Skip to main content

Even With Climate Change, Nuclear a Hard Sell

As political debate heats up about a potentially greater role for nuclear energy in a world struggling to abate global warming, British researchers have been looking at what influences public opinion on this issue.

They found that generally fearful and hostile public attitudes toward nuclear energy are considerably softened when people are asked to reconsider their views in the context of climate change.

Researchers identified an attitude they called "reluctant acceptance" — a degree of readiness to accept the perceived dangers and drawbacks of nuclear energy if it helps dodge the bullet of climatic calamity.

Nuclear power supplies about 22 percent of Britain's electricity, a couple of points more than in the U.S. However, no new reactors have been approved in Britain since the mid-'80s, and planned decommissions will slash nuclear capacity by 75 percent in little more than a decade.

The research showed nuclear power is a hard sell. People mostly regarded it as a more immediate and local threat than climate change; they also saw more benefits from activities that create global warming than from those that create nuclear waste.

But despite these basic perceptions, attitudes became more ambivalent when people were asked to consider the beneficial effects on global climate through using nuclear energy instead of fossil fuels.

Also on, how an expert in nuclear power safety soured on the energy source and turned to solar.

"On this basis we might well reason that a policy discourse, framing new nuclear build(ing) in terms of climate change mitigation, would lead people toward a position of reluctant acceptance," researchers said.

That insight into how the public makes up its collective mind, dubbed by researchers a "risk-risk trade-off scenario," will be of interest to many people in the United States where debate over nuclear energy mirrors what's happening in the United Kingdom.

As noted recently on, the resurgent nuclear debate here is keeping politicians, scientists, environmentalists and industry leaders keenly focused on public opinion.