Civilization / Ecology / Economy / Ethics / Philosophy / Politics / Science

Why I am opposed to atomic energy (and fossil fuels as well)

(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!

8 thoughts on “Why I am opposed to atomic energy (and fossil fuels as well)

  1. Your position is absolutely morally correct and your explanation quite elegant. Well done.

    Unfortunately the people who make such decisions are not generally concerned with the future beyond the next quarter’s profits.

    I mean this quite literally. They simply don’t care what sort of pain and suffering they inflict upon their grandchildren or those as yet unborn. In fact, some actually seem to revel in the prospect. As long as they themselves are “livin large” now, the future can go to hell in a handbasket.

    This is what happens when control falls into the hands of the psychopathic. The resultant pathocracy becomes fixated upon its own wants and interests beyond any rational consideration of the consequences.

  2. Pingback: Trans-Temporal Exploitation | Embassy of the Future

  3. I think Fourat Janabi recently wrote an essay on the misconceptions regarding the dangers of atomic energy. I’ll have to find that and send it your way.

    Anyway, I have one question: If we developed a more ecologically responsible method for disposing of nuclear waste, would you still be opposed to pursuing this form of energy?

    • If there was a truely secure way of storing radioactive waste, there would be still security problems of running atomic reactors. When I was young, I was told that cases like exploding reactors would happen maybe once in hundredthousand years. I have now already experienced it twice in my lifetime, plus cases where it nearly happened, like the Three Mile Island case. The old estimate of how likely such cases were might just have been propaganda, or they might have been based on moels. Models have the problem of being incomplete in principle. Reality always has more properties than can be derived in our theories about it. I also see dangers in the transport of atomic waste, in its processing and in the proliferation problem. Now, lets assume these problems could be solved. What then is a secure storage for radioactive waste? I would say that as long as humans are arround who could access the storage, it is not secure. It could be opened by mistake or deliberatly. Some terrorists could try to get the stuff as a weapon. Some tyrant could use it as a threat to gain power. If you store the stuff inside a salt dome, as is proposed in Germany, how do you know people will not do mining for salt in a thousand years without knowing what is there?
      The best proposal I have seen so far is to bore wholes several kilometers deep in some rock, store the stuff inside and refill them with concrete. There are also attempts to convert long-lived nuclides into short-lived ones using Thorium reactors. However, I have not seen any really convincing storage system yet. And just putting somebody at a risk already means putting them at a disadvantage. If you can avoid doing so, and they cannot do anything about it, I would conclude it should not be done.
      If the ancient Romans had had nuclear power stations and had left raioactive waste for us, I would curse them for it. If nuclear power was the only way to prevent global warming, I would accept it, but I think there are alternatives.

      • I suppose I was alluding towards the disposal of waste altogether, rather than safe storage. I know that current prospects of disposing of nuclear waste seems like utter fantasy, but I wonder if one day we will have the technology. To be clear, I’m not a fan of using natural resources for energy anyway. I’d prefer we used wind, solar, etc. I don’t really see the need for cars that operate above 50 mph. If you need to go somewhere fast or far, we should develop better public transportation, like the hyperloop proposed by Elon Musk. I think we use too much energy simply because it’s available. New architectural designs could save loads by utilizing the sunlight during the day, and then reuse accumulated energy from the sun via panels at night. There are literally thousands of better alternatives, but capitalism drives innovation.

        Anyway, I’m not familiar enough with the nuclear disasters to really weigh in here. But if I may, I seem to remember that the disaster weren’t necessarily because of faulty safety precautions and poorly designed facilities, but rather, the failure to follow through with the safety precautions and keep the facilities up to code. Perhaps the issue with nuclear energy isn’t the facilities, but the enforcement of regulations. Like I said, Janabi wrote an article on the misconceptions of nuclear energy. In it, if I’m not mistaken, he points out that we simply haven’t upgraded older facilities with the latest technology. And the latest technology is vastly superior to facilities from 20 years ago. This, granted, does not alleviate the issue with regard to waste.

        • There are several points here, and I will probably treat them all in separate articles in this blog:

          Nuclear security:
          The whole system consists of the technology, the regulations, the people, their culture, politics, power (in the political sense) etc. A description consisting of the technology and the “code” alone is incomplete. There might be factors like corruption, greed, shame etc. (think of what happened on that oil platform in the mexican gulf). In some political systems you might have to go to prison if you hint at problems, e.g. as a journalist. The technological description might also be incomplete. You might simply assume, for example, that the structure can withstand an eartquake of strngth n. But then you get one with n + 2.
          There are always risks. There are known unknowns ans also unknown unknowns. If the consequences of an accident are small, one can take the risk, but if it would be a desaster rendering a large area uninhabitable for a long time, we should not use such a technology.

          About the energy topic: You write: ” I think we use too much energy simply because it’s available”. Here you hit the nail on its head. I will write about this in a separate article on this blog. If you apply the “future trade” idea here, future generations would, if they could, buy up all the fossil fuels to stop us from burning them. So that is exactly what should be done: to create new money to buy up all the coal and oil. Make it expensive (gas is terribly cheap in the US compared to Europe because you have low taxes on it. As a result, many of the environmental problems connected to cars seem to be worse in the US).

          About cars: I think we don’t need them at all. Our cities are foolishly designed. You need a car to go from A to B, but if A and B are in walking distance you don’t need a car at all. So if we put things closely together, we don’t need cars. The availability of cheap car transport has created conditions where we live and sleep in one quarter, go shopping miles away in another and go to work miles away in a third. Our kids go to school miles away in a fourth quarter. If car driving became expensive, cities would be restructured again in a more reasonable way. You can build car-free cities in which life is better.
          In Hamburg I lived in an area with shops etc. in walking distance, a good bycicle-way-infrastructure and several train stations and bus stops in walking distance, as well as a park an playground for children. Kindergardens and schools where nearby. (https://maps.google.com/maps?q=weidenallee+1+hamburg&ie=UTF-8&ei=6e5aUvy5MoOKtAbls4HAAw&ved=0CAgQ_AUoAg) I did not have a car there. I did not need one and I absolutly did not miss it. I did not spend money on a car and I did not spend time in traffic jams.
          Cars are a very stupid solution of the transport problem. The smart solution is to put everything you need a lot in walking or biking distance and make everything else available by public transportation.

          • I’m more than familiar with baking in assumptions and testing them with computer models only to see the product fail because our assumptions were too conservative. I just left a company where I was a project engineer (essentially an assistant project manager) and my days were full of communicating to the customer our failures at the test site, even though a week prior I told them the product would pass based on successful computer simulations. We were two years behind schedule when I left, and I’m honestly not sure where they are with that product right now. The last I heard, the customer was considering using a legacy design instead, even though it wouldn’t support their required envelope. At the root of this entire issue was politics. We were forced to provide a design based on incomplete data to support political expectations. In the end, we had to scrap the original design and start from scratch; hence us being two years behind schedule.

            Unfortunately, I’m sure that the nuclear energy sector faces similar demands, so there really is no way to get around this sort of thing. I suppose in this instance – nuclear energy – the consequences outweigh the rewards, so I yield. Thank you for bringing that to my attention in a way that I could relate to.

            As for transportation and the designs of our cities, I could not agree more. I recently bought a bike for communicating and I could not be happier. I still have my car, however, because public transportation is atrocious and the layout of the city doesn’t permit me to reach every essential destination. Southern California is quite aware of these issues, and several public transportation projects are in the works, but nothing drastic enough to make a real impact. The search for alternatives continues…

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