Issues Magazine

Support for Nuclear Energy to Mitigate Climate Change

By By Guy Nolch

Editor, Australasian Science

Australia's carbon tax has created a "nuclear spring", with voters now more open to nuclear energy as a carbon-friendly energy option.

Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, landed herself in hot water with the electorate when she announced the government’s plans to introduce a carbon tax next year. Introducing a tax at any time is a political gamble, particularly for a minority government that had only just introduced a flood levy on an electorate that’s still penny-pinching after the global financial crisis.

With 95% of Australia’s domestic energy currently derived from coal, oil and gas, the carbon tax would increase household energy costs – a sticking point given the recent spike in household energy bills. In addition, the increased cost of petrol would strike at the heart of our car culture, while greater freight costs would raise the cost of consumables at supermarket checkouts and in whitegoods discount warehouses.

In short, voters in their outer suburban McMansions are jamming talkback radio stations because a carbon tax means they won’t be upgrading their plasma TVs to 3D just yet.

There comes a time when money overpowers one’s prior convictions, and the current economic climate seems to have created a nuclear spring that is blooming among those with poor credit ratings and among the disciples of Andrew Bolt.

In fact, a survey conducted by Deanne Bird and colleagues at Macquarie University has concluded that the climate change debate has created a more favourable climate for nuclear energy as a carbon-friendly energy option.

In the survey of more than 1000 Australians, 86% expressed concern that energy will become unaffordable. When asked about their attitudes to nuclear energy, 36% were pro-nuclear, 36% were anti-nuclear while the rest sat on the fence.

There were significant gender differences, with 47% of men and only 14% of women supporting nuclear energy, although a large proportion of women – 37% – were unsure.

There were also generational differences, with 18–54-year olds mostly opposed to nuclear power while those older than 55 were mostly pro-nuclear.

Coalition and Democrat voters were mostly pro-nuclear while Labor and Greens voters were mostly against nuclear energy.

Levels of education and religious beliefs, or lack of them, didn’t seem to influence whether those surveyed were pro- or anti-nuclear.

When asked what they thought were the best ways to tackle climate change, 75% suggested greater use of renewable energies like solar and wind, 60% identified greater use of more efficient energy technologies, and 58% felt that changing consumer behaviour could reduce energy consumption.

Our PM would be interested to know that more than twice as many respondents would prefer to use nuclear power than reduce energy consumption through taxes and regulation.

The Australian survey results mirror changing public attitudes in Britain. While Britain already has 19 nuclear power stations producing one-fifth of its energy, support for the industry’s expansion had waned. Now, however, the British public is more supportive when the possible expansion of the nation’s nuclear energy capability is sold to them as a mitigation measure against climate change.

Australia has been slower to accept nuclear as an energy option. It’s only a few years since the Howard government attempted to raise the nuclear energy debate, only for it to be shut down due to environmental concerns, particularly when potential sites for nuclear power stations raised the hackles of locals. That’s hardly surprising given the difficulty that’s been faced in finding suitable repositories for Australia’s existing nuclear waste.

Indeed, while the Macquarie survey found greater support for nuclear energy, more respondents said they would prefer to have a wind farm built within 20 km than a coal-fired or nuclear plant.

The survey’s authors conclude that “as the debate over how best to combat climate change continues, more people are likely to become interested in nuclear power. At present, Australians would prefer renewable energy sources over the nuclear option, but seem likely to accept nuclear power stations if it will help tackle climate change and improve energy security”.