Nuclear Power, Climate Change and Energy Security in Britain

by Sam Peterson

The relationship between climate change and present energy consumption (in addition to anticipation of future energy needs) has increasingly bordered on mutual exclusivity. Following significant revelations regarding the correlation between emissions from fossil fuel incineration and average global temperature increases, legislators have struggled to reframe alternative energy source debates in a more favorable light. A major topic in these debates is nuclear power, easily the most divisive of environmentally-friendly energy sources. Policymakers have reframed nuclear power as a low-carbon technology, but Corner et al. (2011) find unconditional acceptance of nuclear power practically nonexistent in a national survey in Britain. In general, “people who expressed greater concern about climate change and energy security and possessed higher environmental values were less likely to favour nuclear power.” However, when subjects were allowed to express their conditional support, “concerns about climate change and energy security became positive predictors of support for nuclear power.” The study concludes that acceptance of nuclear power will increase conditionally, as “other (preferred) options have been exhausted.”

The study focused on a triad of points regarding nuclear power, including detection of framing impacts on nuclear power acceptance, exploration into changes of public perception of nuclear power when framed as a method of “energy security,” and correlation between climate change concern and acceptance of nuclear power. While the United Kingdom currently has the most ambitious GHG emissions reduction targets of any national government (by 2050, GHG emissions must be reduced by 80% compared to 1990 levels), the government is also attempting to close approximately one-third of existing electricity production sources (mostly nuclear) over the next two decades (Department of Trade Industry, 2007, cited by Corner et al.) Even after accounting for increased use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, this demand for environmentally friendly, and secure electricity production (defined in 2001 by the International Energy Agency as ‘the uninterrupted physical availability of energy at a price which is affordable, while respecting environment concerns’’) has left legislators with the option of nuclear power. In 2010, 18% of U.K. electricity was provided by nuclear power stations (DECC, 2010, cited by Corner et al.), this number should decrease in the short- and medium-terms, as there seems to be no intent of incorporating a new generation of power plants (all ‘Magnox’ and Advanced Gas Cooled Reactors (AGR) are scheduled to be decommissioned). Public support has been historically divided on the subject, with some ecologists demanding the integration of nuclear power into existing infrastructure as a means to combat further GHG emissions (Black, 2003, cited by Corner et al.), while influential NGOs, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have remained staunchly in opposition (Friends of the Earth, 2004; Greenpeace, 2010, cited by Corner et al.) Public opinion on this matter is well documented, with surveys showing that in 2005 and 2007, 90% of British citizens were “concerned about climate change” (Poortinga et al., 2006; Eurobarometer, 2007, cited by Corner et al.), but climate change often has significantly lower levels of concern associated with it when compared to the economy or terrorism (Upham et al. 2009, cited by Corner et al.) Previous research in this particular field has shown a strong negative correlation between concern about climate change and support for nuclear power (Spence et al. 2010, cited by Corner et al. 2011), which may “reflect the philosophy of traditional environmentalist movements in maintaining a clear anti-nuclear stance.” This study shows the average unconditional favorability rating for nuclear power has not changed significantly since 2005 (35% to 36%), but finds that conditional favorability (“willing to accept nuclear if it helps improve energy security”) has slightly increased (54% to 56%). These results lead to the conclusion that while public support is still highly contingent on time elapsed from previous nuclear accidents, public support for nuclear power will grow as other traditional energy sources are consumed. The authors close by noting that a country locking itself into a pro-nuclear policy may very well put itself in extremely precarious positions if there are problems either domestically or internationally with nuclear electricity production.

Corner, A., et al. (2011). “Nuclear power, climate change and energy security: Exploring British public attitudes.” Energy Policy 39(9): 4823-4833.



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