Monday, 31 January 2011

Nuclear power and public trust

Last week the cabinet accepted guidelines for the draft law regulating the use of nuclear energy in Poland. The ministers discussed i.a. the question of liability for 'nuclear damage,' separate insurance for the transport of nuclear material, government's guarantees, as well as the information of general public and local communities about the safety of nuclear installations. The governement's plan is to have the new nuclear regulation bill passed until June this year, construction works are to begin by 2016 and an nuclear power plant is to be operating since 2022. Whether the blueprint is realistic or not, the coalition seems determined to follow the chosen path, and the nuclear ambitions of the goverment enjoy support of major opposition parties. There seems to be an overwhelming consensus on the political scene.

And what about social attitudes? According to the surveys realized by CBOS (Centre for Public Opinion Research), between 1987 and 2008 the opponents of nuclear power clearly outnumbered those ready to accept it.

Nuclear power plants in Poland -- for or against? (CBOS, August 2008)

Since 2008, the opinion seems to be shifting. According to different surveys, there is either a small majority in favour, or a small majority against the Polish nuclear programme. As far as the public opinion is concerned, the issue is undecided.

The change in public mood can be also seen in the report Europeans and Nuclear Safety published by the Eurobarometer in March 2010. Poland is among the countries, where more than a quarter of the population (25% - 30%) supports an increase in the use of nuclear energy. Even though as many as 50% of the respondents agree that the risks of nuclear power as an energy source outweigh its benefits, while only 38% thinks the opposite, there is a visible shift in the opinion. In 2006 only 26% tended to think that there are more benefits than risks involved. The rise of 12 percentage points is the biggest one in Europe, with Ireland (+10pp) and the Czech Republic (+9pp) coming next.

Interestingly enough, six out of eight countries with biggest support for an increased use of nuclear energy (25% - 30%) are postcommunist ones. What does this strange legacy of the Iron Curtain precisely mean? Is it just the fear of being dependent on Russia as energy provider? Or does it also express an East European civilizational complex, the feeling of being belated in terms of technology, and the wish to "catch up with the West"?

Whatever the explanation, there still the issue of public trust. Will government be able to convince the public that nucleaer energy may be safe? And, which is more difficult, that it can be produced safely even in Poland? There are in Europe countries like Sweden or the Czech Republic, where the great majority of people believe that nuclear energy may be safe. There are countries divided, like France or Germany, where only half of the population seems to be convinced. But Poland -- together with Romania and Ireland -- represents still another pattern. While many people tend to agree that It is possible to operate a nuclear power plant in a safe manner (64%), they seem less convinced that The nuclear safety authority in Poland sufficiently ensures the safe operation of nuclear power plant(s) (38%), and even less that The Polish legislation sufficiently ensures nuclear safety (31%).

Europeans and Nuclear Safety (Eurobarometer, March 2010)

It seems that a significant portion of the population believes that nuclear energy may be produced safely, but... not in Poland. Poles mistrust their own government and institutions more than they mistrust the technology.

And they may well have good reason not to trust. On 3th December 2010, the President of National Atomic Energy Agency (Państwowa Agencja Atomistyki), Prof. Michał Waligórski, was dismissed from his function. His pro-nuclear stance notwithstanding, he had had a highly critical assesment of the atomic draft law proposed by the government. Along with many specific concerns, he had pointed out that the goverment's nuclear programme was "chaotic and inconsistent," and had "incomprehensible logical structure." He was also asking, why the government ignored the Safety Infrastructure Guide (DS424) adopted by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Civic Platform's government found his remarks "unconstructive," and instead of changing the policy, changed the man. It seems that even those in favour of Poland's nuclear ambitions may have good reasons to be scared.

Adam Ostolski

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