Are Australians for or against nuclear power? It’s one of the big questions rolling around the nation right now, and a question the pollsters have sought an answer to, but the answer isn’t as obvious as this morning’s Australian suggests:

Fear of global warming has dramatically reversed Australians’ attitude to nuclear energy, with more people supporting nuclear power for the first time. In the past four months, support for nuclear power has risen from just 35% to 45%, and opposition has fallen in the same time from 50% to 40%.

That a 10% rise constitutes a dramatic reversal in The Australian‘s view is one point. The other is more serious. The conclusion itself is massively flawed. The Oz draws that conclusion from the responses to two different questions. Here’s the December question:

Currently, while there is a nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney used for medical and scientific purposes, there are NO nuclear POWER STATIONS in Australia (capitalised for emphasis by interviewers). Are you personally in favour or against nuclear power stations being built in Australia?

And the March question:

Thinking now about reducing greenhouse gas emissions to help address climate change. Are you personally in favour or against the development of a nuclear power industry in Australia, as one of a range of energy solutions to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

That last clause alone changes the context of the question from nuclear energy for medical and scientific purposes to nuclear power as a broader suite of energy solutions, which could account for the so-called “dramatic reversal”.

This morning, Newspoll Chairman Sol Lebovic told Crikey that the debate had changed since December, hence a different question needed to be asked.

“The question itself has changed. It was asked in the context of climate change. What we are seeing now is a change in the climate of debate and that has led to a different answer from the public.”

Lebovic added that re-asking the original question would be a worthy exercise.

Meanwhile, rival pollster Roy Morgan Research conducted research on this issue in both NSW and Victoria last week. The result, to be released next week, will show that there has been little change in the balance of support and opposition to nuclear power from last year.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey