the UK and US doesn’t seem to have changed that much.

The last time we looked at this we saw that support for nuclear power had been growing over the last decade or so. Now the polls have been updated since Fukushima, it looks like support has only fallen slightly, not undoing the gains that have been made in the last ten years.

In the UK, net support for replacement nuclear power stations (% who support, minus % who oppose) has fallen from +28 to +7 according to Mori’s regular tracking poll. It sounds like a big fall, but it puts opinion back only to where it was in 2007.

Results are similar in the US. Gallup found in a poll at the height of the media focus on the crisis that net support for the construction of nuclear plants in the US was at -3: a 16-point fall on before the crisis, and around where opinion was in ’01.

Remember that for each two points of net change here, only 1% of people need to change their mind. That is, if support falls from 60% to 59% and opposition increases from 40% to 41%, net support falls by two points.

So, in net changes of 19 points and 16 points, we’re seeing the effect of between 8-10% of people changing their mind. Those don’t strike me as particularly big changes, given the drama of the crisis and the impact it would have if it was replicated in the US or the UK.

Two possible – and very different – explanations for this occur to me.

One is disengagement. It wouldn’t be the first time that an issue has received a great amount of media attention, but hasn’t really captured the public’s interest. This, though, would need to explain why it seems to have triggered such a high level of internet searching.

An alternative explanation is a ‘rational’ response. Perhaps a nuclear disaster triggered by an earthquake and tsunami was seen as just not relevant in the UK and (much of) the US. But this doesn’t in itself explain why the reaction in Germany seems to have been so different.

Somewhere between the two explanations is the possibility that it was seen as a ‘foreign’ news story: something of voyeuristic interest but with no instinctive connection to people’s lives. It may have been of great interest, but many people may have not consciously associated it with their opinion on energy sources in their country.

Whichever explanation is more accurate (and I’d suggest each applies to different people), for all the assertions that attitudes to nuclear energy will force policy changes, the reality is that for most people in the UK and US, Fukushima changed little.


Hat-tip @NeilStockley for latest UK poll


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