By Mark Kinver
Science and environment reporter, BBC News
Residents near Hinkley Point power station were among those interviewed
Residents living near existing nuclear reactors only have "qualified support" for new power stations, a study shows.
While most locals trusted the operators of their nearby power station, some had a strong distrust of the UK Government and the nuclear industry, it added.
The team that compiled the data said the findings suggested that a "decide and defend" strategy for new build would be be met by strong opposition.
It had been assumed that locals would support new nuclear power stations.
The five-year study, which included a survey of 1,326 households, was carried out by the team of researchers from the universities of Cardiff and East Anglia.
Ministers are currently considering a range of options to replace the UK's ageing reactors.
"The government and some of the energy companies believe that the UK should have a new generation of nuclear power stations," said co-author Nick Pidgeon, from the University of Cardiff's School of Psychology.
"But one of the issues - the siting of any of these stations - is not going to be an easy matter.
"The initial proposals (from the energy companies) are almost certain to include some of the sites that currently house nuclear stations."
While there were a number of practical reasons for this, such as access to existing infrastructure, Professor Pidgeon explained that there was also an assumption that public acceptance of new reactors would be greater.
"It is an interesting assumption to make, and on the surface it looks like an easy thing to say but there has been very little detailed research."
The team focused their research on communities that lived within 10 miles of three nuclear power stations - Bradwell, Essex; Oldbury, South Gloucestershire; and Hinkley Point, Somerset.
Based on detailed face-to-face interviews and questionnaires, the researchers found that the respondents generally accepted their nuclear neighbour as part-and-parcel of everyday life.
"That sense of it being part of the everyday was combined with a considerable degree of trust in the local operators," revealed fellow co-author Peter Simmons, from the University of East Anglia's School of Environmental Sciences.
"But it is important to make clear that… some of the people we interviewed did work or had worked for the power station, or had family/friends that worked at the station.
"So, for some of the people, there were a number of linkages within their social networks with the power station.
"That was quite distinct from any statements they may have made about the trust they had in the industry more generally."
In contrast, a number of interviewees voiced varying degrees of distrust when it came to the national government and regulators.
The researchers said that a number were generic concerns, such as "not able to trust politicians", but others felt they had not been properly consulted over past developments at the power stations.
The researchers also found that there were occasions when the local communities did become concerned about having a nuclear reactor on their doorsteps.
Mr Simmons said that one such event was news of a terror attack anywhere in the world.
"That would draw people's attention to the possibility of some sort of terrorism risk associated with a nuclear power station.
"But it could also be other kinds of events as well; it may be people within the community suddenly being diagnosed with cancer.
"It was not because people were leaping to the conclusion that this was to do with the nuclear power station, but what it did was to raise uncertainties in people's minds."
The researchers were able to identify four main points of views among the local residents in relation to nuclear power:
- 'Beneficial and safe': 34% of the respondents viewed their local power station as being a source of benefits and essentially safe. The nearby reactors were not considered to be a risk to the community's well-being.
- 'Threat and distrust': 16% of the people surveyed believed the risks associated with nuclear power far outweighed any benefits. This group was also highly suspicious of claims made by the government and nuclear industry.
- 'Reluctant acceptance': This group consisted of 38% of the respondents, who viewed the technology as potentially risky, but were willing to accept it locally because of concerns about energy security and climate change.
- 'There's no point worrying': 12% of those questioned expressed few concerns about the technology, but were still critical of government and industry. But they also expressed distrust of environmental groups that "exaggerated" the risks.
Professor Pidgeon said the findings showed that if the government and nuclear industry failed to consult local people and address their concerns, it would be counterproductive in terms of winning support for a new fleet of nuclear reactors.
"Despite the apparent support for nuclear power that exists in these communities, our research also demonstrates that many remain ambivalent towards nuclear power.
"Strong mistrust of both the industry and government is voiced by a further significant minority of residents.
"What they have to avoid is what has happened in the past, which is a 'decide and defend' approach," he told reporters.
"Or a 12-week consultation that involves popping up some information in a local library, assuming that people will read it - that would be an absolute catastrophe."
The researchers presented their full findings on Tuesday at an event hosted by the Royal Society, London.