Ecologists And Nuclear Power: A Comparative Study of Six European Countries

Di Martina Borinato, Rebecca Bossio e Federico Santoro

Final assignment for the “Data Analysis” course in the Public and Corporate Communication Master’s program (COM), curriculum in Data Analytics for Politics, Society and Complex Organizations, a.y. 2023-2024, University of Milano. Instructor: Professor Giulia Maria Dotti Sani.

Introduction, literature review and hypotheses

Relying on European Social Survey data (Round 8 – 2016), this short study examines the inclination of environmentalists who express heightened concerns about climate change, towards the utilization of nuclear energy production.

The current atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) level is set at 3,000 billion tons, an increase of 800 billion tons in the past two centuries due to human activities, particularly the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels (Socolow & Glaser, 2009). This imbalance in Earth’s equilibriums contributes to climate change, thus energy policy plays a crucial role in addressing this problem, since energy generation and its use constitute the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions (Ilnyckyj, 2009).

The international community has undertaken efforts to address climate change through agreements like the Kyoto Protocol (stipulated in 1997, implemented in 2005), which sought to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and the Paris Agreement (stipulated in 2015, implemented in 2020), a more recent and comprehensive global initiative aimed at limiting global warming.

In this context, nuclear power presents itself as a compelling option due to its minimal carbon dioxide emissions, reducing approximately 90% of CO2 emissions compared to coal and gas power. Thus, nuclear power, together with renewable energy sources, allows a substantial reduction compared to prevailing coal plants (Gottfried, 2006; Socolow & Glaser, 2009).

For these reasons, we expect people who are more worried about climate change to prefer nuclear plants for the production of energy.

The following two study hypotheses will be presented and discussed in the present paper:

  • H1: People that are more worried about climate change will be more in favour of using a higher quantity of electricity produced from nuclear power.
  • H2: Countries with nuclear plants are more worried and inclined to use energy from nuclear power than countries that don’t have nuclear plants.

Through our analysis, our expectations have not been entirely confirmed; in fact, the level of concern about climate change seems to be associated with people’s inclination to disfavor the use of energy produced from nuclear power.

Data and method

For our analysis, we used data from Round 8 of the European Social Survey collected in 2016. The target population includes residents of 23 European countries.

We started by ordering the categories in an ascending order and subsequently recoding the variable by grouping the values into three categories: 1 = “No amount”, 2= “Small/Medium amount” (which includes “A small amount” and “A medium amount”) and 3=“A large amount” (which includes “A large amount” and “A very large amount”).

The independent categorical variable used is “How worried about climate change”, which includes five possible outcomes:  1 “Not at all worried”, 2 “Not very worried”, 3 “Somehow worried”, 4 “Very worried”, 5 “Extremely worried”. We recoded the original categories in three groups: 1=“Not worried” (which includes “Not at all worried” and “Not very worried”), 2=“Somewhat worried”, and 3=“Worried” (which includes “Very worried” and “Extremely worried”).

The analysis focused on six European countries, distinguishing among those with operational nuclear power plants as of 2016 (Finland, France, and Hungary) and those without (Italy, Norway, and Poland). Countries were selected from three macro areas: western, eastern, and northern Europe. They were chosen in pairs by taking into account: 1) geographical proximity and 2) common political and environmental characteristics (France vs. Italy; Hungary vs Poland; Finland vs. Norway).

The variables we have chosen allow us to test our hypotheses for each country. We first kept the six countries and created a dichotomous variable with 0 = “Countries without nuclear plants” and 1 = “Countries with nuclear plants”.

All subjects with missing observations on the variables of interest are deleted from the analyses. Bivariate information on the main variables and sample sizes is reported in Table 1.

To test the first hypothesis, we ran a Chi-squared test for all six countries, while for the second hypothesis, we compared contingency tables and ran a linear regression analysis with the variables not recoded.

  Countries without nuclear plants
(IT, NO, PL)
Countries with nuclear plants
(FR, FI, HU)
 How worried about climate change
 Not worriedSomewhat worriedWorriedNot worriedSomewhat worriedWorried
Quantity of electricity that should be generated from nuclear powerNo amount51.0154.9557.9217.1219.5729.08
Small/Medium amount33.1333.5429.4751.7556.6752.00
Large amount15.8611.5112.6131.1323.7618.92
χ²: 60.87
P-value: 0.000
Table 1: Bivariate associations of the main variables by country (%). ESS8 data.

The result from the Chi-squared test, as displayed in Table 2, shows an association between the variables (p-value < 0.01, statistically significant at 1% level). Contrary to our first hypothesis, however, the quantity of electricity that should be produced decreases as the level of worrying about climate change increases, displaying thus a negative association in which higher values of worry result in a growing percentage of “No amount of nuclear”, opposed to the rising percentage of “A large amount of nuclear” for people that are “Not worried about climate change”. “Small/Medium” or “No quantity” of nuclear energy are overall preferred to “Large amounts”, which could be explained as a general distrust in nuclear energy, due to the danger of accidents and their consequential financial as well as environmental risk.

By comparing countries with nuclear plants to those without, our second hypothesis that such plants influence the association between “Amount of nuclear energy” and “Level of worrying” is confirmed.

