A greenhouse route to nuclear power?

According to The Australian this morning, reporting on the latest Newspoll:

FEAR of global warming has dramatically reversed Australians’ attitude to nuclear energy, with more people supporting nuclear power for the first time. In the past four months, support for nuclear power has risen from just 35 per cent to 45 per cent, and opposition has fallen in the same time from 50 per cent to 40 per cent.

Actually, what this poll shows is that if you put the magic words ‘greenhouse gas emissions’ in the question you increase support for nuclear power. Back in June last year, Roy Morgan Research asked the question:

Do you approve or disapprove of nuclear power plants replacing coal, oil, and gas power plants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

And found that 49% approved and 37% disapproved. In December 2006, Newspoll, after reminding respondents that there was a nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights but no nuclear power station in Australia, asked:

Are you personally in favour or against nuclear power stations being built in Australia?

The result was 38% in favour and 51% against.

In the latest Newspoll, the question changed:

Are you personally in favour or against the development of a nuclear power industry in Australia, as one of a range of energy solutions to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

The result was 45% in favour and 40% against – closer to the June 2006 Roy Morgan survey that also mentioned greenhouse than to the December 2006 Newspoll that did not. This indicates that there is a section of the electorate that is willing to accept the logic of their views on global warming, and change their otherwise negative view of nuclear energy. But this is still dangerous political territory for the Prime Minister, with overall support below 50% and 11% of Coalition voters ‘strongly against’ a nuclear power industry.

8 March update: A new Morgan Poll confirms that opinion is stable on this issue, with recent debates having no net effect.

16 thoughts on “A greenhouse route to nuclear power?

  1. It is a shame that this is such a complex issue. Nukes aren’t a solution to climate change due to their dependence on emission intensity of available sources of energy.

    Maybe they could add some kind of background like this before they try the next poll.

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  2. Nukes aren’t a solution to climate change due to their dependence on emission intensity of available sources of energy.

    Could you elucidate that remark a bit? I’d like to know more.

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  3. I’d like to know more too — Nuclear technology seems to work fine in places like France, particularily because they recycle the fuel much more than any other country. Information about the amount of energy extracted versus the amount of energy needed to get the uranium in the first place must be out there, and I’d be interested to know the ratio for different levels of recycling.

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  4. “This indicates that there is a section of the electorate that is willing to accept the logic of their views on global warming, and change their otherwise negative view of nuclear energy” – but still a minority – and a minority that may change it’s mind given information.

    How much was the government prepared to spend on its Workchoices campaign or GST campaign. We’ve had no campaign to persuade people what we have to do to deal with this problem, because the present government doesn’t recognise there is a problem. Just an opportunity for big business to make squillions out of nuclear power.

    You can see from the WA retail trading hours referendum how important the framing of any question is. Public opinion might not be what a simple poll tells you it is.

    To the questions you quoted I would have said No to nuclear power. But I might say Yes if we had honestly tried the alternatives and they weren’t working.

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  5. My view is that we should not prevent a nuclear power industry developing in Australia; my understanding is that it is not commercially viable at present; my belief is that we should give the industry no favours. On those conditions it won’t happen unless the price of energy changes enough to make it viable. So if I precisely answered Newspoll’s questions I would have said ‘no’ on economic grounds, though with a view to the political intent behind the question I may have strategically answered ‘yes’.

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  6. Andrew Norton wrote:
    I would have said ‘no’ on economic grounds, though with a view to the political intent behind the question I may have strategically answered ‘yes’.

    What would be the point of that? That would merely be pandering to the idea that derailing the debate is a valid political response to a serious question. I think that approach is ethically questionable.

    If the polling results are so different just on the basis of wording the question, there are surely more accurate ways of getting a view of whether the public care or not by putting together a more detailed questionnaire. Neither of these polls seem particularly useful from a policy perspective – I suspect neither party really wants to ask the question in an honest way either which isn’t helping much.

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  7. David – A negative answer would be taken as ruling out the nuclear option, which is more misleading than the positive response I probably would have given.

    Of course no policy should be, or is, decided based on one poll, and indeed what I do in public opinion research is generally to look at lots of polls on the one topic with different questions to try to discern (so far as is possible) what the public actually believes – rather than carrying out regression analysis on a single data set, as tends to be the case among academic researchers.

