The Future of Nuclear Power (title)

Young Peoples views (title)
Ass. Prof. Bi Puranen, researcher at the Institute for Futures Studies and government investigator

The Swedish Government talks about "elbowing out" dissenters from the energy policy negotiating table. Party leaders who do not toe the line will be excluded from the talks. What are the voters supposed to think? After all my years of research on young people's thoughts about the future I draw the conclusion that this will do nothing to boost confidence in out politicians, which is already at a low ebb.

- Who or what is it that has the greatest influence in shaping the future?

- The politicians, but they won't listen to us, they're only interested in their own pet issues.

This was the answer given to one of the questions asked in an in-depth field survey of the 19-25 age group in today's Sweden. Young people have great faith in their ability to influence their own future (92%), but very little when it comes to influencing Sweden's future (38%). This is one of the many findings presented in the study The Nineties Report. A team of peers trained in the theory, method and practice of futures studies travelled all over the country methodically interviewing other young people. They were involved at all stages of the research project.

Methodologically, the approach is called method triangulation. This means that several different methods, both quantitative and qualitative, are used simultaneously, much as a navigator uses different reference points to fix his position at sea. The purpose is to give an in-depth picture and a deeper understanding.

The respondents filled in questionnaires or took part in in-depth interviews on three different occasions, the most recent being in September this year. The same respondents were interviewed each time in order to establish whether they had changed their views over time. The interview material amounts to 5 000 pages. In addition, a telephone questionnaire was answered by 1 000 young people selected in accordance with the same criteria as those used for the first group, i.e. the same percentage of men and women, employed/unemployed, students and immigrants and the same family structure as in the country as a whole. We have been careful to ensure that the material is representative. The purpose is to get down to a deeper level than an ordinary opinion poll in order to find out what really makes young people tick and what they want for their future.

The results are thought-provoking; they relate to matters such as attitudes to work, relationships, motivation, attitudes to the environment and technology and dreams and thoughts about the future. I wish here to concentrate on that most topical of all subjects, the debate on nuclear power.

The discussion of the 1980 referendum strikes almost all the respondents as completely incomprehensible. "Why not use the resources on researching the alternatives instead?" is a frequent counterquestion. At the time of the referendum 16 years ago a large proportion of the younger generation of today were sitting on their mothers' knees. They have never understood the result of the referendum. They have heard the arguments about the wording of the different alternatives, but they have never felt involved in the process. And while new discussions of energy issues, and new interpretations of the referendum result, have come and gone over the years they have now become voters themselves. Since 1980, 1 670 000 new voters have arrived on the scene, while a slightly smaller number of those who voted then (1 443 176) have died. This means that 3.1 million Swedes have had no say in the result of the referendum. So how can anyone claim, in the name of democracy, that that result, difficult as it is to interpret, is more relevant than the views of the young who after all are the ones who will have to live in tomorrow's world? 67% of the respondents in our survey think that young people should also be asked for their opinion.

"We want to have a say in the future of nuclear power." "If people could stop talking about the 1980 referendum and see to it that the necessary research is done on the alternatives, the whole referendum business would be irrelevant" are two of the views frequently expressed. The whole issue is regarded by many young people as a gigantic smokescreen designed to confuse the real issue, which is the need to search for the viable alternatives that are the only solution to the problem.

Young people do not see the necessity of abandoning nuclear power before getting on with development. Many suspect that nuclear power is being used by the politicians as a wild goose chase to distract attention from the need to develop renewable sources of energy. They make no distinction between politicians from different parties. In order to win the trust of young Swedes the politicians will have to take the practical measures to establish research and development programmes on renewable sources of energy. Shutting down one or two of the 12 reactors currently in operation will not bring ecological sustainability any closer. Over 80% of young Swedes do not think that phasing out nuclear power by the year 2010 is a feasible proposition. The majority think the existing plants should continue to produce electricity for the duration of their service life.

Young people are very clear about their views on the long-term use of nuclear power: 60% are against it and 40% for. When asked to consider the options of an energy mix including/not including fossil fuels or nuclear energy, respectively, over 70% would prefer a mix without fossil fuels and somewhat fewer a mix without nuclear energy.

Young people are very much aware of the fact that they have a very energy-consuming lifestyle: as many as 9 out of 10 say it would be possible to save energy. They estimate potential savings at around 20%. There is almost unanimous support for the UN convention on the climate, under which countries have agreed to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. Two out of three respondents are in favour of a higher carbon tax in Sweden. Stricter rules and controls are also favoured. The majority are also convinced that it is worth paying more for renewable sources of energy, although many are uncertain about the alternatives.

Young people do not think in terms of black and white, but rather in many shades of grey. In the long term they think it likely that there will an ecologically more sustainable energy supply system, but in the short run many see no reason to concentrate on phasing out nuclear power. The year 2010 is regarded as an obstacle rather than a feasible deadline. They are also careful to distinguish between Sweden and the rest of the world. Many are concerned about the nuclear power plants in eastern Europe. According to 94% of the respondents, the Swedish plants are safer than those in other countries. 93% think that Sweden should support and improve nuclear safety in other countries ("it's in everybody's interests; if we had helped Russia, Chernobyl might never have happened" is a frequent, albeit anachronistic, comment) and should spend more on research into safer and more efficient nuclear power (71%), but above all we should do everything we can to find alternatives. Solar energy and hydropower are two alternatives that are often mentioned.

There are several fundamental differences between young women and men. Men with a theoretical education are often in favour of long-term use of nuclear power, while those with a more practical education tend to be against this. No such differences seem to exist among women. We asked what were the main risks associated with nuclear power. Many women answered that "it will make life a misery for our children" and "it doesn't feel right", while the men were concerned about nuclear waste and the risk of accidents. On the credit side, many said that it is clean, it does not cause any emissions of undesirable substances and it is cheap. Many, especially male, respondents said that Sweden needs cheap and efficient energy. Most of the respondents said they knew too little about energy, but an even greater number, especially men, thought they knew enough to be able to form an opinion on the issue of nuclear power. The majority said that their main sources of information were the media, friends, their families and school. They would have liked to know more but were not sure how to obtain the necessary information.

Damage to the environment was perceived as the most serious future threat. The greatest hope for the future lies in greater knowledge, communications, technology (IT in particular) and greater awareness. As can be seen, the study revealed that there is no lack of optimism among young people.

In last Friday's DN-debate article Anders Sundström, the Minister of Industry and Commerce, stressed the need for a shift towards an ecologically sustainable society: "This would open up great opportunities for exporting new energy and environmental technology". This, together with Göran Persson's declaration on accepting the Social Democratic party's nomination for Prime Minister, sounds promising; many other parties have been saying the same things for years. Perhaps the time has really come to go from words to deeds. Nevertheless, there is still some cause for concern. In announcing the first measures to phase out nuclear power Anders Sundström remarked: "We must avoid building up a new large-scale system that is not ecologically sustainable". This takes us back to square one. No-one, certainly not the younger generation, has suggested that we should again build a large-scale energy supply system. What young people are interested in is not phasing out existing sources of energy but developing alternatives. During the last 16 years the deadlock on nuclear power has made it impossible for these two processes to run at the same time. It is essential to try to achieve a consensus on the long-term objectives, to look forward rather than back. The question of phasing out the nuclear power plants has blocked progress and taken up too much time and effort. Why is it so difficult to throw out obsolete roadmaps? The maps used by politicians seem to be at least 20 years old. We are living in the past without realizing it. Perhaps real change will only be possible when the old-guard energy policymakers are replaced by a new generation.


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©2003 Bi Puranen