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Does nuclear energy have an image problem?

  • June 23, 2022

World leaders are reviewing their countries’ energy sources as geopolitical tensions between Russia and Western nations have caused spikes in gas prices and concerns about energy security.

And as the worst possible effects of climate change have become clearer, calls for governments to move away from their reliance on fossil fuels and adopt greener alternatives have intensified.

Earlier this year, Boris Johnson put nuclear power at the heart of the UK’s new energy strategy, with a possible eight more nuclear reactors in the pipeline for approval. The government’s ambition is for nuclear power to make up 25% of the UK’s electricity sources by 2050. 

In April, Johnson tweeted that nuclear is “a reliable, safe and constant source of clean energy”, and that it is “absolutely crucial to weaning” the UK off fossil fuels. Not everyone agrees. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas tweeted in March that nuclear power is “too costly, too slow, and too dangerous”, and that the suggestion it could supposedly solve the energy crisis was “disappointing”.

Public perception

Support for nuclear power in the UK has risen in the past six months, with 47% of adults backing its use, according to YouGov data. But 34% oppose its use. 

Nuclear accidents in 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, then in the Soviet Union, and Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan in 2011 are remembered by many people, and concerns about the harmful effects of exposure to radiation still have some sway over public opinion.

In the case of Chernobyl, 31 people are known to have died as a direct result of acute radiation exposure at the plant, and some estimates suggest that up to 60,000 more died in the years after the disaster as a result of cancers caused by radiation exposure. 

Meanwhile at Fukushima, one death was attributed to direct radiation exposure, while the official death toll counted 573 people who died as a result of being evacuated and stress-induced health problems.

Safety concerns

Despite the lives lost in these tragic accidents, nuclear is “far, far safer than fossil fuels”, according to analysis from a research team at Oxford University

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