Nearly 74 percent of Russian citizens want their government to maintain and develop the country’s nuclear industry, a sector they consider to be safe and clean despite Moscow’s troubled history with the technology and the government’s lack of transparency about its use, according to a recent poll.
Russia’s numbers far surpass nuclear energy’s popularity in most other developed economies that use it, suggesting that the Levada Center’s data reflect not just support for the energy source itself, but the degree to which the Kremlin has managed to politicize it as a reflection of its own grip power.
The poll was conducted by the Levada Center, Russia’s single independent polling agency, which erases any doubt that the its figures are real. The group’s survey found that, overall, 73.9 percent of Russians would like to see their nuclear power industry either developed or maintained at the same level at which it now operates.
According to the breakdown of those surveyed by Levada, certain areas in Russia have warmer sentiments toward nuclear energy than do others. The nuclear industry is most popular among those who live in St. Petersburg, who the poll found support it by an overwhelming 82.4 percent. The Ural Mountains region is close behind with 80 percent support for the nuclear industry, and Moscow came in closely behind that, with 77.4 percent. The Volga Federal District fixed nuclear power’s popularity at 75.3 percent.
Russians are also likely to see nuclear energy as environmentally friendly. When asked by the Levada Center whether they thought nuclear energy was a “green and clean” energy solution, 50.4 percent said yes.
The Levada Center likewise reported that the popularity of nuclear energy in Russia is only on the increase. According to remarks reported in Russian national media, the number of those responding favorably to maintaining or increasing the role of nuclear power in Russian society has gone up steadily over the last three years.
The numbers are a surprising contrast to the support nuclear energy attracts in Europe and America. A 2017 poll in the United Kingdom, where nuclear accounts for 21 percent of the energy mix, found only 38 percent of its citizens support nuclear power. About half of the population of France, which relies on nuclear power for 75 percent of its energy, told pollsters they don’t support it. Just under half the population of Germany, where nuclear power is phasing out, support the energy source. And a poll conducted in the United States in 2016, where nuclear accounts for 20 percent of the energy generated, showed that Americans’ support for nuclear power had dropped to 44 percent.
In Russia, nuclear power generates 17 percent of the energy consumed, but Russian President Vladimir Putin routinely promises that figure is set to jump to 20 to 30 percent, though he has offered only vague timetables for the increase.
Yet in a country still caught in the long shadow of Chernobyl, and where the government has a history of clumsily denying other dangerous nuclear incidents, the popularity nuclear power enjoys seem to be overly effusive. But many commentators in the Russian media have chalked up the support for nuclear power to the popularity of Putin himself, whose 80 percent approval ratings still continue to baffle western observers.
Over the past several years, Russian television has treated viewers to a growing roster of nuclear deals Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom has supposedly closed with foreign customers – deals that are flimsy in the eyes of Western observers, but which are presented by Russian state media as major headlines, and which heavily pad the industry’s bottom line.
Putin’s personal appearances at nuclear power plants, followed closely by the cameras, give the impression of a thriving industry bursting with technological growth. Just last week, Putin presided over the heavily televised ceremonial opening of a Rosatom-built nuclear power plant in Turkey that is currently only half financed, and who many expect will be delayed if it is completed at all.
Rosatom’s mandate has expanded as well. The company was recently granted a mandate to carve infrastructure through the Russian Arctic, increasing access to coveted oil and gas fields along the Northern Sea Route – a job that would ordinarily encompass the work of several government ministries.
Nuclear accidents, meanwhile, are treated to Soviet-style rubbishing. A cloud of radioactive pollution detected over Europe last year, which was all but traceable to an error at the Mayak spent nuclear fuel reprocessing facility, has been repeatedly and sarcastically denied by Moscow. And thank to the Kremlin’s law on foreign agents, environmental groups that question nuclear progress are blacklisted and harried as spies and treated as enemies of the people.
But publicly there is little evidence of such disturbances. Putin recently boasted that the number of foreign agents his government has been rounding up has fallen. As a consequence, the kinds of protests around new nuclear builds that were visible as recently as three or four years ago are nearly non-existent now. As for the reported radioactive cloud reported by most of Europe, Russian media dutifully reported the Kremlin’s preferred version that said it resulted from a crashed satellite.
A grip on nuclear power is something Putin’s administration evidently takes personally, and so long as he remains in power, its popularity is unlikely to wane.