Table 2 and Table 3 display those differences for both variables: countries with nuclear plants are more worried about climate change (Table 2) with a higher percentage of Worried subjects (29.71%) compared to countries without nuclear plants (25.09%).

In Table 3, which focuses on the dependent variable, we observe a notable difference in opposition to nuclear energy based on whether a country has nuclear plants. In countries without nuclear plants, there is a significant opposition rate of 54.82%. Conversely, in countries that have nuclear plants, the opposition rate drops to 21.92%. This shows that opposition to nuclear energy is more than double in countries without nuclear plants, with a remarkable difference of 33 percentage points.

The latter, in contrast, are more in favor of the production of at least some quantity of nuclear energy (that is given from the sum of Small/Medium amount and Large amount), showing a 78% agreement in countries with nuclear plants, meanwhile in countries without them we seek a difference of 32 percentage points (45% in favor).

  Presence of nuclear plants 
How worried about climate changeNot worried22.1419.3920.75
Somewhat worried52.7750.9051.82
Table 2: Relative frequencies of worry about climate change by presence of nuclear plants (%). ESS8 data.

  Presence of nuclear plants 
Quantity of electricity that should be generated from nuclear powerNo amount54.8221.9238.14
Small/Medium amount32.4354.3343.53
Large amount12.7523.7518.33
Table 3: Relative frequency of electricity that should be generated through nuclear power by presence of nuclear plants (%). ESS8 data.

The difference in the association between the variables for each country is shown in Figure 1. We can observe that the propensity to produce nuclear energy, by each level of worrying about climate change, has an overall higher average in countries with nuclear plants. Moreover, among the values of worry, in Finland, France, and Hungary the difference is bigger, and the quantity of nuclear energy decreases steadily with the increase of worry about climate change, whereas in Italy, Norway, and Poland the average seems to have less variation among the level of worry.

Figure 1: Average propensity to use electricity generated from nuclear power by the level of worry about climate change in each country. ESS8 data.

Figure 2 represents, through linear regression, the association between nuclear energy and the level of worry about climate change for both groups of countries. The yellow line represents the decrease in the average propensity to nuclear energy production in countries without nuclear plants, from the subgroup “Not at all worried” to the other subgroups, while the blue line represents the same for the countries with nuclear plants.

In countries with no nuclear plants, we can observe a statistically significant decrease in the average propensity to nuclear energy production, from the lowest level of worrying to the highest levels: “Somewhat” (coefficient = -.246 and p = 0.004, statistically significant at 1%); “Very” (coefficient = -.254 and p = 0.005, statistically significant at 1%); “Extremely” (coefficient = -.280 and p = 0.013, statistically significant at 5%).

A comparison of this trend, with the one reported by the countries with nuclear plants, suggests that there is no trend difference between them while considering the first three levels of worrying (“Not at all”, “Not very”, “Somewhat”). In contrast, the trend differs significantly for the highest levels of worrying: “Very” with a coefficient = -.225 and p = 0.088, statistically significant at 10%; “Extremely” with a coefficient = -.416 and p = 0.009, statistically significant at 1%. The average nuclear energy production is significantly higher for each level of worry in countries with nuclear plants and, although it is decreasing in both groups, the decline is more pronounced in the latter.

Figure 2: Linear regression model of the average nuclear energy by the level of worry between countries with and without nuclear plants. * p<0.05; **p<0.01; ***p<0.001; +p<0.1; NS = Not statistically significant. ESS8 data.

Given that the production of nuclear energy is a valid substitute in the medium term to other nonrenewable sources of power to prevent CO2 emissions, this paper aimed to explore how much people in three pairs of countries believe it should be exploited in relation to their preoccupation for climate change.

Contrary to our initial hypothesis (H1), the association between worry and nuclear was proven to be a negative one, thus implying that people more worried about climate change prefer lower or even no amount of electricity produced via nuclear scission.

However, reframing the research through the presence of nuclear plants suggested that countries with nuclear facilities share slightly more awareness and sensibility toward climate change and are overall keener to choose a higher quantity of electricity produced from nuclear sources than countries without such facilities, as was hypothesized in H2.  

At the same time, the greater awareness of the importance of climate change, in the highest levels of worrying, does not reflect a higher average propensity to choose nuclear energy. On the contrary, a significant decrease in average propensity is reported by people who are very or extremely worried about climate change.

The results suggest that people are overall wary of the production of energy through nuclear power, which could be further investigated through additional analysis by comparing other sources of energy, taking into consideration the actual quantity of nuclear energy, used by each country, or variables that display in more detail the reason of such distrust.

An additional aspect worth examining is the presence of significant disparities in terms of economic perspectives among countries, as well as the influence of politics in these nations, particularly the presence of strong green movements or political parties dedicated to environmental causes.

  • Gottfried, K. (2006). Climate Change and Nuclear Power. Social Research, 73(3), 1011–1024.
  • Ilnyckyj, M. (2009). Climate Change, Energy Security, and Nuclear Power. St Antony’s International Review, 4(2), 92–109.
  • Socolow, R. H., & Glaser, A. (2009). Balancing Risk: Nuclear Energy & Climate Change. Daedalus, 138(4), 31–44.

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