Read the outcomes of this excellent bit of research from an Adelaide high school student into knowledge and attitudes relating to nuclear power.
A couple of months ago, a family member of mine let me know about a high school student who was looking at nuclear power for a year 12 project. She said he was taking some flak from his peers for even looking at the issue, and he was starting to wonder if anyone else even thought nuclear power mattered.
So it was that I met Michael Bills. After quickly disavowing him of the idea that he was on his own, I answered some of his very good questions. A little while later, he sent me the findings of his research. I was amazed at what Michael had achieved, and asked him to write it up for DSA.
I don’t think this is good work “for a school student”. I think this is good work. I hope Michael gets to play with some bigger canvasses in future to further test and refine these processes and results because he has a lot to offer this discussion.
As you will read, the theme of this post means it it quite appropriate for me to remind everyone of a unique opportunity to hear the case for nuclear power presented by four prominent environmentalists and commentators, to be hosted by Walkerville Council on 9 June for World Environment Day. There would be few better opportunities to ask questions and engage in discussions about nuclear power as a potential option for Australia. You can read more about it here and register here.
Over to you Michael.
The Education Enigma
I’m Michael Bills, a student at Pembroke School doing my research project on ‘Whether Australia should switch to Nuclear Energy’, focusing on the public’s opinion of the issue as well as the general facts surrounding it.
There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that supports the existence of climate change. From increased recorded temperature to the disappearance of arctic sea ice, there are few that will refute climate change’s existence. Even if one belongs to that minority, there still exists the problem that there is a finite amount of fossil fuels left in the world. At the end of the day, there is no way continuing on using fossil fuels as a power source is for the greater good.
When it comes to alternatives, nuclear is the way to go, plain and simple. It is the only power source that is comprised of readily available technology which can not only meet our current energy requirements, but also our growing needs. It is absurd to expect anything other than a growth in the requirement of electricity over the coming centuries, and as such, our power supply choices must be made accordingly.
Nuclear all but eliminates the greenhouse gas emissions from the power generation sector, and it does so cheaply and efficiently. With new generation IV reactor technology, there is the additional advantage of creating enough electricity to either power electric transport directly or create synthetic fuels for transport. Once we reach that stage, the two biggest producers of dangerous emissions are essentially dealt with. If Australia reaches this stage, we can be proud to honestly say that we are doing the best we can to stabilise our climate.
Explaining why nuclear energy is the right idea to an audience such as this is incredibly redundant. Instead I’m here to present my own original findings in regards to my age group’s opinion on the subject. In the end it will come down to the people’s opinion, and within the next year my age group will be voting. As such I believe that through the education of my generation, progress can be made in regards to getting nuclear approved within Australia.
What’s stopping nuclear energy? – The people.
Initially I merely spoke to my classmates about their thoughts on nuclear energy. Surprisingly (at least to me) I was met with an extraordinary amount of negativity in regards to not only my topic, but the fact that I would question what I believed to be myths surrounding it. To say that I supported nuclear energy was like saying I supported the murder of innocent people. After a while I noticed a pattern where the discussions with people who seemed to know a lot about the issue agreed that nuclear energy was the right way to go, and vice versa.
I quickly designed a small handwritten survey that explored this relationship. I had a couple of quiz questions, such as ‘Can a nuclear reactor explode like a nuclear bomb?’, and I asked if the person agreed with nuclear energy in Australia. The feedback received from this initial survey was interesting, there seemed to be a correlation between the people’s ‘knowledge’ and whether or not they agreed with nuclear energy. Additionally, people were openly aggressive in defending their definition of ‘a survey’, with many people saying that you cannot include quiz questions, they must all be based on opinion. One legitimate complaint was that the survey drove the sample towards a favouritism of nuclear energy due to the wording of the questions; it was directed and biased towards my own opinion.
With this on board I developed the next iteration of the survey and hosted it online. It contained the following questions, with the ‘quiz questions’ marked in red.
