Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Nuclear Poll Reporting

TOday's media are reporting on a Herald/AC Nielson poll about nuclear power. Headlines scream with "More Aussies back nuclear power: Poll" (http://news.smh.com.au/breaking-news-national/more-aussies-back-nuclear-power-poll-20091013-gu7r.html), "People open to nuclear power: Carr" (http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2009/10/13/2712317.htm?site=news), and "Australians embracing vision for fission" (http://www.skynews.com.au/politics/article.aspx?id=382271)

The stories go on to report that 49% of (surveyed) Australians "said nuclear power should be considered for Australia's future energy needs, while 43 per cent were completely opposed" (SMH) Former NSW Premier Bob Carr was reported by the ABC as saying "There is a shift. People are more open to it again because they can see the damage that carbon dioxide is doing".

There are some problems with reporting on surveys, on-line polls, and market research. Foremost among them is that the media do NOT report that the numbers aren't definitive: they come with an error margin eg ± 3%, or ±5%. The second is that some people who volunteer, or are asked for, comment might have an agenda that is unreported. Bob Carr, for example, is paid by a company that invests in infrastructure. That company might have an interest in building a future nuclear power plant. There is no suggestion that Mr Carr was acting for any other entity when making his comments. Rather, the reporting illustrates that the interests and agendas of commentators are rarely reported. Thirdly, were respondents aware that the best places to put nuclear power plants in Australia is in coastal areas where there is an abundance of seawater for cooling; and close to existing transmission lines? Perhaps Bob Carr is happy to have a nuclear plant near Maroubra? ooooh, (shudder), I can feel the rage in the NIMBY response! In reality, parts of the less inhabited coastlines of SA and WA are more likely places.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was quick to dismiss the building of nuclear power plants in Australia, saying it was, and is still, ALP policy. He then passed the parcel, challenging the Opposition to have a position, reminding everyone that former PM John Howard wanted Australia to have nuclear power plants. It really was a political "hospital pass", knowing that the Liberal party is deeply divided on environmental and climate issues.

Be a bit wary of reports on polls and surveys: the numbers are not definitive, as implied in the reports, and some commentators might have hidden interests. With news, as with advertizing, it pays to be "buyer beware"!