The link between public opinion and government policy is difficult to quantify, and is especially so in the case of civil nuclear policy.

In an election we vote for the party that we feel best represents our views. But when there are important every day issues such as the economy, immigration and healthcare on the line, nuclear policy or energy policy in general gets pushed towards the bottom of our list of priorities.

So the views of elected politicians aren’t necessarily representative of their voters. If we look at this year’s Special Eurobarometer 324 survey (see also a-divided-europe) the differences between public opinion in France and Germany are not that marked, especially when it comes to thoughts on new build. In France 12% of respondents thought that the share of nuclear energy as a proportion of all energy sources should be increased, compared with 7% in Germany.

Yet France is actively pursuing new nuclear build, while the German government is only considering rescinding the phase-out law that will see all of Germany’s reactors shut by 2022.

So is there a link between general public opinion and new nuclear build? I suspect that in the aftermath of Chernobyl the phase-out laws and the policy changes echoed the anti-nuclear public sentiment. But those days, it seems, are over.

Support for nuclear in communities that host nuclear power plants, repositories or other nuclear facilities—essentially the only place it matters—is generally very high. A poll carried out by Synovate in 2009 asked Swedish citizens if they would support a final waste repository near them. Residents near existing nuclear plants Forsmark and Oskarshamn responded positively (79% and 84% in favour). But in Sweden generally, the largest group of respondents (49%) voted against the proposal.

I’m skeptical as to whether this improved sentiment on a local level stems from better communications from the utility or facility operator. After all, most of the people living close to nuclear facilities will be reaping the economic benefits from them in one way or another. Many residents work in the facilities, earning above-average wages. In Sweden, the municipalities that offered to host a waste facility will be paid substantial sums.

There have been concerted efforts by nuclear utilities to improve communication to the public over the last few years. Public relations campaigns, such as the video from the Belgian Nuclear Forum that was discussed in last month’s comment ( are a credible example of how the industry is trying to increase public awareness of nuclear power. But what can videos like this or promotional material actually achieve, especially if targeted to the general public?

This is perhaps quite a harsh view, but to me it seems a pointless waste of money, time and resources.

Let’s face it: a negative news story about a radiation leak or substandard construction at a nuclear facility will instantly override any benefit such wishy-washy PR has had. Who cares about low-carbon energy when there’s a toxic, radioactive isotope leaking into the ground a few miles away from your house?

It’s in situations like this that there is a real need for communication, yet has seemed to be lacking recently.

A presentation at PIME 2010 by Christelle Mutschler of EDF’s Fessenheim nuclear power plant said that 80% of the public would trust information from power plant employees, 70% the regulator (ANS), 69% the operator (EDF), 58% associations and 39% the media.

If we assume that the results of this research is representative worldwide, the industry cannot rely on industry bodies to get the message across to the general public. Utilities also need to step up and start communicating more broadly. This is particularly true on the internet, where a vocal minority of anti-nuclear activists seem to dominate the agenda.

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By Caroline Peachey, assistant editor of Nuclear Engineering International