Strategies to overcome public scepticism over nuclear new build

Speech by Tim Yeo to Platts European Nuclear Power Conference


I retired from politics this year, having chaired the UK Parliament Energy Committee for the last five years.

There is lots I’d like to comment on in what Jean-Pol said, not least about Hinkley Point, but there’s a session on that this afternoon.

I would like to thank Valerie for stressing climate change and highlighting the importance of the carbon budget. Because the more that is understood the more support there will be for nuclear.


About New Nuclear Watch Europe

NNWE was set up at the end of last year. It is a group of companies working together, large and small in the nuclear industry, and backed by some leading scientists, with the aim of promoting revival of civil nuclear power across the EU.

NNWE believes safety must be at the heart of the nuclear industry where EU member states use nuclear technology which has been developed outside Europe.

The industry should, where possible, use technology which has already been tried and tested in commercial use.

It must also ensure the safe and proper disposal of waste and must promote value for money.

The nuclear industry should also bring benefits to local communities. It should work with local partners across the entire supply chain, including in R & D and high-end manufacturing.


Why nuclear?

Nuclear power has an essential role to play in meeting the EU’s key energy policy aims.

First and foremost nuclear is safe. Its safety record in Europe is exemplary. It meets the most demanding safety standards, standards which are set by law and rigorously enforced. The safety record of the nuclear industry is among the best in the entire energy sector.

But nuclear is clean as well as safe. The GHG emissions produced by nuclear are a tiny fraction of those of coal and a pretty small fraction of those produced by gas. Only renewables can compare with nuclear.

But nuclear currently has one big advantage which renewable technologies like wind and solar do not yet possess.

Because unlike them, nuclear can provide reliable, predictable, continuous electricity. And it can provide this at scale and without interruption.


The energy trilemma

The EU as a whole and all its member states face the same three energy challenges:

  • How to improve security of supply
  • How to cut greenhouse gas emissions
  • And how to generate affordable electricity

Nuclear achieves the first two of those beyond doubt. And with the right approach it can achieve the third too.

Modern business and domestic life depends heavily on the availability of a continuous supply of electricity. Today’s consumers won’t tolerate power outages of the sort which used to occur 40 years ago in Britain.

At the same time in the last few years many countries have also become concerned about the risks of too much dependence on imported fossil fuels. So security of energy supply is no longer taken for granted.

Nuclear is one way to address this concern; there is no shortage of nuclear fuel. So reviving the nuclear industry directly meets security anxieties.

But the advantages of nuclear go beyond security. Last year the EU set a challenging target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030.That will only be achieved by substantial decarbonisation of the electricity generation industry.

It’s very hard indeed to see how that EU emissions target can be met without a significant contribution from nuclear.

In addition to improving security and cutting emissions nuclear also provides baseload power too.

Let me stress that NNWE isn’t in any way opposed to the expansion of renewable energy.

On the contrary we believe renewables have a vital role to play and we welcome the recent growth of renewable energy.

We believe that EU member states are right to support this growth. Nuclear isn’t competing with renewables; it is complimenting them. The world needs nuclear as well as renewables.


Getting the message across

Given all these advantages it’s a surprise in some ways that nuclear isn’t already growing quickly. But we must recognise that many people still have to be convinced of the case for new investment in nuclear.

There are, after all, still many opponents. People who doubt the safety of nuclear; people who point to accidents like Fukushima without recognising that a similar accident would not happen here.

There are even people who still see support for new nuclear as in some ways related to nuclear weapons. People who won’t recognise that civil nuclear power has nothing whatever to do with nuclear weapons.

So the first argument to be won by those of us who want Europe to lead a revival of nuclear power is about safety.


Independent trusted regulators

One valuable card in our hand is the existence of independent trusted regulators. Back home in Britain public support for nuclear is boosted significantly by the public’s view of Britain’s ONR as an expert body dedicated to ensuring the safety of the industry operating independently of government.

It was noticeable in the aftermath of Fukushima that in Britain public support for nuclear scarcely wavered. I’d like to believe that this reflected the good sense of the British people who understood that what happened in Japan could not happen in Britain.

But the confidence in nuclear power which that demonstrated was also in part due to the willingness of British people to accept the assurances of the regulator.

In addition the industry has an outstanding safety record of which everyone working in the industry can be justly proud. Those of us who are promoting new nuclear must constantly remind the public that in its 60 year history nuclear has demonstrated a safety record which is second to none.


