The Ethics Of… Nuclear Power

What do you think about when you hear ‘nuclear power’? Giant cooling towers? The Simpsons? Chernobyl, 3 Mile Island and Fukushima? Or perhaps given Fallout 4 was released this week, horrifying mutant monstrosities in search of brains?

No, it’s fine, I’ll just be over here playing games from the 1990s on my ancient steam-powered laptop *mumble grumble*

Whatever your first thought was, unless you’re part of nuclear power’s small but surprisingly vocal group of hardcore fans, odds are it wasn’t good. Between the apocalyptic-meltdown-catastrophe of Chernobyl, the not-actually-that-bad-but-still-terrifying 3 Mile Island incident, and the what-the-fuck-were-they-thinking Fukushima disaster in 2011, it’s fair to say that nuclear power has a bit of a PR problem. Seems like every time we start to get comfortable with the idea of powering our nations with the marvellous power of the atom, something explodes, irradiates a few thousand square kilometres of people’s backyards, and terrify everyone away from it again. It also probably doesn’t help that nuclear power is pretty strongly linked in most people’s minds to nuclear weaponry, which is definitely some scary stuff. Of course the idea of using radioactive material to produce steam power has about as much to do with nuclear weapons as cars do with napalm, but hey, human psychology what can you do.

Working as I do in environmental circles, nukes aren’t exactly what you’d call popular. In fact opposition to nuclear power was one of the major pillars of the modern environmental movement throughout the 20th century, right up there alongside saving the whales, stopping pollution and ending the logging of the Amazon. Ask one of my long haired bespectacled brethren their opinion on nuclear power back then and you’d get a rough description of something Satan would cook up over a serious 3 day planning conference with Hitler, Stalin and a mad scientist out of a Saturday morning cartoon. There were and still are fears that nuclear power will basically end life as we know it on this planet, irradiating the surrounding countryside, polluting the air and the water, hideously mutating plants and animals and basically bringing about the sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland that everyone playing Fallout 4 is currently traipsing around in.

Not envious at all over here. No siree.

Even in today’s significantly more sophisticated environment movement, nuclear power is still a bridge too far. It’s not just the catastrophic legacy of past meltdowns, and the demonstration by Fukashima that these accidents are still possible (though they certainly don’t help). The costs for developing nuclear power stations, the danger of contamination from uranium mining, the perpetual question of what to do with nuclear waste with a half-life longer than human civilization to date, and the simple fact that we only have enough uranium reserves to last another 200 years at the current rate of consumption, all paint a pretty grim picture for anyone concerned about environmental sustainability.

All in all the message from the environmentalists is clear: despite its advantages nuclear power is too dangerous and impractical to be seriously considered as an alternative energy source.

Fun fact: All anti-nuclear protests are actually orchestrated by the barrel-manufacturer industry as a way to boost sales.

The real irony with both the public and the environment movement’s opposition to nuclear power is that 60 years ago it was seen as the exact opposite of both of these fears: the wondrous next step of technology that would soon replace all other ancient forms of energy, providing the world with limitless clean power and speeding humanity on to a new golden era. Nuclear power was prolific, it was cheap, it was clean and compared to the harm caused by coal and oil mining, it was safe to boot.

Sure the imagery was kinda ridiculous, but when you consider the technical benefits of nuclear reactors there was plenty to be excited about. For starters when you consider fuel usage, land used, and output they’re massively more efficient than any other energy source; one uranium fuel pellet creates as much energy as one ton of coal or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, and given the improving but still low efficiency of renewable energy technology, it’s not even a competition. Furthermore nuclear energy is for the most part, very very clean. The operation of a nuclear power plant produces no carbon pollution whatsoever, let alone all the smog and acid rain you tend to get from coal and other fossil fuels. And just in case you doubt the overwhelming reality of human-caused climate change, never mind your tiny brain about it – this photo of Beijing (that’s in China) after the government banned cars for a parade they were holding paints a pretty solid case for the problems of burning fossil fuels:

The cloudy stuff is bad just FYI.

Ok nuclear power is technically a fossil fuel in the sense that uranium needs to be mined out of the ground first, but considering the relatively microscopic volumes required to run these plants compared to coal, oil and gas, we’re really just nit-picking at this point. If you really want to push the point, renewable technologies also rely on materials we mine out of the ground including steel (a high carbon material), concrete (ditto), and a variety of rare-earth materials for use in solar panels (most of which are toxic and non-recyclable). Sure the sourcing of fuel for nuclear power causes pollution and mining practices should be improved, but then again wind farms kills a lot of birds and hydropower stations flood entire valleys full of wildlife. There is no perfect way of generating energy, but I’m sure we can agree that the relatively tiny costs of both renewables and nuclear are SIGNIFICANTLY better than fossil fuels.

Then there’s the problem of nuclear waste and the fact that it lasts virtually forever, there are no long-term storage facilities in existence, and no one wants to build one if it’s going to be anywhere ever remotely near where they live. And yeah since a serious leak of this stuff would effectively make the site uninhabitable permanently, this is a big problem. Or is it? For starters nuclear waste has one big thing going for it – it’s contained. Fossil fuels might not be quite as lethal as nuclear sludge, but then again nuclear reactors don’t constantly spray their waste into the atmosphere either. The waste is instead capture, treated and stored, meaning it’s significantly safer even than the toxicity of disposed solar panels in landfills. That does still leave us with a toxic stockpile that will outlast humanity considering our track record, but this in turn tends to ignore our ability to deal with old problems with new technology. Tech such as fastbreeder reactors and other innovative designs may mean that nuclear waste may be a very solvable problem in the near future, and further investment into nuclear energy will only increase the amount of effort poured into this problem – overall not so much a principled reason we should shun nuclear energy so much as a practical problem to be overcome.

