Public opinion - nuclear power in Australia

Public opinion regarding nuclear power, followed by public opinion regarding uranium mining.

Why don’t Australians see nuclear as a climate change solution?

14 October 2013

John McAneney, Deanne Bird, Katharine Haynes, Rob van den Honert - Macquarie University

This survey found that more respondents oppose nuclear power than support it (53% versus 30%).

Expanding the use of renewable energy sources (71%) is the most popular option to tackle climate change, followed by energy-efficient technologies (58%) and behavioural change (54%). Nuclear power (17.4%) is a distant fourth.

Nuclear power in Australia: A comparative analysis of public opinion regarding climate change and the Fukushima disaster

Deanne Bird, Katharine Haynes, Rob van den Honert, John McAneney, Wouter Poortinga − Macquarie University

Energy Policy, 3 October 2013
or download PDF

1101 respondents in Australia -aged 18+
Overall 2012 figures - 41.4% opposition to nuclear power in Australia compared to 24.4% support (+17% difference)
Overall 2010 figures - 31.7% opposition to nuclear power in Australia compared to 29% support. (+2.7% difference)

... indicating the impact of the Fukushima disaster on public opinion.

Support for nuclear power has melted away

Jim Green, 11 April 2011, The Punch

A poll by Roy Morgan Research several days into the Fukushima nuclear crisis found that 61 per cent of Australians oppose the development of nuclear power here, nearly double the 34 per cent level of support. Thus the growth in support for nuclear power over the past five years has been totally erased ... and then some.

While there was undoubtedly growing support for nuclear power until Fukushima, the issue has been the subject of a great deal of hype and spin. In 2009, for example, a flurry of media reports and commentary followed the release of a Nielsen poll which found that support for nuclear power had risen to 49 per cent and had overtaken the level of opposition. But in fact the poll found that 49 per cent of Australians supported “considering the introduction of nuclear power in Australia”. There is of course a big difference between supporting nuclear power and supporting its consideration.

Then there was an unfortunate web-poll conducted by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation in 2009 to gauge attitudes towards nuclear power. “I am against it” was easily winning, so an enterprising ANSTO staff member changed “I am against it” to “It is one of the options”. A journalist got wind of the subterfuge and ANSTO issued a public apology.

The hyping of nuclear power includes the repeated claim that environmentalists are turning in support of nuclear power. Truth is, you could count the number of pro-nuclear environmentalists on the fingers of one hand. Two hands if you count the likes of eco-warrior turned “sustainability consultant” Patrick Moore, whose consulting is sustained by funding from the US Nuclear Energy Institute.

While the polls were trending upwards for nuclear power in Australia until recently, Roy Morgan Research points out that the longer term trend is in the other direction. In 1979, the “yes” vote for nuclear power beat the “no” vote by 17 per cent; now it trails by 27 per cent.

The PR problem only gets deeper for nuclear advocates. Sooner or later, plans for nuclear power must be accompanied by a postcode, and few of us want to live anywhere near a nuclear reactor. The Morgan poll found that just 12 per cent of us would support a nuclear plant being built in our area, 13 per cent would be anxious but not oppose it, and 73 per cent would oppose it.

And if nuclear advocates weren’t already feeling punch-drunk, consider the November 2007 federal election − the first time in decades that a major political party took a pro-nuclear power policy to an election. As the election loomed, the Howard government tried to avoid mention of its pro-nuclear policy, but the issue was bubbling away in local electorates. During the election campaign at least 22 Coalition candidates publicly distanced themselves from the government’s policy. The policy was − and was seen to be − a liability and it was ditched immediately after the election.

No such PR problems for renewable energy. A 2007 Australian Research Group survey found that an overwhelming majority of Australians support greater investment in wind power, solar power and energy efficiency, while support for nuclear power came a distant last at 33 per cent. A 2009 poll commissioned by the Clean Energy Council found 80 per cent support for prioritising the development of renewables and just 15 per cent support for prioritising nuclear power.

While nuclear power is off the agenda for the foreseeable future, that still leaves the elephant in the room − King Coal. The debate turns on polarised opinions about the capabilities of renewable energy sources. Some say that a clean, green, renewable energy future is feasible and inexpensive. Some say it is a hideously-expensive pipe-dream.Few would be surprised if the truth lay between those extremes.

Two of the most likely candidates to provide large-scale electricity in Australia are solar thermal power with storage (e.g. in molten salts), and geothermal “hot rocks” using underground heat to drive turbines.

Solar with storage is available, but it is about twice as expensive as other low-carbon electricity sources and four times as expensive as coal. It will certainly become cheaper, but we don’t know how much cheaper.

For geothermal hot rocks, a great deal of exploration and development is underway in Australia, but we’ve yet to see large-scale geothermal electricity generation.

There may be a need for “bridging” energy sources, with the most likely candidates being greater use of gas and also greater use of bioenergy such as the use of crop wastes to generate electricity.

But for Australia, much depends on the development of solar and geothermal. One logical policy would be to axe the many and varied fossil fuel subsidies, which amount to several billion dollars each year even by the most conservative estimates, and to use those funds to support solar and geothermal.

Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth.

Australian attitudes towards nuclear power are typical:

A 2005 IAEA survey of attitudes in 18 countries found that about two-thirds of those expressing an opinion opposed building new reactors. South Korea was the only one of the 18 countries with majority support for new reactors.

A 2011 survey covering 24 countries found 62% of respondents opposed nuclear power and 69% opposed the construction of new reactors.


In general terms, public opinion in Australia is evenly divided on the topic of uranium mining. A 2008 Newspoll found 47% of Queenslanders opposed uranium mining compared to 45% support. A 2008 Newspoll found 48% of Western Australians supported a ban on uranium mining compared to 38% in favour of uranium mining. A 2011 poll found almost half the voters contacted by Western Australian Opinion Polls opposed uranium mining in WA, with 32% strongly opposed; 32% support uranium mining but only 5% were strong supporters; and only 28% of swinging voters supported uranium mining.

A 2011 Morgan poll illustrates how sensitive the results are to the framing of the question. When asked if they support exporting uranium for 'peaceful purposes', respondents were 59:34 in favour. When the same respondents were asked if they support exporting uranium to other countries for their 'nuclear power needs', the result was 44:50.

A 2012 opinion poll by the Lowy Institute found 61% of Australians opposed uranium sales to India, nearly double the number in support (33%). The number strongly opposed (39%) was more than four times the number strongly in support (9%). A 2008 poll by the Lowy Institute found that 88% agreed that Australia should "only export uranium to countries which have signed the global Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty".

A 2008 survey found 62% of Australians opposed uranium exports to nuclear weapons states compared to 31% in favour. An International Atomic Energy Agency survey of 1,000 Australians in 2005 found 56% believed the IAEA safeguards system was ineffective − nearly double the 29% who considered it effective.

There is also scepticism towards the mining industry generally. in a 2011 poll only 11% said "all Australians" benefited a lot from the mining boom compared to 68% for mining company executives, 48% for mining company shareholders, and 42% for "foreign companies".