Nuclear energy: the majority of Italians remain sceptical but one out of three says yes

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The latest report from the Observa’s Science in Society Monitor, in collaboration with Tuttoscienzetecnologia of La Stampa, Superquark and Quark

The majority of Italians are sceptical about nuclear energy, but the number of those in favour is on the increase. Even among Italians opposed to nuclear power, there is widespread concern about Italy’s energy resources and the need to devise new energy strategies for the future.

In recent weeks, following statements by various leading politicians and news stories such as the agreement between Enel and Edf to build a new type of reactor in France, the issue of nuclear energy has returned to the centre of public debate. More generally, energy plans and investments, the growth of energy needs worldwide, and rising fuel prices have become issues of great importance to the general public over the past few years. Knowing people’s opinions on these matters is all the more important because it was the direct polling of voters by the referendum of 1987 which decided Italy’s official position on nuclear energy.

Almost twenty years since the referendum, more than four out of every ten Italians are still opposed to national investments in nuclear energy. However, more that one in every three now believe that Italy should opt for nuclear power, while one in every five is undecided. This finding is even more significant if compared, not with the result of the referendum, but with those of a survey conducted by Observa – Science in Society on the same topic in 2003: since then, those in favour of investments in nuclear energy have increased from 22% to 35%, while those against have decreased from 56% to 43%. The percentage of the undecided has remained unchanged.
Most in favour of nuclear energy are males (women are more uncertain), older age groups (almost one in every two young people is against), and graduates – also in this case owing to the decrease in the percentage of the undecided, inasmuch as the percentage of those against nuclear power is practically unchanged among those with higher educational qualifications.

Apart from these findings on the general attitudes of Italians, it is worth examining the reasons cited by those who declare themselves for or against nuclear power.
Those who believe that nuclear energy is a strategic investment for Italy cite their main reason as the need not to depend excessively on the oil-producing countries (38%), followed by the inadequacy of current energy sources (26%) and the fact that other industrialized countries have nuclear power stations (21%). Less important is the fact that more traditional forms of energy production emit pollution (12%).
Almost one in every two of the interviewees opposed to reconsideration of the nuclear option believed that it was better to rely on alternative energy sources (45%). Almost the same percentage said that they were opposed to nuclear power on safety grounds: the dangerous nature of nuclear waste disposal processes (18%); the fact that no municipality would be willing to have a nuclear power station on its territory (17%); and the intrinsic riskiness of nuclear plants (15%). To be noted is that only a very small percentage of those interviewees contrary to the nuclear option denied that Italy has a problem of energy supplies (4%).
The large majority (71%) of undecided interviewees said that they did not have sufficient expertise to decide; while 26% instead thought that the pros and cons of nuclear energy were equally balanced.
In this case, too, comparison with the previous survey provides interesting insights.
Presumably because of the current international situation and recurrent fuel price rises, excessive dependence on the oil-producing countries has moved from second to first place as the reason for favouring nuclear energy (from 22% to 38%). The percentage of Italians who fear that current energy sources are insufficient is generally stable; so too is the percentage of those who cite the example of the other countries which already produce and use nuclear energy. Among the reasons adduced by the opponents of the nuclear option, the one which has increased most significantly in weight over the past two years is the opposition that will be predictably raised by the residents of areas selected for the construction of nuclear power stations (from 5% to 17%). This aspect is probably bound up with the series of large-scale public demonstrations and protests recently organized against major technological projects in Italy (the nuclear waste dump at Scanzano Jonico, the proposed high-speed railway line in Val di Susa). Apparently now the cause of less concern is the problem of nuclear waste disposal (from 30% to 18%), while worries about the safety of nuclear plants and the feasibility of investing in alternative energy sources are largely at the same levels as they were two years ago. And the reasons of undecided interviewees have not substantially changed either.
Overall, therefore, although the majority of Italians are still sceptical about investments in nuclear energy, there has been a sizeable increase of those favourable to them. Moreover, even those who oppose the nuclear option seem to be aware that Italy is faced with serious energy supply problems and that new strategies to deal with them are required.

This article was published by La Stampa’s TuttoScienzeTecnologia on the 14th of december, 2005.

The survey was conducted by means of CATI-method telephone interviews with a sample of 1029 subjects, stratified by gender, age, and geographical area of residence, and representing the Italian population aged 15 and over.