A poll by Roy Morgan Research several days into the Fukushima nuclear crisis found that 61% of Australians oppose the development of nuclear power in Australia, nearly double the 34% who support it.
The growth in support for nuclear power over the past five years has been totally erased — and then some.
There was undoubtedly growing support for nuclear power until Fukushima, but the issue had been the subject of a great deal of hype and spin.
For example, in 2009 there was a wave of media reports and commentary based on a Nielsen/Fairfax poll, which found that support for nuclear power had risen to 49% and had overtaken the level of opposition.
Actually, the poll found that 49% 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 internet-poll conducted by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) in 2009 to gauge attitudes towards nuclear power.
The option “I am against it” was easily winning before an ANSTO staff member changed it to “It is one of the options”. The manipulation was exposed in the media and ANSTO issued a public apology.
The manufactured “support” for nuclear power has been bolstered by repeated claims that environmentalists are turning in support of nuclear power.
Truth is, you could count the number of pro-nuclear environmentalists on one hand.
Two hands if you count the likes of eco-warrior turned “sustainability consultant” Patrick Moore, who is funded by the US Nuclear Energy Institute.
In 2006, front-page headlines announced the decision of environment group WWF Australia to support nuclear power. But there was no such decision and no such support.
In December, WWF Australia joined every other major environment group in Australia in endorsing a joint statement of opposition to nuclear power.
In terms of environmentalist support for nuclear power, there’s not much on offer except nuclear front groups.
A party called Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy was formed in 2009 but it was deregistered the following year after the Australian Electoral Commission found that it did not have the minimum of 500 members required to maintain registration.
The party was previously known as Conservatives for Climate and Environment and was described by Labor strategists as a “Coalition front organisation”.
Support for nuclear power had been going up in Australian polls until recently, but Roy Morgan Research points out that the longer term trend-line is in the other direction.
In 1979, the “yes” vote for nuclear power beat the “no” vote by 17%. Now it trails by 27%.
The recent Morgan poll illustrates how the wording of the question influences the results.
When asked “Should Australia export uranium to other countries for peaceful purposes?”, 59% said “yes”. But when the same people were asked “Should Australia export uranium to other countries for their nuclear power needs?”, support fell from 59% to 44%, and opposition shot up from 34% to 50%.
One wonders what the result would be if the question was along the lines of “Should we let ex-union heavyweight Martin Ferguson sell uranium to nuclear weapons states, to murderous dictatorships and to countries refusing to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty?”
Even with a neutral question, a 2006 Newspoll found that a majority of Coalition voters — yes, Coalition voters — opposed the development of new uranium mines in Australia.
The PR problem gets only deeper for nuclear power 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% of people would support a nuclear plant being built in their area, 13% would be anxious but not oppose it, and 73% 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 John Howard government tried to avoid mention of its pro-nuclear power 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.
There are no such PR problems for renewable energy. A 2007 Australian Research Group survey found that a big 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%.
A 2009 poll commissioned by the Clean Energy Council found 80% supported the government prioritising the development of renewables and just 15% supported prioritising nuclear power.
Nuclear power is off the agenda for the foreseeable future, but that still leaves the elephant in the room — King Coal.
The debate turns on polarised opinions about the potential 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 renewable electricity in Australia are solar thermal power with storage (for example 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 has begun in Australia, but we have yet to see large-scale geothermal electricity generation.
There are some “bridging” energy options including greater use of gas, and biofuels 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 energy campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia (foe.org.au) and coordinator of the Choose Nuclear Free project (choosenuclearfree.net).]