|Do you think Australia should use nuclear energy?||Yes / No|
|Would nuclear energy be acceptably ‘safe’ if it were used in Australia, under appropriate government supervision?||Yes / No|
|Are there any nuclear reactors operating in Australia at this time? Energy producing or otherwise?||Yes / No|
|Under similar legislations regarding safety, do you think coal mining and power is safer than uranium mining and nuclear power?||Yes / No|
|Do you think Leukaemia rates are higher near nuclear reactors?||Yes / No|
|Can Australia get along fine with wind / hydroelectric / solar alternatives as opposed to nuclear energy?||Yes / No|
|Has the issue of ‘nuclear waste’ been solved?||Yes / No|
|Do you think wind / hydroelectric / solar plants should be built over fossil fuel based power plants?||Yes / No|
|Do you believe accidents involving nuclear energy are overhyped by the media?||Yes / No|
|Can a nuclear reactor explode like a nuclear bomb due to a catastrophic meltdown?||Yes / No|
|Regardless of whether or not nuclear energy should be used in Australia, do you believe Australia should accept nuclear waste from other countries for storage?||Yes / No|
|How knowledgeable would you say you were on the topic of nuclear energy?||I don’t know anything / Somewhat knowledgeable / Knowledgeable / Very knowledgeable / I’m an expert|
|Have you ever formally studied any aspect of nuclear physics / nuclear energy?||Yes / No|
|Is there anything you would like to add?||Long text box answer.|
I tried to keep the questions limited to ‘yes or no’ answers, while still providing a place for them to give feedback (and abuse).
I decided against the inclusion of an ‘I don’t know’ option. This was not only for simplicity, but also so that the person would be forced to be confident in their decision. (I note that this decision is perhaps the only one I would change if I were to do the survey again. While I received very interesting and useful results, I am sure that the inclusion of an ‘I don’t know’ option would allow for greater depth in the analysis stage. However at the time I didn’t have the computational skill or tools to process said extra data.)
The initial results
I distributed the survey among my peers, collecting a total of 189 responses.
Overall 116 people answered ‘Yes’ to the question ‘Do you think Australia should use nuclear energy?’, and 73 answered ‘No’. That is a 61% ‘Yes’ vote, which is of course a majority. By this statistic alone I am convinced that the battle in favour of nuclear energy is by no means impossible to win, quite on the contrary.
The main argument I encountered against nuclear energy is that it is unsafe. Of the people that didn’t believe Australia should use nuclear energy, 70% of them answered ‘No’ to the question: ‘Would nuclear energy be acceptably ‘safe’ if it were used in Australia, under appropriate government supervision?’ Additionally, 64% of them answered ‘Yes’ to the question ‘Do you think Leukaemia rates are higher near nuclear reactors?’. This discrepancy in responses forced me to apply some filters to the data.
If someone were to answer ‘I don’t know anything’ to the question ‘How knowledgeable would you say you were on the topic of nuclear energy?’ their results would be discredited. This sample reduction resulted in 154 responses left for use. (81% of the original size)
At this stage, each participant was given a ‘point’ for every ‘quiz’ question they got correct. This gave them a score out of three which could be used to ‘rank’ their results against each other.
A total of 12 people that were self-proclaimed ‘somewhat knowledgeable’ got none of the quiz questions correct. Of those, only two believed that nuclear energy should be used in Australia. That is, 83% of them were against it.
At this point I plotted a graph of the amount of questions the participants got correct against the percentage of them that agreed with nuclear power.
The obvious proportionality shown, in my opinion tells us one thing: If we want nuclear power to be accepted by the masses, people need to be educated on the topic.
I am certain that most opinions on the topic are heavily influenced by the public media, and the majority of people know this.
When asked if they believed that accidents involving nuclear energy were over hyped by the media, the majority of people said they were.
If we split this up into people who are pro and anti-nuclear, we see a correlation.
Do you believe accidents involving nuclear energy are overhyped by the media?
As you can see those who are pro nuclear are far more likely to believe that nuclear accidents are accidents are overhyped by the media, while those against tend to believe the media is truthful.
Other interesting findings
In response to alternative energy sources, there was no clear winner as to whether wind, hydroelectric or solar alternatives could sustain Australia.
The difference occurs when the results are split by their initial opinion on nuclear power itself.
Can Australia get along fine with wind / hydroelectric / solar alternatives as opposed to nuclear energy?
One part of this nuclear debate that I am still undecided upon is the issue of accepting other countries’ nuclear waste. I found that absolutely every combination of filters resulted in the same result: we don’t want other countries’ nuclear waste in Australia.
If the results are split by pro and anti-nuclear:
Do you believe Australia should accept nuclear waste from other countries for storage?
Not so surprisingly, 91% of those who are anti-nuclear disagree with accepting waste.
The next step
While year twelve physics students undertaking the SACE will study nuclear physics at some point in their curriculum, this group of people represents a very small portion of the demographic that should be targeted. Television advertisements come to mind, but getting them to run in a media dominated by the idea that nuclear is bad would be an expensive and possibly ultimately futile effort. Viral YouTube videos spring to mind, but they rely on entertainment for the most part for their virality, so how does one combine entertainment into, an honestly quite dry subject for the vast majority of people.
The truth is that I don’t know the best method of educating people on this topic. My efforts to suggest things to people different to their opinion have been met with disproportionate hostility. It is perhaps the biggest hurdle that will be faced by the nuclear energy movement.