(Inside of a liquitd waste tank at Hanford site, see http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hanford_site_tank_interior.jpg)
Many people think nuclear energy should be extended to replace power stations based on burning fossil fuels in order to reduce the release of greenhouse gasses.
Many others are opposed to nuclear energy because they fear the dangers of accidents like those of Chernobyl and Fukushima. These events have shown that the possibility of disastrous destruction of nuclear power stations resulting in large scale release of radioactivity is a very real danger.
I think nuclear power is not an option and we should stop using it. But my main reason for this is not the possibility that events like the ones in Fukushima and Chernobyl may happen again. My main reason to be opposed to nuclear energy is that I think it is a form of exploitation. Specifically, using nuclear power means exploiting future people. It is an instance of what I have called “transtemporal exploitation” in another article. Exploiting people is unethical.
In order to understand in which way the use of nuclear energy is exploitative, let me define what I mean with the word exploitation. Consider you have two groups of people (or two single people). Between them, they do some transaction. As a result, one of them (mainly) gets advantages and the other one (mainly) gets disadvantages.
The transaction might, for example, be a lottery. Everybody pays in some money and most people lose. That means they get a disadvantage. One person or a small group of participants wins and so gets an advantage.
This is not yet exploitation because everybody who is taking part agreed to the terms of the deal and chances seem to be evenly distributed. However, if you do a transaction where the participants who get the disadvantages do this without agreeing to the deal, we have exploitation. An example is slavery. Another is trade systems in which some people in poor countries have no choice but sell their work for a very low price to produce cheap products for people in rich countries.
Now let us think about the production of energy by burning fossil fuels, before we turn our attention to nuclear energy. This activity produces advantages for today’s people in the form of cheap energy. It leads to the release of greenhouse gasses which, according to our best scientific knowledge, result in global warming. Our best scientific models also tell us that in most parts of the world, global warming will have disastrous effects, like desertification, droughts and flooding. People will suffer and even die from this. These people receive disadvantages from the transaction. We must assume that they do not agree with it. They have no chance of doing anything against it because they have not yet been born. So we are in a relationship of power against them and we are using this to our advantage and to their disadvantage. That is exploitation. Exploitation is ethically unacceptable. It is condemnable. It is a crime. By burning fossil fuels, we are doing something similar as the slaveholders of the past. We are having a good life on the expense of others. The difference is that we are not, in this case, exploiting our contemporaries but our descendants. We don’t see those we are exploiting so we can pretend to ourselves that we are good people doing harm to nobody and paying our bills.
If we generalize this argumentation, we come to the conclusion that everything that is not sustainable is a case of exploitation. For an activity to be unsustainable means that it is using up some resource in an irreversible manner or that the resource is being used up much faster than it can regrow (in the example above, the resource is the ability of our athmosphere to absorb carbon dioxide without bad side effects). Using up raw materials without recycling is unsustainable in most cases. Destroying ecosystems and driving species into extinction means making irreversible changes. Future generations will not have these resources again, so we are putting them at a disadvantage. Therefore, these activities are instances of exploitation.
Now we come back to nuclear energy. Some people propose increasing it in order to replace fossil fuel based energy production. However, producing nuclear energy produces nuclear wastes. These are dangerous and will remain dangerous for long stretches of time, in some cases for several hundred thousand years. Producing them means endangering future people, and not just some but practically all. We cannot guarantee that radioactivity will not be release accidentally, with or without the involvement of humans, with or without intention. We cannot guarantee that nobody will use those wastes as a weapon or as a threat. Be inheriting radioactive materials to future generations, we are putting them at a disadvantage and they do not have any means to do something against it. That is, according to our argumentation above, a case of exploitation.
A disadvantage for future people already lies in the mere danger of radioactive pollution. Even if nothing is happening in the lifetime of a generation, they have been disadvantaged by the mere risk that they never agreed to take.
A recent example: the American taxpayers of today will have no choice but pay for the cleanup of radioactive waste in Hanford where tanks with radioactive waste from the nuclear weapons program of the US are beginning to leak. The people who have to pay have never agreed for that facility to be built. This is an instance of exploitation of the present by the past because in the past money was saved on a storage system that could have lasted more than just a few decades. The taxpayers of today might shift the bill further into the future by paying for it with new credits, but that is exploitation as well.
Atomic waste produced in nuclear power stations poses the same kind of problems. We have to find as secure a way as possible to deal with the radioactive material that has been produced so far but we must not produce more of it.
As these considerations show, energy production both from fossil fuels and from atomic energy must be considered unacceptable. The bottom line is that we have to reduce our consumption of energy and that we have to shift completely to renewable energy, and quickly!