Building New Nuclear: the challenges ahead - Energy and Climate Change Contents

4  Public attitudes

61.  Public attitudes towards new energy projects are becoming an increasingly important factor in energy policy. There is no form of energy that is without its opponents; from campaigners against new wind farms to the anti-fracking lobby. Nuclear is no exception and public hostility towards new nuclear power stations could put the brakes on their development. In this section we examine attitudes towards new nuclear and explore ways in which concerns might be allayed.

Public opinion at the national level

62.  EDF's submission cited a recent poll, which showed that 66% of people thought that nuclear should be part of the energy mix.[84] The figure, however, must be qualified because for many people, support for nuclear is conditional. This issue was explored recently by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.[85] Professors Pidgeon and Henwood told us:

A closer look at the national data shows a more complex picture, however, with a large proportion of recent support remaining conditional - a 'reluctant acceptance' at best. While many more in Britain have indeed come to support nuclear power over the past decade they do so while viewing it only as a 'devil's bargain', a choice of last resort in the face of the threat of climate change and energy security concerns. Given the choice individuals still show very clear preferences for renewable electricity generation over both nuclear and conventional fossil fuels.[86]


63.  Several witnesses noted that the Fukushima incident does not appear to have had a big impact on UK attitudes towards nuclear power.[87] NuGen attributed this to "the sensible and measured approach to Fukushima in the UK".[88] Professor Pidgeon believed that a combination of factors, including the way the incident was reported in the British press, the fact that Japan is a long way away from the UK and the good track record of nuclear safety in this country, could explain the absence of impact on UK opinion.[89]

64.  While Fukushima has not affected overall levels of support for new nuclear, the salience of accident risk has increased.[90] Sedgemoor District Council said that Fukushima had had a significant impact on local perceptions, suggesting that "perceptions of risk have undoubtedly risen".[91] Professor Pidgeon explained:

[I]t is not that people believe the likelihood is any different. It is that their thoughts are now focused on what might happen if it goes wrong, and the implication of that is that another conversation has to be had about the implications of an accident. So what would you do, who would you evacuate, and what are the contingency arrangements? Who would be responsible for paying if you had a large accident at a site like Hinkley Point? That is a conversation that probably wouldn't have been had 18 months ago and that probably has to be had now.[92]


65.  As mentioned previously, the Horizon project was put up for sale shortly before we launched our inquiry. As a result, there was a great deal of speculation throughout the course of our inquiry about who might buy Horizon. Media reports suggested that two Chinese state nuclear corporations, Russian-owned Rosatom and Japanese-owned Hitachi were interested in putting forward bids for Hitachi. [93] In the end, Hitachi was successful.

66.  It is not clear whether the entry of non-European players into the UK nuclear sector might have an impact on public opinion. We heard some speculation that it might, particularly if there was a perceived connection with Fukushima.[94] There appears to have been very little (if any) research in this area to date so it is difficult to provide anything more than conjecture at this stage.

67.  European ownership does not seem to have any negative impacts on public perceptions. The fact that EDF is French-owned (and part-owned by the French State) has not had any discernible negative effects on attitudes towards the proposed new reactor at Hinkley Point C.[95] We note that following Centrica's decision not to proceed with investment in Hinkley C, there has been speculation that a state-owned Chinese company might now join the consortium in Centrica's place.[96]

Local level opinion

68.  Although there may be broad support for new nuclear at the national level, the views of the local communities living near to new plants do not necessarily mirror the national picture.[97] Professor Pidgeon told us that opinion tends to be more polarised at the local level, and can also be affected by geography:

There is the phenomenon that people who live very close in, in this 10 to maybe 15-mile radius, are more positive than in the national polls, although again that is more complicated because they are a bit more polarised as well. […] Interestingly, as you move out, […] you tend to get more opposition than in national polls. Geography also matters greatly as well, […] An interesting one is Bradwell, […] Across the water in West Mersea there has been very strong opposition for years and years and years. Even though they are quite close, because the station is visible, they do not benefit from any of the local jobs because they are a long way around the estuary there, and they feel they just get all the potential risks if something went wrong.

69.  Since new build sites are all adjacent to existing nuclear facilities, the local communities have experienced the UK's good nuclear safety record first hand and are likely to have friends or family who work in the industry.[98] This might explain the higher levels of support that are found immediately adjacent to new build sites. The potential jobs and economic benefits associated with new build projects are a clear driver of support at the local level.

70.  Where concerns do arise, they tend to be more focused on the disruption caused by the construction process rather than the risk of a nuclear accident.[99] We were struck during our visit to Hinkley Point C and Bridgwater that representatives from local parish councils focused entirely on how noise and disruption from the construction of Hinkley C might be mitigated or compensated for, and how the associated influx of workers to the area might be managed so as to maximise benefits to the local area. At no point did they raise "in principle" concerns about nuclear power, nor did they suggest that the risk of a nuclear accident was something they were worried about.[100]

Building public support


71.  Supporters of Nuclear Energy (SONE) argued that in order to build support for new nuclear, stronger leadership from Government was needed and that the case for new nuclear power in the UK should be made more explicitly.[101] Although large companies like EDF already have confidence in the Government's position, SONE felt that more needed to be done to make the position clear to members of the public. Sir William McAlpine told us

What we do not get is the full support of all parties saying, "What we need, the answer to this country's fuel problems, is nuclear"—if they believe it. There seems to be this terrible feeling that it is not popular in the country and there are no votes in it—this is me being cynical—and therefore it is not worth pushing it.[102]

72.  The industry trade association agreed with this view and argued that "it is vital that the Government continues to be unequivocal about the energy challenge, presenting the case for nuclear in an objective way, and that it is seen to be acting in the best interests of both the UK electorate and electricity consumers".[103] The Institute of Physics also thought that Government should do more to publicly stress the differences between UK nuclear power sites and those affected by the tsunami at Fukushima.[104]


73.  Perceptions of the potential hazards associated with nuclear power stations play an important role in public attitudes towards new build projects. While knowledge of hazards and the probability with which they might occur (risk) is important, it is not the only factor that can affect people's concerns. Other elements include:

  • the level of control people feel they have over a particular hazard;
  • the extent to which relevant decision makers, regulators and industries are trusted; and
  • the affective properties of a hazard - whether it promotes a feeling of insecurity or fear.[105]

74.  This means that while boosting understanding of the hazards and risk associated with nuclear power may help to alleviate fears about new build to some extent, knowledge alone is unlikely to be sufficient to overcome opposition.[106]

75.  Professors Pidgeon and Henwood argued that dialogue was an important part of risk communication.[107] At the moment, there is not an obvious forum in which members of the public can have a dialogue about how risk will be managed with developers. The most obvious point of engagement for local communities is the planning process but questions of risk management fall outside the scope of this process.[108] Professor Pidgeon explained:

There is a disconnect in the sense that it is not necessarily the developer's responsibility to engage on this [risk management]. The local council do not have the resources to do it, and HSE [Health and Safety Executive] and the ONR [Office for Nuclear Regulation], the nuclear regulator, is in some sense removed from that local process. We do not have a process whereby we could have a conversation about that critical issue with local communities. [109]

76.  The regulators responsible for managing health and environmental risks (the Office for Nuclear Regulation—the ONR— and the Environment Agency respectively) do enjoy a relatively high level of trust among members of the public.[110] Dr Hall (Acting Chief Nuclear Inspector of the ONR) told us that his organisation engages with the local communities in a number of ways. These include a local community liaison council that meets every six months to provide reports about activities to members of the local community, attending public debates, publishing documents on the ONR website and providing an e-bulletin to people who sign up online. However, most of these activities appear to be one-way communications, from the "expert" to the "public", rather than a genuine two-way dialogue, as advocated by Professors Pidgeon and Henwood.

77.  In addition, there is a further problem in that the technical consenting regimes are a separate process to the planning regime. While members of the public may be familiar with the planning process, they tend to be less well acquainted with the consenting regime and how they can engage with it.[111] This can lead to confusion and frustration, as Mr Jones (New Nuclear Local Authorities Group) noted:

We are very concerned that ONR is going to turn up in our local community and say something, because it is not aware of the process that we have been through for the last three and a half years, that will unsettle the community or move them back a step […][W]e hope that when they come to our local area and when they come to any local area they will be cognisant of what has gone on and be very aware of what the key issues are and how they will deal with them. But there is genuinely nothing more frustrating than someone turning around to the local community and saying on risk, for example, "I am very sorry, the planning inspectorate or the local authority can't consider risk. That is a matter for ONR, who are coming to talk to you in a month's time".[112]

78.  It is important that local communities have an opportunity to engage in genuine dialogue about risk management with both the regulators and the developers. It is disappointing that there does not appear to be a natural forum for this kind of debate at present. The ONR and Environment Agency should plan their public engagement activities to coordinate better with the planning process, so that regulators and developers can be present at the same public meetings.

