Nuclear Energy Gains Global Popularity, with Stronger Support in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe     Print Email
Thursday, 04 June 2009

Worldwide support is growing for civil nuclear energy; however, polls show Europe trails in the overall trend, with Western Europe offering the strongest resistance. Even within Western Europe, however, nuclear energy is becoming more attractive as a means toward greater energy independence from Russian natural gas and as a way to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

In a recent global survey conducted by the consulting firm Accenture, 40 percent of respondents say that they “support the use or increased use of nuclear power outright,” and another 29 percent would be supportive if some “concerns were addressed” (predominantly waste disposal, safety, and decommissioning).

Developing countries have the most positive responses, including 96 percent of Chinese respondents. Some of the largest producers of greenhouse gases-India, China, and the US-are the greatest supporters of civil nuclear energy. According to a recent Gallup poll, 59 percent of Americans support nuclear energy, with 27 percent strongly in favor. The poll also found that 56 percent think nuclear power plants are safe, though a substantial minority disagrees.

Within Europe, however, there is a distinct divide. Many Western European countries retain strong opposition to nuclear energy. Little support for beginning or expanding nuclear power is found in Western Europe, with support weakest in Germany, Greece, and Spain.

Eastern Europe seems to follow the global trend for support of nuclear energy. A survey similar to Accenture’s conducted by the Polish government in March 2009 showed 40 percent of Poles favor development of nuclear energy. Poland announced plans to build at least two more nuclear plants by 2020. Similarly, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia have declared plans for the construction of one new nuclear power plant each. The growing support for nuclear energy in Eastern Europe seems to be driven by the desire for energy independence from Russia.

Several countries in Europe are making legal changes to reinstate nuclear power growth that had been banned. Italy has lifted its ban on nuclear energy as of May of this year. Sweden did the same in February. France and Finland have begun construction on new reactors, and Finland has plans for yet another.

The key European hold-out against a “nuclear renaissance” is Germany. Opposed by a strong Green lobby, nuclear power has historically been hotly debated there, and in 1998 a Social Democratic-led government passed legislation to phase out nuclear energy by gradually shutting down all the country’s nuclear power plants, with the first major closures scheduled for 2011. But opinion seems to be becoming more favorable toward nuclear energy as it promises to become increasingly cheap compared to oil or even coal. A 2007 poll found that 61 percent of Germans now oppose the phase-out of nuclear, and the current Christian Democratic government-led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has a background in nuclear engineering-seems intent on reversing policy to include nuclear energy in the country’s future energy mix. Since the Social Democrats, the junior coalition partners, are resisting this change, the current government is paralyzed on the issue. Any change will depend on the outcome of German elections in September.