Climate Change or Nuclear Power in Britain

by Sam Peterson

Policymakers have been challenged to formulate and introduce innovative new legislation following major international environmental awareness agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol of 1992 (a treaty created by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), but public opinion shifts have frequently trailed a growing scientific consensus regarding climate change. Pidgeon et. al. (2005) find that when presented with the options of a transition from burning carbon-based fuels to the daunting spectacle of nuclear power or an increased rate of climate change, much of the British public is indecisive. The study finds that the British public is “prepared to accept nuclear power if they believe it contributes to climate change mitigation,” but this is a “highly conditional view.” There is only “reluctant acceptance” of utilization of nuclear power by policymakers, mostly due to the risks of nuclear power production.

While the Kyoto agreement committed the United Kingdom to a 12.5% reduction in the six primary anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2012, the UK government has set a loftier goal of a 60% decrease in GHG emissions by the year 2050, when compared to 1990 levels. This environmental concern is coupled with the realization that by 2020, a majority of British oil will be imported, mostly from “potentially politically unstable” states. Policymakers have thus framed the issue of nuclear power in this uncertain context. While the UK was the first nation to open a commercial nuclear power station at Calder Hall in 1956, the 1986 Chernobyl accident in Ukraine led to a drastic shift in energy consumption composition toward North Sea oil. A 2003 Labour Government White Paper regarding energy policy reinforced the commitment of the UK to a “low-carbon economy,” the paper was careful not to comment on the goals for the composition of UK energy creation.

Public opinion of nuclear power has shifted several times in the last half-century. Many studies have shown public wariness in the UK regarding nuclear power due to military uses and secrecy (Waynne 1992, cited by Pidgeon 2005) and major nuclear accidents (Van der Pligt 1992, cited by Pidgeon 2005). Building on previous public opinion surveys in the UK, the researchers found that while only 62% of 1491 respondents indicated “every possible action” should be taken against climate change, only 3% indicated no action should be taken, giving evidence to public opinion aligning with scientific consensus regarding climate change. However, when given a policy question, such as “How favourable or unfavourable are your overall opinions or impressions of the following energy sources for producing electricity currently,” nuclear power ranked last in favorability (36%) behind solar (87%), wind (81%), hydroelectric (76%), biomass (54%), gas (55%), oil (39%) and coal power (38%). Additionally, 25% of respondents selected an option that for nuclear power, the “risks far outweigh benefits.” These findings can be interpreted as an ongoing public relations battle policymakers will have with nuclear power sentiment until they are able to change public perception regarding the energy source. While many believe “nuclear power will make a significant contribution to energy production” in the future, policymakers will have to contend with wavering support for policies that include nuclear power as an option for climate change mitigation.


Pidgeon, N. F., Lorenzoni, I., & Poortinga, W. (2008). Climate change or nuclear power—No thanks! A quantitative study of public perceptions and risk framing in Britain. Global Environmental Change, 18(1), 69-85.

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