The dilemmas surrounding nuclear power
Before deciding whether to opt for nuclear power or for other forms of energy generation, one first needs to define nuclear power production and clarify what precisely it is. Ultimately, the major problem always remains that of waste disposal.
When discussing the matter of nuclear power one soon thinks in terms of being for or against it. According to the engineer Behnam Taebi that is a sensible approach to take but before one can properly provide answers one has to establish what exactly nuclear energy is. “There are various production methods and different kinds of waste products. Whichever method you adopt, there will be consequences for the ethical considerations and the matter of whether, both for present and future generations, it is fair to use the method chosen”, he explains.
Broadly speaking, there are at present two common techniques. There is the “American” approach in which all the nuclear fuel is used once and then the waste is stored underground but remains radiotoxic, that is to say dangerously radioactive, for 200,000 years. The “European” approach, also sometimes referred to as the closed fuel cycle method, recycles the nuclear fuel so that the waste that is finally produced is only radiotoxic for 10,000 years. On first inspection, the latter approach seems much more favourable but the recycling of fuel is very energy-consuming and demands more nuclear processes, all of which adds to the risks. It also leads to the need to transport dangerous substances, substances that are more suitable for nuclear weapon production.
“When choosing between these two methods moral decisions have to be made between the long-term burdening of future generations with this toxic waste and the creating of greater risk for the present generation”, Taebi points out. “I cannot easily say where our priorities should lie.”
Today technologies are being developed (that will only be ready for use in several decade’s time) in which nuclear waste will be so thoroughly consumed and processed that it will only remain radiotoxic for 500 to 1000 years. Apart from being a much shorter period, it is also one that is much easier to conceive in human terms. It is a technology that will be very expensive and time-consuming but particularly aimed at diminishing the burden for future generations. “You might question whether we are morally obliged to make such investments in the interests of future generations”, Taebi asks. “I am inclined to think that we are.”
Present technological circumstances and possible future improvements provide us with much more complicated moral dilemmas regarding nuclear energy than people sometimes think, certainly if one compares it all to alternative ways of producing energy. Just to give one example, greenhouse gases may not, it is true, be directly toxic but they do constitute a risk for future generations and since they are everywhere in the atmosphere it may well be harder to make them non-noxious with new technologies in a hundred year’s time than nuclear waste in an underground bunker.
“In all cases, with nuclear energy, coal, oil and gas, the resources required are from raw materials that will one day be exhausted” Taebi adds. “The risks for the future are not always crystal clear. In the case of nuclear energy there is also the danger of the resources being used for nuclear weapon production and accidents occurring in the plants but the risks can be minimized. You can, of course, be opposed to nuclear energy on principal but whatever the case, the arguments that have to be thought through are not straightforward. All that we do know for certain is that things have to be considered now and not once the various choices have been made.”