Every now and then a report comes out that can induce a double-take in even the most seasoned observers of public opinion. In January pollster MORI revealed that nuclear power – long-time scourge of the green energy lobby and reputation pariah – now enjoys a majority of popular support.
According to the survey of nearly 1,500 people late last year, 54 per cent of the British public now accept what for many years had been very unpopular: the construction of new nuclear power stations. MORI also revealed that 41 per cent favour nuclear power over living with the consequences of climate change.
Indeed, while people looked back to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster as an example of their environmental concerns, respondents showed 'a pragmatic acceptance' that there must be a mixture of energy sources.
Environmentalists have been quick to point out that the same poll also says 77 per cent would prefer their electricity to be supplied by renewable energy. And the health risks of radiation leakage were highlighted only last week when waste disposal firm AEA Technology was fined £250,000 for transporting unsealed radioactive cargo from Leeds to the Sellafield reprocessing plant in Cumbria in 2002.
Change in attitudes
Nevertheless the move towards nuclear is a sea-change in opinion. A similar MORI poll in 2002 showed that back then only 28 per cent supported nuclear energy. And the industry is riding the crest of a wave as the Government's own views on nuclear power have softened considerably.
Three years ago the Government's Energy White Paper concluded that 'the current economics of nuclear power make it an unattractive option for new generating capacity'. Now, almost half-way through a public consultation on the UK's future energy policy, energy minister Malcolm Wicks has said there are few obstacles to a new nuclear programme. He claims no decision has yet been made on new power stations, but his report, due in the summer, is widely expected to recommend some measure of extended nuclear capability. So how has the industry turned its fortunes around?
For decades the anti-nuclear lobby has found it easy to halt any attempt to reopen the debate about nuclear power. Revelations about clandestine shipments of nuclear waste and some less than rigorous working practices have consistently undermined an industry labouring under the long shadow of Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island (see right) and even Windscale (a fire in 1957 at the plant now called Sellafield). Among journalists, however, this negative message has steadily been losing its impact.
'The greens were lulled into a false sense of security by the focus on renewable energy in the last Energy White Paper,' says The Sunday Times science and environment editor Jonathan Leake. 'The
Government's policy of getting environmentalists so heavily involved in consultations has dulled the movement's edge.'
Another factor in favour of nuclear has been the dilution of the green message. Since the 1990s, the debate about whether to build wind farms extensively has created nearly 40 action groups, all lobbying local government.
Not all of these present a consistent message, with groups such as pylonpressure.com campaigning more to put powerlines underground rather than having a clear policy on the origin of the power.
Meanwhile, Leake says while the nuclear lobby may have appeared to be silent, it was merely biding its time. 'The industry got organised in advance,' he explains. 'It took on high-profile PROs and staged a carefully planned programme of off-record briefings in glamorous venues. Journalists were flattered by the expensive surroundings
and the sense that they were 'on the inside'. Coverage was kept to the business pages and didn't appear on the greens' radar.'
The primary success for the nuclear industry has been convincing both the Government and the public that nuclear power offers the best solution to the growing threat of global warming.
Last year Mike Alexander, CEO of British Energy, delivered a keynote speech in London to journalists and more than 100 leading figures of the UK energy industry at the behest of the Energy Industries Club. The EIC keeps its membership secret and operates a strict Chatham House rule over its meetings, but the event suggested a growing awareness of the need for coherent messages in the media and across the industry.
For some time British Energy, which owns 15 of the UK's nuclear power stations, has been looking to explore more environmentally friendly options. Head of external affairs Carl Gibson recently announced that it had secured planning permission for the UK's biggest wind farm – 234 turbines near Stornoway, Scotland.
That such announcements are now making headlines must be particularly galling for the green lobby, which has spent years trying to push the issue of climate change to the top of the agenda.
UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) press chief Andy Munn says: 'Global warming is a key issue; the polarised pro and anti-nuclear debate has not helped.' UKAEA has retained Grayling since 2004. Although Munn is adamant that the agency's brief has nothing to do with lobbying for new power stations (it is 'to inform politicians and the public about the work we do – safely decommissioning power stations'), he adds: 'There should be more discussion on integrated energy, not just using one or the other.'
Not surprisingly, environmentalists refute the idea that their campaign is losing momentum. Greenpeace International anti-nuclear campaigner Shaun Burnie says: 'Nuclear power supplies only 16-17 per cent of global electricity needs. Even if the global number nuclear power stations  was increased to 2,000, carbon-emission reduction would only lower world temperatures by 0.02oC. Nuclear power doesn't even come close to solving the problem.'
Such is the delicacy of the debate that some PROs are wary of pinning their colours to the mast. Indeed, one head of comms for a major UK electricity supplier declined to contribute to this article, saying it would be 'detrimental' to discuss the issue in the press in case he was seen to be taking sides.
Philip Dewhurst, group director of corporate affairs at BNFL and chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association, says it has taken considerable effort to persuade the public to reconsider the nuclear option.
'Five years ago the reputation of nuclear was at an all-time low. MI5 said a terrorist attack on Sellafield with a hijacked aircraft "could not be prevented", and that destroyed public confidence,' he recalls.
'Now we use a company called Strategic Awareness, which uses in-depth research to help us develop our message. We spread that via third-party opinion because the public would be suspicious if we started ramming pro-nuclear messages down their throats.'
Some green campaigners give the nuclear lobby credit for steering the agenda their way, but they are confident the public will see 'the bigger picture'.
Friends of the Earth anti-nuclear campaigner Roger Higman says: 'We can show the public that renewable power sources can solve the issue of climate change, and we can show that nuclear waste is a problem for which no one has come up with a solution.'
Environmentalists are also making efforts to show a united front, and a number of leading environmental charities are in the process of putting together the Climate Movement, based loosely on the model of the Make Poverty History campaign.
'Climate change may be an abstract concept, but look at the way people were inspired by ozone depletion,' argues Higman. 'People saw they could make a difference as individuals, and that is what we need to do with global warming. We've got a battle on our hands, but research shows the public always trust environmental charities over industry.'
Indeed, BNFL's Dewhurst speculates that a shift towards nuclear power in the forthcoming energy review could galvanise the environmental movement, and that the current leaning towards nuclear cannot be taken for granted. 'The greens are powerful lobbyists and have experienced campaigners on their side,' he admits.
As far as green groups are concerned, the uphill battle against corporate energy groups is 'business as usual'. But with Chernobyl's 20th anniversary coming up in April, and Iran being hauled up before the UN over its nuclear programme, the year ahead may not be plain sailing for the reputation of nuclear power. In the meantime, the industry should be making the most of its new-found acceptance and the influence that public popularity can bestow.