Ethical Considerations for the Use of Nuclear Energy

The startling realization that the continued growth and development of humanity is having serious and potentially irreversible effects on planet and its inhabitants has welcomed in a new era of environmental ethical debate. As we grow all the more familiar with the harmful effects of burning fossil fuels, we look for alternatives. Nuclear energy is one such example. However, when taking into the consideration the potential repercussions of nuclear energy programs, understanding the underlying ethical considerations should be of paramount concern for ethicists and policy makers alike.

This essay will proceed to assert that the utilitarian foundations of the nuclear energy debate – the understanding that by minimizing the harm one can justify the reward – as adopted by organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is an inadequate approach. This is based on two distinct ways that nuclear energy impacts our current society as well as threatens the livelihood of future generations, in light of the understanding that nuclear energy is not the only alternative available. There is currently no safe method of disposing of the waste and reactor facilities are currently susceptible to radioactive leaks and meltdowns, both of which threaten the livelihoods of all those exposed to the by-product. Especially when considering that nuclear energy is not the only alternative, just the most powerful, thoroughly understanding the very impacts these three particular issues have on our current population as well as on the well being of future generations will paint a much different picture of the ethical considerations.

According to the 2012 World Energy Outlook, the International Energy Association (IEA) anticipates close to a 35% increase in global energy consumption by 2035, as a result of worldwide population growth and improved standards of living in both the developing and developed worlds. This demand will be predominately met by an increased reliance on fossil fuels. As a result, its not only prudent, but necessary, to find reasonable alternatives. As an alternative, nuclear energy is extremely powerful and efficient. The fission of one gram of Uranium 235 produces enough output to keep a 100-watt light bulb continuously burning for over two decades, whereas burning one gram of gasoline will only generate approximately eight minutes of light. It is also a comparatively sustainable energy source that produces virtually no emissions. Clearly it is a very potent and efficient method.

However, the development and use of nuclear energy has its flaws, very serious ones. Despite the lack of emissions, the process still produces a formidable amount of waste. In 1980s, for example, the three hundred reactors across the globe produced approximately 7,620 metric tons of waste per year. As this material is extremely hazardous and takes thousands of years to deteriorate, the current method to deal with the byproduct is long-term storage. These sites must be left completely undisturbed, protected from acts of war and terrorism and well as from natural processes. All the while, these facilities must be maintained in a manner that will prevent the disposed byproduct from becoming active again. Despite our best efforts to anticipate geological and natural processes, such as glacial movements and earthquakes, there is no certain way we can accurately predict these types of occurrences one hundred percent of the time, especially across over thousands of years. The current storage site at Maxey Flats, Kentucky, has shifted an unexpected two miles since its creation, and an uncontrollable reaction at the waste facility in the Ural Mountains rendered nearly twenty square miles of land completely uninhabitable. Furthermore, consider human curiosity. There is no way to guarantee that future generations won’t unknowingly unearth these deadly substances. This puts future generations at risk as well. Any occurrence that challenges the structural integrity of storage sites will put those in the surrounding area in high risk.

Furthermore, nuclear facilities are susceptible to malfunctions that result in dangerous meltdowns. History proves that it is impossible to fully prevent these occurrences – safeguarding against human error and natural disaster. It is a widely accepted fact that disasters such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were not the result of broken technology, but rather mistakes made by personnel. Furthermore, Fukushima Daichii demonstrated the impact that natural disasters can have on a facility. All three of these events had disastrous effects. The meltdown at Chernobyl is one of the worst examples in history as over 100,000 square kilometers of land was affected, displacing over hundreds of thousands of people. The recent earthquake at Fukushima caused the only nuclear meltdown in history rated similarly to that of Chernobyl on the International Nuclear Event Scale. These instances could be classified as arbitrary and infrequent, but that is the fundamental problem. If an event so uncontrollable can threaten the livelihoods of so many people, across generations, how can the practice be justified?

The debate around nuclear energy, and the consequent problems that rise there from, are often dealt with from a utilitarian perspective, trying to minimize the harm in order to allow society to benefit from the good. The IAEA, for the most part, adopts this approach, as a regulatory body tasked to monitor and safeguard against the inherently dangerous nature of nuclear technology. The concept of informed consent is a foundational element to their ethical charter. The IAEA believes that the general public must be made aware of the dangers. For example, in order to build a nuclear waste depository, refinement facility, or power plant, the developing organization must share technical information about the plans with the general public, providing them with the ability to protest and refuse if desired. Furthermore, the consequences of nuclear energy programs should be equally shared, just as should the energy output, and for those that do suffer, there should be some form or repayment to compensate for their burdens.

The nuclear energy debate does logically lend itself to a utilitarian way of thinking if the crux of the issues, as mentioned prior, is the immense potential for energy output versus the very dangerous and potentially damaging nature of the process. However, there is a consideration that serves to counteract this particular approach. For a utilitarian, one does not have to completely eliminate all the harm in order to maximize the good, just minimize it to an extent that the benefits outweigh the damages. Perhaps if nuclear energy were the only viable alternative to fossil fuel consumption then the utilitarian approach would be a more appropriate lens from which to address this problem. This, however, is not the case. The IEA has identified a number of other potential alternatives that, though may not be quite as efficient, can still help promote sustainability and reduce our reliance on carbon-based energy. These are far cleaner, pose less risk to society, and do not have the potential to pollute our planet for the next hundreds of thousands of years. This being the case, justifying the harm in the context of the significant increase in non-emission energy is not longer appropriate. Rather, to understand whether or not nuclear energy is morally justifiable, one must take into consideration the two-level understanding of social justice – the impact it has on current persons and will have on future generations.

Nuclear byproduct is extremely hazardous material. Radioactive elements behave like calcium in that they are easily absorbed into the human body by way of the food chain – through plants, cows, and milk for example – or through direct exposure. The human body is unable to determine between most healthy elements versus their radioactive counterparts. So if we are exposed to a radioactive version of an otherwise healthy species, such as iodine 131, our bodies will absorb it, unable to discriminate. Once absorbed, it can lead to cancer or genetic mutation, affecting both the individual as well as their future off spring. These hazardous elements then take hundreds of thousands of years to deteriorate and effectively become safe for human exposure. The most widely known example is plutonium, one of the most poisonous substances in existence, which will take at least 240,000 years to safely decay.

This level of toxicity, when coupled with the very real and unavoidable issues associated with storage and facility operation, will significantly impede the quality of life of those at risk of exposure. This directly contradicts an understanding of justice that strives to ensure a decent life, free from harm, for all people. Even in situation where we have the consent of those at risk, and perhaps even compensating them for potential damages, there is still no way to provide the same right to those of future generations, despite the fact that they will be just as at risk, if not more so, than those affected in the present. So in conclusion, the potential for severe harm caused by nuclear energy on the human person, our communities, and future generations is far to great a threat to our collective livelihood for there to be any sensible threshold for use when there are additional alternatives available.

To view the sources leveraged to write this post: Nuclear-Energy-Sources.pdf

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