The results of a new opinion survey were published at beginning of May. The survey is called “De Stemming” (The Voting”) and is an annual opinion survey of Flemish people commissioned by two media companies, VRT (Flemish television) and De Standaard (Flemish newspaper). It gauges the political views of the Flemish people, their voting behavior/intentions, their view on political issues, their evaluation of political performance and also their opinion on current events (like Ukraine).
I got interested in this survey watching a video describing the results of the item “Climate and Energy”. The video starts with the views on the Belgian nuclear exit (translated from Dutch, red oval around the questions by me):
There is great support for nuclear energy in Flanders: 81% of all Flemish people want nuclear power plants kept open after 2025.
Then follows a comparison with the previous two years:
Last year and the year before, we asked exactly the same question and then only two-thirds of Flemish people were convinced of keeping nuclear energy.
This seems to suggest that the public opinion abruptly changed in the last year.
But then, is it?
I have no problem believing that public opinion abruptly changed, but if the questions that are shown here are the actual questions asked in the survey, then we are talking about two different questions. According to the video, the question asked in 2020 and 2021 was (translated from Dutch, my emphasis):
Must we keep the nuclear power plants open?
To me, the nuclear power plants seems to indicate that the question is about nuclear power plants in general, meaning all of them. This could match the situation back then where only the complete nuclear exit was communicated as a viable option. Although there was a plan B of a limited number of nuclear plants that could be kept open, that plan was never really on the table. It was not considered a real option at the time, only to be considered in emergencies when the energy security would be threatened.
The “question” asked in the 2022 survey was (translated from Dutch):
We must keep nuclear power plants open, also after 2025.
Now “the” is omitted. To me, this seems to indicate that the question is wider this time. It could mean keeping all nuclear plants, but it could also mean just some of them. This could also match the current situation in which plan B suddenly became a viable option when gas prices started to skyrocket because our economy came back to live and the war in Ukraine. Plan B went from something that would never happen to something that would be a real solution for the energy problems we are in now. Belgium was headed to decommission its entire nuclear power fleet to be replaced with natural gas. Basically, we were replacing our currently cheapest and cleanest form of electricity production by a more polluting and the most expensive form of electricity production, this in a time of steep gas prices and inflation. That is why plan B became prominently on the forefront.
The survey also specified the party of the voters who favored keeping nuclear power plants open (translated from Dutch):
Now there is even a narrow majority among the voters of Groen [Flemish Green Party], while that majority is almost absolute among the voters of the N-VA [center right] and Vlaams Belang [far right].
Accompanied by this graph of the three parties at both ends (all other parties scored somewhere in between):
The results for N-VA and Vlaams Belang are not exactly surprising, both parties were vocal in their stance against the nuclear exit. The result for the Flemish Greens is a bit more surprising (half of them want to keep the nuclear plants open), but is understandable. The Flemish Green Party itself is now trying to frame it as their voters acknowledging that the time have changed and therefor agree with the Energy Minister’s policy (she is from the Flemish Green party), but I think it is more than that. There always was opposition from the greens to the plan of replacing nuclear energy with natural gas within its voters. Green voters are smart enough to realize that replacing nuclear by gas will increase emissions and the (dark green) voters will surely not be pleased by that prospect, whether it is proposed by a party member or not.
In closing, was there a sudden shift towards nuclear energy this year? That surely might be the case and the video reportage seems to suggest that there is. It is however not that clear, there seems to be a contradiction in the video. On the one hand, the reporter makes the claim that the surveys of this year and the two previous years asked the same question, but on the other hand it does show two different questions (see the two screenshots). If those questions were the same, then it is clear that there was an actual shift this year concerning nuclear energy, likely based on the increasing gas prices. If the actual questions were those shown in the video, then it is entirely possible that the way the questions were asked is (partly) responsible for this increase.
In the meanwhile, I found a report on the 2021 survey detailing the policy positions and couldn’t find the policy position that the reporter showed (“Must we keep the nuclear power plants open?”). I however did find the same policy position that was in the 2022 survey (“We must keep nuclear power plants open, also after 2025”), so it seems likely that it was the reporter who for whatever reason manufactured the question supposedly asked in 2020 and 2021. In that case, there was indeed a shift in the public opinion on the nuclear exit this year.