What role should nuclear play in Britain’s climate change strategy?

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
October 18, 2021, 12:59 PM UTC

One in three want to see it play a major role

Recent media reports have suggested that the government intends to put nuclear energy at the heart of Britain’s attempts to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Nuclear energy has proved controversial in the recent past, with Germany, Switzerland and Belgium currently phasing out their provision. But what is public opinion on nuclear in the UK?

A new YouGov survey shows that two thirds of Britons (65%) believe that nuclear should play a role in the country’s climate change strategy. This includes one in three (34%) who say that nuclear should play a major role in attempts to make Britain’s electricity low or no carbon – on a par with renewable energy sources like solar and wind. Another 31% want to see it play a minor role.

Only 12% of Britons say we should not generate any nuclear energy whatsoever.

Anti-nuclear sentiment is highest among Labour (16%) and Remain voters (14%), as well as women (14%). By contrast, Conservative voters (45%) and men (45%) are much more likely to back making nuclear a major part of Britain’s strategy.

Belief nuclear energy is a serious carbon emitter could be driving opposition for some

The survey also explored people’s awareness of nuclear as a low carbon source of energy. Fewer than half of Britons (46%) consider nuclear to be zero carbon (14%) or low carbon (36%). Three in ten believe it to be moderate (14%) or high carbon (16%). Nuclear also received a higher rate of “don’t know” responses than the other energies we asked about (23%, vs 14-17%).

This compares to 80-81% who believe solar and wind to be zero/low carbon, and 2-6% who say the same of gas, oil and coal.

Belief that nuclear power creates greater levels of carbon emissions is higher among those who don’t want to see it as part of Britain’s energy mix: 46%, compared to only 21% who want to see it play a major role and 33% who want it to play a minor role.

This suggests that a significant chunk of opposition to nuclear energy could be based on the faulty assumption that it is a sizeable carbon emitter, and that greater awareness could reduce objections. Nevertheless, there will continue to be many whose concerns about nuclear energy stem from other issues, like the radioactive waste material it produces, or the risk of meltdown.

See the full results here