The Return of Nuclear
net zero transition Political Economy Energy | 09/03/2023

The Return of Nuclear


The last couple of years have seen a sea change in public attitudes towards new nuclear across the UK. Rising energy bills and Putin’s war in Ukraine have put a laser-like focus on the UK’s energy security and revealed more starkly than ever the importance of investing in British energy infrastructure such as new nuclear. The UK Government has responded, committing to up to 24GW of new nuclear by 2050 in its recent Energy Security Strategy.

This change in public attitudes has been made clear by the polling we have conducted at Stonehaven.

Just two years ago, only Conservative supporters and people over the age of 65 showed net support for new nuclear. Now, even 18 to 24-year-olds want new power stations built while Labour, Liberal Democrats and even Green Party supporters are backing new builds. The only outlier remains nationalists north of the border with SNP supporters the only political group still more likely to oppose than support new nuclear, though support for nuclear in Scotland as a whole has risen by a huge 35%.

The following blog breaks down this support for nuclear in detail – by voter preference, age, region, sex and income, while we also use our bespoke population segmentation tool – Compass – to understand the values of people supporting nuclear.

Net support for nuclear

Stonehaven polling from June 2021 to today reveals a remarkable 25% increase in overall net support for nuclear in the UK which was languishing at -1% in June 2021 but stands at 24% today.

Party politics and the perception of nuclear

Traditionally, support for nuclear has looked significantly different depending on which Party someone might vote for. While we still see notable differences between Parties, there has been a steady uptick in support for nuclear across the board, even amongst Green and SNP voters.

Significantly, Labour voters have gone from having a net negative perception of nuclear (-1% in June 2021) to firmly net positive (18%) today. As we approach a General Election, this suggests that the Labour Party are on safe territory when it comes to backing new nuclear.

Conservative voters have also increasingly got behind new nuclear, with over 50% net support today. This has been reflected in government policy over the last few years – from the passage of the Nuclear Energy Financing Bill and the commitment to nuclear in the Energy Security Strategy to the 50% stake (£700m) taken in Sizewell C in late 2022.

Is it the same across the sectors?

No is the short answer to this. While support from both sexes has been steadily increasing, there is a stark contrast between males and females. Males have net support of 43% while for females, it remains down at 7%.

This 36% difference is large but is not actually the biggest demographic change we see.

Baby Boomers, Millennials and Gen Z

This is where we see the biggest demographic contrast. Gen Z-ers, or 18-24 year olds, have 5% net support for nuclear while for the baby boomer generation, it is 50% net support. We also see a strong positive linear relationship between age and support.

Does support for nuclear come at a cost?

Well a literal cost yes. In that the higher the income the respondent has, the more likely they are to support nuclear. Those who earn more than £55k are more likely to back nuclear than those who earn less than £20k.

Does it depend where you live?

Though the regional differences are less extreme, there are some changes over the last 18 months that do vary notably. The smallest increase has been in London where support is only up 9%, while the largest increase has come from the North West, with a 38% swing. It is also worth noting that although SNP supporters don’t have net positive support, support for nuclear in Scotland has increased dramatically with net support increasing by 34%.

Based on all of this, there might be the question of who is the most likely nuclear supporter? A Conservative male aged 65+, who earns more than £55k and lives in the North West or North East of England.

On the other hand, the least likely support would be an SNP female, aged 18-24, earning less than £20k. Though note that regionally the least amount of support comes from the East Midlands.

While we have broken the demographics down – which is useful for targeting and building profiles of support and opposition – at Stonehaven we are also able to interrogate the value sets that underpin these differences using our bespoke population segmentation tool called Compass.

Explore the data


What is Compass?

Voting behaviour is based on values.

How you act and vote might change over time, but people’s values stay relatively constant. This allows us to understand more about what is driving people and allows us to draw links more effectively than simply using demographics.

Using this as the basis, Compass is Stonehaven’s bespoke population segmentation tool which is based on a set of polarising questions that are used to predict a range of behaviours – including voting patterns, policy advocacy and consumer behaviour across a variety of industries. Using factor analysis, we then simplify these segmentations down to two main axes / factors. This allows us to show a simplified version of the model in 2d (see figure 7).

What are people's values?

Using our Compass plot, we can show the difference between June 2021 and our most recent survey. The circle sizes are based on the size of the population and the number in the circle shows the change from June 2021. The dotted lines show where the means have moved from over the last 18 months.

It shows clearly that the most polarised options, strongly agree and strongly disagree, have had the largest increases and decreases in their populations respectively. The agree option has also seen a large increase in population size. This allows Stonehaven to better understand where the changes are coming from and what the audiences look like above and beyond demographics.

What is driving this change?

Stonehaven has not only been tracking general support for nuclear energy but has been researching UK sentiment around energy since 2019.

In our most recent polling, the most agreed-upon sentiment is that the UK needs to become more secure and self-sufficient in its energy supply. This is a big change from when we started polling on these issues in 2019 but hardly unsurprising considering the current climate and the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year. What is perhaps more surprising is that our regression analysis indicates that support for security and self-sufficiency is not that highly correlated with support for nuclear.

The statements that do most correlate with support for nuclear are those to do with tackling climate change (see figure 6 for some examples), and the statements around legacy and maintenance. This suggests that a lot of the support for nuclear is down to reducing the usage of fossil fuels.

This does all suggest, however, that there is room for further support for nuclear if campaigners are able to build the link with self-sufficiency.

The future of UK Nuclear

While there are variances across demographic, as detailed above, it’s clear that public perception is shifting dramatically in favour of nuclear. As energy self-sufficiency and tackling climate change remain front of mind, this support is only likely to increase further and provides a ripe territory for the nuclear industry.

As we approach a General Election in 2024, both the Labour and Conservative Parties as well as the Lib Dems are on safe ground when it comes to trumpeting the merits of nuclear. It should be noted, however, that this support is more likely to increase the older the audience and vary significantly according to sex and region.

For instance, were either Party to speak to a young London based audience, speaking on nuclear would unlikely be received well. But were it an older, North East based audience, then you would be much more likely to find strong support. Those who believe it is critical the UK becomes much more self-sufficient for its energy should also be targeted for their support.

There are also implications for investors and nuclear developers looking to fund and build large gigawatt nuclear plants and small modular reactors (SMRs) in the UK. Inertia dominated nuclear policymaking for decades for fear of public reaction. Now investors and developers can take confidence from the political dividend available to policymakers from pursuing a pro build approach to nuclear.

Stonehaven will continue to closely monitor public perception on nuclear and will provide regular updates on the subject. Do get in touch to find out more: [email protected]


Appendix: Survey and data notes

The tracking question used for this analysis has been run in 39 Stonehaven surveys since Jun 2021. All surveys have a minimum of n=2,000 sample size for a nationally representative audience in Great Britain. Surveys have been weighted to account for demographic imbalances in the sample, but it is important to understand that weighting can only adjust for known biases and cannot guarantee a fully representative sample.

The question being surveyed and tracked in this analysis:

"The Government should support the building of new nuclear power plants." The answer scale is: 1 = Strongly disagree 2 = Disagree 3 = Neither agree nor disagree 4 = Agree 5 = Strongly agree

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