Eurobarometer’s agenda

22 August 2008

A recent European survey showed a marked increase in support for nuclear power, with opinions now almost equally divided between those for and against.

The Special Eurobarometer 297 survey, published in June and titled Attitudes towards radioactive waste, has found that 44% of European Union (EU) citizens are in favour of energy production by nuclear power stations, compared with 45% opposed. An earlier Eurobarometer study on radioactive waste, published in 2005, reported 37% in favour and 55% opposed.

Nuclear trade association Foratom, which had been dismissive of the 2005 survey, welcomed the “gradual and significant evolution of public opinion in favour of nuclear power.” Foratom went on to say: “This positive evolution reflects the nuclear revival in Europe. Even in countries where a nuclear phaseout policy is being implemented like Sweden, Germany and Belgium, debates on the issue are taking place and support for nuclear power is quite strong.”

These three phaseout countries are amongst the 13 countries that have a higher percentage of nuclear supporters than the average figure of 44% for all 27 EU member states. All of the 13 countries with above average support have operating nuclear power stations.

It is, however, worth noting that Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU after the 2005 survey. Had it included these two countries, it is likely that the 2005 survey would have found a slightly higher overall percentage of respondents in favour of nuclear, fewer opposed to it and more ‘don’t know’ responses (the two highest ‘don’t know’ responses in the 2008 survey were from these two member states).

A follow-up question that was put to those opposed to nuclear asked whether they would be in favour of nuclear power if there were a “permanent and safe solution for the management of radioactive waste.” Of the 45% opposed to nuclear, 39% said they would be in favour of nuclear power given this proviso. Therefore, based on the current level of support within the EU, if citizens were convinced there is a safe method for the final disposal of waste – which the industry currently believes to be the case – then nuclear power would be supported by over 60%.

Commenting on the survey, Foratom claimed that public opinion towards nuclear becomes more favourable as the level of knowledge about nuclear issues increases. Of the 44% in favour, 61% considered themselves to be well informed about radioactive waste, compared with only 35% of those respondents not in favour of nuclear power. “On average EU citizens do not feel well informed about nuclear issues in general and radioactive waste in particular. However, in countries where the level of knowledge is greater, like Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands, public opinion is also more favourable to nuclear power,” according to Foratom.

There are inconsistencies with this view. For example, a very similar percentage of respondents from Luxembourg feel as informed about waste as in the Netherlands, yet only 34% of Luxembourg respondents support nuclear, compared to 55% from the Netherlands. And in Bulgaria, which has very strong support for nuclear, with 63% in favour and only 13% against, a massive 82% said they felt uninformed about radioactive waste and only15% felt they were informed.

Furthermore, the survey itself states: “When cross tabulating respondents’ self-perceived level of information with their general attitude toward nuclear energy production, we see that there is only a weak correlation between the two variables.” The survey goes on to conclude that not only is it the case that “people’s self-perceived level of information has no direct impact on their attitude towards nuclear energy production,” but also: “Their attitude is first and foremost influenced by the nuclear energy situation of their country; ie whether or not there are operational nuclear power plants in their country.”

In other words – and contrary to Foratom’s claim – the driver for popular support of nuclear power is the existence of operational nuclear plants, rather than having an informed public.

Decrease in knowledge

If there is any truth in the claim that support for nuclear increases with level of knowledge about nuclear issues, then another finding in the survey is particularly worrying: as the Table shows, it appears that knowledge of radioactive waste issues has decreased over the last three years.

So, while it is clear that EU citizens are more supportive of nuclear power than in 2005, there is no evidence that there is a corresponding increase in knowledge about radioactive waste.

On more general questions about nuclear power, a slight increase in the level of knowledge is implied, but not to the extent that any correlation can be made with the increase in support for nuclear. For example, when asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement “An advantage of nuclear power is that it emits less greenhouse gases than other energy sources such as oil or coal,” the same proportion of respondents agreed (62%) in 2008 as did in 2005; also, this year 18% disagreed with the statement, one percentage point less than in 2005.