    You might have seen material about the weekend exercise in deliberative polling, where people are surveyed before and after being exposed to a variety of views on the subject (Muslims in Australia in this case). This is interesting, but it is a very expensive form of survey research.

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  8. surely it would be far more accurate to ask to you approve a carbon tax which would make nuclear power economic or do you approve of a subsidy to make nuclear power economic otherwise the punters might think nuclear power can provide electricity at the same price as our dirty coal!

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  9. What would even be more interesting is to frame the question with “greenhouse gas emissions” first and “nuclear power” last – the more positive response questions both had greenhouse gas emissions as the last, most memorable part of the question. Maybe we can get Newspoll to switch them around next time just for giggles and see what the difference is.

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  10. Hmm, is one meant to infer from the question that it goes without saying that greenhouse gases must be reduced? If so, and the question is only about the means of reduction, then I would probably answer yes on the basis that nuclear is likely to be cheaper and more reliable than wind or solar.

    But who writes these questions? Clearly no one who takes a systematic approach to issues of public policy.

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  11. Rajat – Public opinion has clearly signed on to the greenhouse is a problem analysis, so within that constraint it was a sensible probing of to what extent they accept the implications of their beliefs.

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  12. “it was a sensible probing ” – don’t agree, there’s not much option for “might agree as a last resort” or other uncertain feelings. The questions are posed as simple equations, nuclear or coal, but I don’t know what other options there are.
    Will greenhouse reduction be better served by hybrid cars running on biofuels … or something else which is in development ?? most of us only know it’s very complex, and that we should start with what is relatively easy: registration concessions for hybrids, rebates for solar panels, investment incentives for renewable energy etc

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  13. Austin, you’re flat wrong on this. There was an analysis conducted at Sydney Uni for the Switkowski report which gave life cycle emissions akin to 10% of gas-fired turbines. Most other estimates are lower. The report in on John Howard’s website, if people are interested.

    Russell, you’re comparing apples and oranges. We will need to, ultimately, reduce emissions from stationary energy use (where nukes may come in), transport use (where hybrids and biofuels come into the picture, as do full electric vehicles), industrial processes, agriculture and land use. The scale of cuts which will ultimately be required mean we will probably end up having to tackle *all* of these.

    But the simplest way to do so, and one which I presume Mr. Norton would be happy with, is to simply put a charge on carbon and let the market sort out how best to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

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  14. Austin, you’re flat wrong on this. There was an analysis conducted at Sydney Uni for the Switkowski report which gave life cycle emissions akin to 10% of gas-fired turbines. Most other estimates are lower.

    That’s why I was curious about his claim. My understanding is that for any given kilowatt, nuclear has a lot going for it. Indeed an ORNL study found that per kilowatt nuclear puts less radioactive material into the ecosystem than any other power source.
    http://www.ornl.gov/info/ornlreview/rev26-34/text/colmain.html

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  15. “Russell, you’re comparing apples and oranges” – no Robert, I wasn’t comparing anything to anything. I was responding to those simple survey questions Andrew quoted by pointing out that I (and I reckon at least 90% of Australians) can’t respond to such simple propositions because we don’t know what our greenhouse problem is made up of – is it mainly power stations, or cars, or industry … all the things you mention ? If it is cars for example then perhaps hybrids running on some fuel made from genetically engineered algae will be the solution, or something else, God knows.

    What do you think of Mark Diesendorf’s article at Online Opinion where he writes:

    “Over the past 20 years there have been several calculations of CO2 emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle. The most detailed calculation comes from Van Leeuwen and Smith (VLS) (2005).

    Contrary to the claims of the nuclear industry, VLS find that the CO2 emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle are only small when high-grade uranium ore is used. But there are very limited reserves of high-grade uranium in the world and most are in Australia and Canada. As these are used up over the next several decades, low-grade uranium ore (comprising 0.01 per cent or less yellowcake) will have to be used.

    This means that to obtain 1kg of yellowcake, at least 10 tonnes of ore will have to be mined and milled, using fossil fuels and emitting substantial quantities of CO2. These emissions are comparable with those from a combined cycle gas-fired power station.”

    Lots of opinions about this, which is very confusing to we non-experts. So we’re cautious about nuclear energy, because, like coal, it comes with very serious problems – waste and nuclear proliferation. Better to seriously try safer options first.

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