79.  Dialogue between the developer and local community is also essential but not always easy to get right. It was apparent from our visit to Hinkley Point C and Bridgwater that EDF had made considerable efforts to engage with the local community and to try to alleviate the negative impacts of the construction process that local residents were concerned about. Indeed, Chief Executive Vincent de Rivaz cited the agreement of a section 106 deal with the local councils (under which EDF will pay £64 million on education, transport and housing projects to mitigate the local impacts of the construction process at Hinkley C) as proof that local engagement had been successful.[113] Nevertheless, representatives from parish councils told us that they had been "underwhelmed" by EDF's efforts to engage locally and had been left with the impression that they were not valued partners in the dialogue. They felt at times they were being bamboozled by the large number of technical documents that were produced by EDF as part of the planning process. They also believed that the section 106 deal did not provide sufficient compensation to them for the disruption that the construction process would cause.[114]

80.  The planning process is by its nature very complex and technical, and this may be one of the reasons why local engagement is so difficult to get right. While developers have the in-house expertise to produce technical documents, local communities do not necessarily have the know-how to interpret them fully. In addition, they are likely to be working on their own submissions in their spare time, unlike developers who can pay staff to work full time on consultations.[115] In the case of Hinkley C the local authorities were able to provide some support to parish councils to help them to participate more effectively in the planning process. We understand that this was possible because EDF contributed some financial resources to the councils for this purpose.[116]

81.  There is a mismatch between the capacity of developers and that of local communities to participate fully and effectively in the planning process, particularly where large, complex and technical projects such as building a new nuclear power station are concerned. The Government should consider whether it is possible to provide advice and support to local communities living near to nationally significant infrastructure projects in a more systematic way than the current approach, which depends heavily on individual local authorities. For example, an independent advice service for communities living near to any nationally significant infrastructure project could be established. It could help local communities with interpretation of technical documents and provide advice on what types of compensation might be permitted under Section 106 agreements. It could be funded by levy on developers submitting applications to the Planning Inspectorate.


82.  There was a suggestion from a number of witnesses who were involved in new build projects that local support would be more likely if there was a clear benefit to communities in new build areas.[117] Jobs and new opportunities for local businesses to get involved in the supply chain are an obvious example of one type of potential benefit.[118] We will discuss how opportunities for the local supply chain might be maximised in chapter 5. Many witnesses believed that the Government's proposal to allow local authorities to keep the business rates from renewable energy projects should be extended to include nuclear energy projects too.[119]

83.  The Government has argued that communities hosting renewable energy installations play a vital role in meeting a national need for secure, clean energy, and should be able to benefit from hosting such projects.[120] Communities hosting nuclear power stations are contributing towards the same aims, and so it seems reasonable that they should also be able to benefit from hosting new-build projects. We recommend that Government extends the scope of its proposal to allow local authorities hosting renewable energy projects to retain business rates to include all forms of low-carbon energy (renewables, nuclear and carbon capture and storage).

84.  The long construction period for nuclear power stations means that were such a measure to be introduced, communities living near to nuclear new build sites would not see any benefits for approximately 10 years (because business rates would only be paid once the plant started generating). The community representatives that we met during our visit felt that this was too long to wait, particularly since there would be some impacts from the construction process that could not be compensated for through the section 106 process (such as loss of amenity of gardens resulting from increased traffic on the roads).

85.  Unlike renewables, nuclear power stations take a long time to build and therefore have the potential to cause considerable disruption to local communities for an extended period of time. Government should investigate whether it could be possible to provide any additional forms of community benefit during the construction period (beyond the compensatory measures already agreed to in the section 106 deal).

84   Ev 93 Back

85   House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, First Report of Session 2012-13, Devil's bargain? Energy risks and the public, HC 428, 9 July 2012 Back

86   Ev 125 Back

87   Ev w35, Ev 118  Back

88   Ev 118 Back

89   Q 139 Back

90   Ev 125 Back

91   Ev 130 Back

92   Q 142 Back

93   "Doubts mount over UK's nuclear energy future" The Telegraph, 21 August 2012 Back

94   Ev 111 Back

95   Q 110, Q 121 [Mr Brown] Back

96   "Centrica nuclear exit opens door to China", Financial Times, 4 February 2013 Back

97   Ev 125  Back

98   Ev 125,Q 142 [Mr Brown] Back

99   Q 106 [Mr Jones], Qq 122-123 Mr Jones Back

100   Annex 2 Back

101   Ev 135 Back

102   Q 305 [Sir William McAlpine] Back

103   Ev w24 Back

104   Ev w23 Back

105   Ev 125 Back

106   Q 98  Back

107   Ev 125 Back

108   Ev 130, Q 106 Back

109   Q 107 Back

110   Q 132 Back

111   Q 106 [Mr Brown] Back

112   Q 138 Back

113   Q 212 Back

114   Annex 2 Back

115   Ev 130  Back

116   Annex 2 Back

117   Ev 93, Ev w24, Ev 114,Ev 130, Ev 118 Back

118   Q 127 [Mr Jones] Back

119   Ev 93, Ev w24, Ev 130, Ev 118 Back

120   Department for Communities and Local Government, Local Government Resource Review: Proposals for Business Rates Retention, Technical paper 8: Renewable energy, August 2011  Back

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Prepared 4 March 2013