The ethics of nuclear energy

What about the long-term?

Despite the catastrophic events in Fukushima Daiichi, nuclear energy seems to be expanding. A growing number of countries are still very much interested in expanding their fleet of nuclear power plants or in introducing nuclear energy in their grid. The production of nuclear energy and the waste disposal give rise to pressing ethical issues that society needs to face. On Wednesday October 28, the TU Delft and the Rathenau Institute organized a symposium on some of those ethical issues. One of those issues that received ample attention at this symposium was the long-term concerns associated with the governance of nuclear waste. In this spotlight we quickly introduce you to the emerging field of ethics of nuclear energy.

What is this nuclear energy we are talking about?


Nuclear energy is produced in a physical process called fission or simply splitting the atom. An enormous amount of thermal energy will then be released which will be captured and turned into electricity in a nuclear reactor. The global need for energy is growing. Particularly electricity demands seem to grow twice as fast as overall energy demands, rising by 73% by 2035. Nuclear energy currently accounts for around 10% of the world’s electricity demand, with about 439 nuclear reactors in 31 countries. The production of nuclear power seems to be growing as well. The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that approximately 50 countries will have nuclear reactors by 2030. If this becomes reality, the 439 nuclear reactors currently operable around the world will be joined by more than 500 others within the next few decades. Nuclear technology has evident advantages for energy production purposes, but it also raises a variety of societal and ethical concerns.

How should we approach the future?


When we produce nuclear power we are depleting a non-renewable resource (uranium) that will eventually not be available to future generations. In addition and perhaps more importantly the remaining nuclear waste will be radiotoxic for a tremendously long period of time. This symposium will discuss a variety of societal and ethical issues that pertain to long-term ethical concerns of nuclear waste disposal. Indeed, there is a variety of other important ethical issues relating to nuclear waste, varying from radiological protection, international and intergenerational justice, acceptability of nuclear risk as well as more practically oriented questions such as which role should nuclear energy play in the future of energy production in the world.

These and many other relevant issues are discussed in two recent publications of TU Delft, namely an edited book on ‘The Ethics of Nuclear Energy’ (Cambridge University Press) and a special issue of Journal of Risk Research on ‘The socio-technical Challenges of Nuclear Energy Production and Nuclear Waste Management’. Some of the contributors to these volumes will presented their findings at the symposium.

You can find a report of the symposium via this link.

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