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Your Say: A Brief History of Australian Nuclear Energy Polling

Updated: Mar 25

From approximately 16,000 self-selected respondents to online polls. Source: ABC QandA 5th June 2023

From approximately 16,000 self-selected respondents to online polls. Source: ABC QandA 5th June 2023

That Was Then…

Within the typical Generation X living memory, Australian public sentiment on the nuclear issue was previously dominated by strident opposition. The various anti-nuclear, peace and disarmament protests illustrate this most powerfully.

Sydney Morning Herald headline from the archive. Headline reads 250,000 in arms protest referring to a nuclear disarmament protest.

More recently, attitudes began to change. Whether or not this is significantly influenced by clearer public understanding of Australian uranium production and the operation of commercial nuclear power stations being effectively unrelated with weapons programs is beyond the scope of this article. However it certainly appears to be influenced by concern regarding climate change.

Polling on the general acceptability of nuclear energy to help with climate action was referenced in a Macquarie Uni paper and summarised here, showing 42% support (and 25.5% indifference) versus 30.5% opposition already in 2010, mere years after nuclear energy became something of a national issue at the federal election which returned the ALP to government. The analysis notes how support fell (34.4%) and rejection rose (40.1%) immediately following the Fukushima Daiichi accident.

Did the relentless coverage of reactor meltdowns in a developed nation make a lasting impact on interest and enthusiasm? Shortly before the announcement of a royal commission into the whole fuel cycle in South Australia a state industry poll found 48% support and 33% opposition. The fascinating aspect of this poll was the dramatically higher (63%) proportion of respondents who accepted that nuclear energy may play a role in the nation’s future climate efforts. A flurry of newspaper polling and more statistically robust surveys followed, tending to indicate sustained support versus a consistent minority of opponents.

The nuclear question result in the 2015 Sunday Mail Your Say: SA online survey, open to all South Australians

The nuclear question result in the 2015 Sunday Mail Your Say: SA online survey, open to all South Australians

Still, outright rejection appeared stable nationally, with 2015 Essential Report results indicating 40% total opposition - even with total support. The subsequent years featured an accelerating effort in focused grassroots comms to push back on persistent falsehoods regarding nuclear energy as well as politicians of different stripes making statements in support, to varying degrees. The societal landscape had drastically changed from the 1980s and 90s, with the announcement of a federal inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in Australia, in 2019, attracting nothing in the way of public protest.

Thousands of Facebook users responded to this question from Sunrise, with twice the ‘Yes’ votes to the ‘No’ votes.

Thousands of Facebook users responded to this question, with twice the ‘Yes’ votes to the ‘No’ votes.

This Is Now

Professional commentary on nuclear energy's potential place in Australia tends to perpetuate an absolute political divide, yet the most recent polling does not support this at all.

A March 2019 poll of 500 Australians through True North Strategy indicated 55% support overall for considering nuclear as part of our low emissions future, comprised of a clear majority of Liberal (72%) and National (79%) voters, alongside 50% of Labor and 52% of Greens. Months later, in June, special Essential polling indicated total 44% total support versus 40% total opposition. Then in October support for nuclear to reduce emissions was measured at 51% by Roy Morgan, to 34% opposed in a poll which reinforced another interesting detail: mention of action on emissions in the poll question has an influence on both percentages.

Much more recent polling (2021), again from Essential, showed the lowest level of opposition to date (32%) versus 50% support for developing a nuclear power sector. Both Coalition and Labor voters were significantly more supportive than not, while total Greens voter support reached 38% to 50% rejection. And, perhaps for the first time, total support outweighed total opposition for both male and female respondents.

Results of a 2021 Essential polling on the issue of nuclear energy in Australia. It shows 50% support for nuclear.

And finally in May this year results from Compass Polling (supplied to author) indicated 68% support for exploring “nuclear power as an option for meeting our energy security and emission targets”. This was from a survey sample of over one thousand which self-identified as just 18% pro-nuclear, and 67% “undecided”. It leaves 32% opposed to the potential of an Australian nuclear power sector, and only 18% labelling themselves anti-nuclear.

Direct comparison of survey results isn’t necessarily valid or useful, but in the absence of newer expert scholarship we can tentatively suggest that firm opposition to a future nuclear power program is both outweighed by support, and falling over time. The average Australian need not be particularly pro-nuclear in order to support the possibility, especially for the sake of expanding climate-friendly energy supply. And it is interesting to note that Ipsos polling in 2022 showed 86% total agreement with the statement “It is unacceptable for nations to threaten each other with nuclear weapons” - has the acceptability of civilian nuclear energy finally and rightly become dissociated from the rejection of weapons of mass destruction? If a new special survey was run in Australia, how would respondents feel about advanced reactor technology which not only recycles nuclear waste but can permanently dispose of decommissioned weapons material?

Time will tell if the more Australians learn, the more they’ll like the idea.

A profile picture of author Oscar Archer

Oscar Archer is a member of RePlanet Australia. He holds a PhD in chemistry and has been analysing energy issues for over 15 years, focusing on nuclear technology for nine, with a background in manufacturing and QA. Find him on Twitter - @OskaArcher


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