Italians and nuclear energy: the reasons for a change

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In the last years Italians’ attitudes have increasingly shifted in favour of investments in nuclear power. From 2003 to today, supporters of this investment have risen from just over 22% to almost 42%; during the same time period the opposites have decreased from 56% to 39% approximately (view the table and the bar graph).

Therefore, for the first time in twenty years since the referendum that sanctioned the abandonment of nuclear power in Italy, the positive orientation outnumbers the negative one.
Although one Italian out of five remains unsure, over the past two years the percentage of those who do not express any opinion has slightly decreased – plausibly shifting toward a positive attitude, as the percentage of opponents has been stable since the last survey in 2007. It must be highlighted that the relevance of nuclear energy increases – albeit slightly – also when looking at the indications that Italian citizens give with regards to key areas for research investments: now nuclear energy appears in the third place together with biotechnologies and after research on climate change and renewable energy.

What are the reasons for this change? The new data of the Science in Society Monitor allow an interesting in-depth examination. On the one hand, it is rather clear the role played by the public perception of the present economic and political junction: the need to reduce the dependence on oil-producing countries is the primary motivation of those in favour. The risk of exhaustion of existing energy sources is deemed to be very relevant by public opinion. Over the past two years, however, the attention paid to the international dimension has also grown significantly: the fact that other countries in Europe invest in the production of nuclear energy has become a decisive aspect for 28% of supporters (compared to 19% in 2007). It is possible that the recent strategies of transnational co-operation undertaken by political and economic actors have somehow affected this perception. On the other hand, even on issues of different nature, it is a fact that Italian public opinion is more sensitive to actions and policies that emerge at a European and international level.

Among the opponents, the percentage of those who deem most appropriate to invest in renewable energy is now overwhelming (from 45% to 56% in the last two years), while the concern for safety particularly for the location of reprocessing plant seems to have unquestionably receded in the background (from 17% to 7%). The problem of waste disposal, despite decreasing in importance, still remains decisive for a fifth of those not in favour .

The opponents are above all young people (53% are between 15-19 years old ) and those who reside in the North-West (46%). The most interesting case, however, is probably the relationship with scientific literacy, i.e. with general competence in science and technology. With the increase of this competence, the propensity to invest in nuclear power increases too, but only up to medium-high levels. Among the most literate (and partly also among the most educated) in absolute terms the opponents of nuclear energy return to prevail.

This indication is to be found in numerous studies on the perception of potentially conflicting issues of science and technology – and certainly needs to be fully pondered. The stereotype that attributes the reserves of some citizens on issues such as nuclear power solely to ignorance and lack of information is certainly to be revised.

The significant shift of orientation on investment in nuclear power in recent years in Italy, appears to be motivated by a different perception of the wider economic and political context, rather than by a genuine rethinking of the specific production of nuclear energy as such.

Massimiano Bucchi’s article published on Tutto Scienze – La Stampa, 24 June 2009.

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