But then of course there is the big problem. The really big problem that has been at the core of opposition to nuclear power ever since the 50’s: the looming spectre of nuclear meltdown. Ever since the staff at the Soviet-run Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine decided to override all safety systems for the sake of a diagnostic test, overheated the reactor until they blew its top off, killed at least half a million people and seriously contaminated over 100,000 square kilometres of Europe, people have been somewhat hairy about the risk of other nuclear reactors doing the same. Perhaps the disaster could have be written off as Soviet Russia practicing its usual standard of health and safety, but then the same thing had nearly happened on 3 Mile Island smack in the middle of the US of A, when a bad user-interface caused a worker to vent steam when they shouldn’t have and blew 300 times the acceptable level of nuclear radiation all over the place.

Even this however could (and often has) been excused as ancient history – teething problems for an industry just getting started, that the modern industry has learned from and can now prevent. Modern nuclear power plant designs we are told are now proof to such mistakes as these and are completely safe from meltdown or other such accidents.

And then some twit went and built one of these ‘perfectly safe’ nuclear reactors on the top of a fault line.

To its credit, the Fukushima power plant was not damaged by the earthquake in 2011. Nope, it was the tsunami that the earthquake caused that really fucked shit up, destroying the coolant systems for three reactors and basically putting them into meltdown until authorities were able to get things under control again. Now for an Australian floating along in the middle of a continental plate this might seem like a classic case of unpredictable natural disaster, followed by a very prompt government response to the problem – what more could we ask of them? But this is JAPAN. That is, a country literally on top of a giant earthquake fault which regularly has this sort of thing happen, yet despite this extremely probably event, decided to build a nuclear reactor on the coast anyhoo.

Defenders of nuclear power were quick to point out that Fukushima was not a failing of nuclear power itself, but rather of the corruption and poor planning that made the disaster possible – and they were completely correct in this. In all three of these cases of serious nuclear incident, the problem was not the technology itself, much less the idea of nuclear power, but rather human error. And when it comes to human error, even apparently safe windpower isn’t perfect.

And that was one of the… cleaner ones.

So at this point you’re probably wondering where exactly I stand on this topic, since what I’ve essentially given you is two sets of very valid points that don’t address each other in any way. On the pro-nuclear side we have the staggering energy efficiency of nuclear, the relative cleanness of the energy, and some pretty compelling defences of its overall safety. On the anti-nuclear side we have the fact that nuclear is still far more polluting than renewables (even if it’s much better than fossil fuels), the incredible time and cost to build a plant in the first place, the limited availability of fuel to power reactors, and the undeniably truth that while reactors might be safer they still have a history of going ‘kaboom’ way too often.

Usually at this point I’d bust out the utilitarianism and ask whether the benefits of nuclear power outweigh the costs, and how it stacks up against the alternatives available, but in an apparent deadlock like this we have another tool which can be extremely useful: risk assessment.

Risk assessment isn’t just a matter of ‘is it dangerous’ or ‘is it likely’, but a combination of both. For something like driving a car the danger (that is the consequences) of an accident may be quite high, but compared to the amount of accidents per cars on the road we know that the likelihood is pretty damn low so we consider it a safe activity provided everyone follows the laws. Compare that to taking a plane where the likelihood of accident is extremely low statistically but the consequence of any problem is massively higher, what with the whole ‘falling screaming to your death’ thing. As such we consider the risk worse than that of driving a car and put a lot of safety regulations in place to protect us.

Considering nuclear power through this matrix and the situation is pretty clear: likelihood of an accident may be very low indeed, but considering the consequences of a serious accident are off-the-scale catastrophic, we consider it possibly the most dangerous thing humans are currently doing and cover that shit in so much red tape you can barely see the building. So problem solved then, right? Nuclear power is risky, but with the safety measures in place we should be good to go?

Yeah well this is where it gets messy. Have a look at all the nuclear disasters to date and you’ll notice that there’s one very solid common theme: human error. Whether it was reckless override of a safety system, corruption and poor planning, or just an obscured indicator light that someone didn’t see, human error was the cause of every single one of these problems and here’s the kicker: it’s not going away anytime soon. Humans are by their nature fallible. We make mistakes, we have always made mistakes and so long as we can reasonably be described as human, we always will make mistakes. Plug this simple fact into the risk assessment of nuclear power and suddenly the ‘liklihood’ of an accident goes from ‘statistically low’ to ‘virtually guaranteed if you give us log enough’. For something like a car accident or even a plane accident where the potential consequences of this would be fairly low, this isn’t such a big deal and we’re happy to trust our fellow humans with this technology. But when you combine the Chernobyl-grade consequences of serious nuclear meltdown with the almost-certainty of humanity’s ability to mess with shit until we break it and suddenly nuclear power isn’t looking so great any more.

Sure you can argue that the modern nuclear industry is a thriving profession of the best and brightest, and that nuclear programs in most nations have gone off completely without a problem for decades. But even if the technology is perfect and the people running it are flawless geniuses (and I’m sure as hell not admitting to that), then consider who this incredibly industry will be ultimately reporting to: politicians. And as much as I hate playing this card for yet another week, I find myself with no choice but to point out that Donald Trump is STILL leading the Republican presidential polls.

This guy and the people that elected him in charge of regulating nuclear power plants. That ‘likelihood of accident’ metric just went off the god damn scale.


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