Energy issues unclear to people

02 December 2009

Support for Britain's program of replacement nuclear remains very high, but large portions of the public - and especially women - still say they know virtually nothing about nuclear energy.


The information comes from the annual Ipsos MORI poll carried out for the UK Nuclear Industry Association. As well as the usual quantitative polling on support and opposition, a new qualitative study was carried out on the different ways men and women form their opinions and why there is consistently higher support among men.


The headline results are that 33% of people have favourable views of nuclear power, compared to 20% unfavourable. The gap widens significantly on the question of replacement build where 43% of people support new reactors to replace old ones, compared to 19% that oppose it.


High support, high confusion  
Only 8% of people disagreed with the statement "Britain needs a mix of energy sources to ensure a reliable supply of electricity, including nuclear power and renewable sources of electricity." Support for the above balanced mix was 67%.


Some 49% agreed that "I don't really know enough about nuclear energy to be able to give an opinion." The figure was 58% among women.

But these figures conceal some dramatic gender gaps. For example, while 53% of men support replacement nuclear and only 15% oppose it, only 33% of women expressed support versus 22% in opposition while some 44% were neutral on the basis of no firm opinion.


This may come down to a lack of information - also reflected in a gender gap. Among men, 27% said they knew 'almost nothing' about the nuclear energy industry and 45% said they knew 'just a little'. For women, some 41% knew 'almost nothing' and 43% 'just a little'.


Only 8% of women said they knew 'a fair amount' about the nuclear business, compared to 21% of men.


On the benefits of nuclear, about one in five people recognised nuclear's reliability and low impact on the environment including in terms of emissions. However, one in three couldn't name any benefits. It was a similar story on disadvantages: Waste concerns and risks of accident of contamination were named by 24-35% of people, but 24% couldn't name any disadvantages.


Desperately seeking something

The "information vacuum," Ipsos MORI found, was "often filled by suspicion and fear, generated in many cases by popular culture." Although 49% of people admitted they did not know enough about nuclear energy to form an opinion, when asked "What kinds of things, if anything, would you really like to know about nuclear energy" about the same number of people could offer no answer.


Ipsos MORI said that it found some individuals who said they opposed nuclear energy "proved on closer questioning to know very little about it and had no basis on which to evaluate it." 


The company found that very few people actively seek out information about nuclear energy, and those that do are almost exclusively men. When sufficiently interested, men will refer to and compare a number of sources and form an opinion by a 'triangulating' their findings. However, this is marred by a tendency to base opinions on dubious 'facts' and imprecisely understood terms. For women, opinions are more likely to flow from a single source of information, from conversations with family members or passive absorbtion from popular culture.


The sexes also differ when comparing the risks and benefits of energy sources. "There is an indication that men tend to balance risks and benefits in order to arrive at an evaluation. Women, on the other hand, tend to recoil at the presence of any risk," said Ipsos MORI.


"Correcting the most basic misconceptions is a prime need" for greater acceptance of nuclear energy. Many people, particularly women, simply called for 'facts' on nuclear power. Researchers found that opposition was often a default position for people who just felt they did not have enough information to actually say they supported nuclear.


Referring to research carried out for another client, Ipsos MORI said that simply discussing the issues of energy, climate change and nuclear power could have a positive effect on people's pre-existing opinions.


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