No safe disposal route

The survey found that the vast majority agree (93%) with the statement that “a solution for high-level radioactive waste should be developed now and not left for future generations” and that most (72%) agree with the statement that “there is no safe way of getting rid of high-level radioactive waste.” Only 14% disagree with the latter statement and a similar share does not know or has no opinion about it. Surprisingly, Sweden and Finland, which have relatively advanced geologic repository development programmes, are amongst those countries (along with Greece, France, Germany and Luxembourg) where at least eight in ten respondents agree that there is no safe way of getting rid of high-level radioactive waste.

Compared to the 2005 survey, there was a slight decrease in the percentage of respondents who agree that “deep underground disposal represents the most appropriate solution for long-term management of high level radioactive waste” (43% agreed in 2008, 45% in 2005). Finland (65%), Sweden (63%) and Hungary (63%) head the list of those who agree, but France again returned an unexpected result, with only 36% agreeing and 47% disagreeing.

Of more concern is that, while the percentage of those who think that there is no safe way of disposing of waste (72%) decreased from the 2005 survey’s figure of 78%, in last year’s Special Eurobarometer 271 study, titled Europeans and Nuclear Safety (see NEI May 2007, p22), only 50% of respondents disagreed (39% agreed) with the statement “the disposal of radioactive waste can be done in a safe manner.” It could be argued that these results are not as erratic as they initially appear: the statement in Europeans and Nuclear Safety did not specify high-level waste; if it had, then a higher proportion would have disagreed with it, resulting in a response that is more consistent with the 2005 and 2008 Eurobarometers. But this line of argument would only be valid if the respondents – who believe themselves to be poorly informed about radioactive waste issues – make such a distinction. It is more likely that the inconsistency between the surveys reflects the particular wording of the statements and the context in which they are placed.

The Commission’s mission

Conducted between18 February and 22 March 2008 amongst 26,746 EU-27 citizens, the Special Eurobarometer 297 survey was requested by the European Commission’s (EC’s) Directorate-General for Energy and Transport and follows last year’s Europeans and Nuclear Safety Eurobarometer study. The latter put leading statements to respondents that were clearly designed to demonstrate popular support the EC’s mission to harmonise nuclear safety standards across the EU. Similarly, a key reason why Attitudes towards radioactive waste was commissioned was to conclude that European citizens are in favour of harmonisation of waste management standards.

In this year’s study, Chapter 3, which is titled Role of the European Union in the management of radioactive waste, begins: “When it concerns the management of radioactive waste, we see that Europeans clearly want the European Union to monitor and harmonise practices in the member states.” This statement is based on the overwhelming agreement with the first three of the following four statements:

• The EU should be able to monitor national practices and programmes for managing radioactive waste.

• Harmonised and consistent methodologies should be developed within the EU to manage radioactive waste.

• Each EU member state should have a management plan for radioactive waste which specifies fixed deadlines.

• Each EU member state should be fully responsible for the management of its own radioactive waste.

Overall, 91% agreed with the first statement, 90% with the second, 89% with the third, and 84% with the fourth.

Although the 2005 survey contained very similar statements to the first three (with comparable levels of support), the fourth statement is new. It is not really clear what the reasoning was behind including this fourth statement, but the Association for Regional and International Underground Storage (Arius) was particularly disappointed with it. The organisation had been lobbying for a question or statement to be included on the subject of regional repositories – something that had been in earlier surveys but was taken out of the 2005 survey. “It seems that pressures exerted by some countries opposed to working on regional disposal solutions at present led to a question on opinions on this option being excluded from the 2008 survey,” Arius speculated.

Referring to the “predictable” high level of agreement with the fourth “ambiguous” statement, Arius noted: “Of course, regional repository supporters can also completely agree with this statement, recognising that cooperating to develop a shared repository is a fully responsible approach!”

On the other hand, some credit should be given to the EC for adding a statement which prompts a response that goes against its wish to have an EC-supervised common approach to radioactive waste management. At least to some extent, the high level of agreement with the statement contradicts the claim that there is popular support for the commission to have overall control of radioactive waste management. But this appears to be lost on the report’s authors, who instead concluded: “Europeans on average want the EU to play an active role in the management of radioactive waste but they nevertheless also want each member state to bear full responsibility for managing its own radioactive waste.”

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