Science & Environment

UK nuclear support partially survives Japan crisis

Headstones and Sellafield
There has been concern that the Fukushima disaster would kill off UK nuclear ambitions

More Britons support the building of new nuclear power stations than oppose it, despite the crisis at Japan's Fukushima plant, an opinion poll says.

But almost a half say they are worried about the safety of nuclear plants.

And 75% cite energy efficiency or renewables as their priority for investment, against 9% for nuclear.

The survey, commissioned by Friends of the Earth from GfK NOP, polled 1,000 people by phone over the weekend, a week after Japan's crisis began.

Events at the troubled Fukushima Daiichi plant have shifted opinion, with 37% saying they are now more likely to oppose new nuclear build and only 16% saying they are more likely to support it.

Still, 35% either strongly or slightly support a programme to replace the UK's existing reactors, with 28% either strongly or slightly opposed.

In November last year, the figures were 47% in favour of nuclear new build, with 19% against.

"This poll shows that the government's plans for a major expansion of nuclear power in the UK are out of step with public opinion," said Craig Bennett, director of policy and campaigns for Friends of the Earth UK.

"People want clean and safe energy - the government needs to urgently refocus its energy policy, starting by improving the weak energy saving measures within its new Energy Bill."

Since the problems at Fukushima emerged, ministers have declared that the UK must "learn the lessons", with Energy Secretary Chris Huhne calling for a safety review of UK installations - a process that will be supplemented by the programme of stress tests just agreed at EU level.

But the government has also been at pains to point out that the UK does not have reactors of the type used at Fukushima, nor does it sit on a seismically active zone.

And the head of French energy giant EDF told the BBC that events in Japan will not affect his company's plans to build new reactors in the UK.

Carbon focus

Some analysts believe there is likely to be a pause in nuclear new build programmes, not just in the UK, while regulators study the detailed reports that will emerge from Fukushima and investors take a fresh look at the financial equation.

The Fukushima crisis has come with disturbing imagery - but the statistics suggest little impact

Although the incident has put the issue of nuclear risk high up the news agenda, proponents can point to the fact that so far there has not been any impact on human health other than a few events involving workers at the power station.

Commenting on the poll, John McNamara of the Nuclear Industry Association said his organisation welcomed recent comments by Mr Huhne and other ministers.

"We support their views that government should take time to review and learn the lessons of the Japan crisis, while at the same time recognising that our current nuclear fleet has an excellent safety record and is a crucial part of our low-carbon power supply," he told BBC News.

"It is part of our job to engage with the general public and help them reach a conclusion on the UK's energy supplies, using evidence-based research and plain language.

"We recognise we have some way to go - but all energy sources have risks attached and we must plan for a safe, robust and low-carbon future to power our economy going forward."

The EU's eventual aim is to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95% from 1990 levels by 2050; and many countries, including the UK, have seen nuclear as an important component in a low-carbon energy mix.

At the weekend, Mr Huhne observed: "We can do the 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 without new nuclear, but it will require a big effort on carbon capture and storage and renewables."

Carbon capture and storage is a technology generally considered to be at least 10 years away, possibly more, from commercial use.

A separate poll last year showed that 60% of Britons would oppose the building of either a nuclear or coal-fired power station in their neighbourhood - but 73% would support the construction of a wind farm.

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