Good neighbours

But there’s much more than just the safety argument when it comes to justifying support for new nuclear.

One interesting fact about the public’s support for nuclear is that it tends to be strongest among people who have direct experience of a nuclear power station. In fact the closer you live to a nuclear power station the more likely you are to support the construction of a new one. That’s because nuclear power stations are good neighbours. They are seen by the local community as a clean and responsible industry.


Good employers

More than that nuclear power stations are also good employers. They are seen as a valuable and substantial source of stable, good, well paid jobs.


Good for the economy

In fact nuclear power is good for the economy in more ways than one and investment in new nuclear will bring widespread benefits to any community and any country willing to undertake it.

In particular the construction of a new nuclear power plant is a huge economic event on its own and while some of the jobs created won’t be permanent the construction period is not exactly quick and its economic impact is likely to last the best part of a decade.

Right now there’s another prize waiting to be grasped by first movers in the nuclear revival race. This is an industry with a potentially big future as the IEA, among others, has pointed out the worldwide potential for nuclear is enormous.

Concern about climate change will certainly intensify in the next few years as a recent decision by a Dutch court showed and as we will have daily reminders as the Paris CoP approaches. As a prime technology which is a big part of the solution to climate change nuclear is well placed to grow and those countries which lead the revival of nuclear power will also be well placed to capture a significant share of a potentially lucrative supply chain.


Building Alliances

But getting the message across isn’t only about publicising the benefits of nuclear. It’s also about engaging with different audiences. Supporters of new nuclear need to build alliances and that’s what we at NNWE are doing.

Obviously one key audience is policy makers. Here in Brussels we are particularly conscious of that. EU member states are divided on the subject of nuclear; roughly half are in favour and half against; some more loudly and actively than others.

At present the right of individual member states to decide their own energy mix is strongly defended. Long may that continue to be the case.

But energy union is on the way even though its precise form isn’t yet clear. Energy union can bring great benefits but it needs to happen in a way which allows those countries which want to invest in nuclear as much freedom to do so as those which favour other low carbon technologies seem to take for granted. So we must engage with policy makers at every level.



Nuclear is an industry where the role and influence of the academic and scientific community is particularly important. That’s why NNWE has established a group of scientists to advise us about current and future developments in the nuclear industry. Success in reviving nuclear power will be enormously accelerated if the academic and scientific world is actively and openly in support.



In many countries the public is suspicious of politicians; sometimes with good reason and sometimes without. But whatever the cause trust in politics and politicians is at a low ebb.

By contrast NGOs enjoy wide public support occasionally of a surprisingly unquestioning nature. Unfortunately for the nuclear industry not all NGOs support new nuclear.

Those of us who do must therefore engage with opponents and deploy the arguments in favour at every opportunity.



The same is true of environmentalists. Despite the fact that the environmental impact is almost wholly favourable and the fact that it’s hard to see how climate change can be successfully addressed without a revival of nuclear power.

There are still many critics of nuclear inside the environmental world. Partly this is because of unresolved questions about the disposal of waste. These questions are being vigorously addressed. They are certainly better understood than in the past.

But we must never overlook the crucial importance of winning the public’s confidence about our industry’s ability to deal with its waste. And we must convince those green campaigners, many of whose aims we share, that nuclear is part of the solution not part of the problem. I am encouraged by a number of former opponents of nuclear who now recognise its advantages. Our challenge is to convert others.


The public

Finally behind all these other audiences is the one which matters most -the public. Because it’s by winning their trust, confidence and support that nuclear can assure its own future.



Briefly and in conclusion the industry must pursue a media strategy based on openness and transparency. We must promote debate about nuclear because we can be confident about the merits of our case.

The industry must recognise that a media strategy is not, by itself, sufficient. We need policies which help too, including, as Jean-Pol mentioned earlier, a price signal which favours low carbon technologies like nuclear.

The EU ETS is a start, though it needs strengthening. It’s encouraging that our example

is now being followed in China, the largest country in the world, and the second largest economy.

Building trust in nuclear is essential to overcome opposition and widen public support.

That trust can only be secured by openness in dealing with the public; by showing that the industry has the public interest at heart in ensuring that nuclear power brings benefits to local communities and is striving to deliver value for money for its customers.

In the end nuclear will prosper if it succeeds in explaining what it can do to address climate change; to provide secure reliable low carbon electricity; and to deliver economic benefits.

That’s the way to overcome scepticism about nuclear new build.