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Ethics of nuclear energy

Wednesday, September 07, 2016
Nuclear power is a hot topic in the media at the moment, as our old power stations (coal as well as nuclear) are ageing and need to be closed in the next few years. This will mean less and less generating capacity to maintain national electricity supplies. Fewer stations mean at some point in the near future there will be a risk of power cuts. At the same time, we need to have secure and affordable energy supplies, whilst reducing carbon emissions. Building new nuclear power stations is, broadly speaking, a moral issue. The main ethical problem with nuclear energy (even with strict operational safety) is the stewardship of nuclear waste. Future generations may not have the technology to safely contain or dispose of highly radioactive waste, and theologically it would be immoral to adopt a view that we should leave the problem to future generations.

At the moment, high-level waste from the world’s nuclear reactors is stored in overground storage areas. This is deadly radioactive waste, and requires special handling and treatment. As a permanent solution, nuclear waste needs to be stored deep underground. An alternative is to re-process the waste and use it as a fuel in specialised nuclear reactors, with the aim of eventually reducing our stockpile of nuclear waste. If nations continue to build new nuclear power facilities, we will create more high-level waste, and we must plan for how this is to be disposed of. Despite new technologies that might develop, we will almost certainly need deep geological disposal of at least some of the nuclear waste that has accumulated over the years. This means tunnelling hundreds of metres underground, creating massive man-made caverns where the waste can be stored. Eventually these sites will be sealed off totally and buried in rock, ensuring there is no leakage of any radioactive material into the environment.

In the 2010 documentary Into Eternity, scientists and engineers involved in building Finland’s nuclear waste repository at Onkalo were asked what they would say to earth’s inhabitants in hundreds or thousands of years, who might try to access what lies in this mysterious, sealed off tomb. “I would love to be able to meet you and be able to communicate with you. But you have now reached a place where you should not have come. You are now in a place where we have buried something from you, in order to protect you…We also need you to know, that this place should not be disturbed, and this is not a place for you to live in. You should stay away from this place and then you will be safe…Go back up to the surface, and take better care of our world than we once did. You are now entering a repository of nuclear waste. Down here, radiation is everywhere. It is the last glow of my civilisation that harvested the powers of the universe”[1]

Above: Deep underground inside the network of tunnels in Onkalo, Finland

It is a great achievement that humanity can harvest the ‘powers of the universe’. However, this achievement has also brought long-term problems. The material produced from nuclear fission reactors remains deadly radioactive and hazardous to all life for around 100,000 years. From a Christian perspective, this is an interesting thought. Planning for waste to be sealed away from humans for tens of thousands of years, means planning for the future on a timescale where the second coming of Christ could be thousands, or indeed tens of thousands of years from now. 

So why don’t we stop using nuclear energy completely? Nuclear energy has many benefits compared with fossil fuels and renewable energy. It is an excellent source of ‘baseload’ electricity, which runs constantly, unlike the power of the wind or the sun[2]. Nuclear power works well in maintaining a constant supply of electricity, which can be topped up with the less reliable wind, solar and hydroelectric sources of power. Fossil fuels can also produce this baseload and are currently part of the energy mix. In comparison, nuclear energy produces far fewer carbon emissions which contribute to global climate change. The environmental impact of nuclear power is primarily in the relatively small volume of deadly waste products.

What is the official position of the Church on nuclear energy? The Vatican tends to view nuclear energy as being acceptable as part of a civil programme that enables the authentic development of peoples, providing energy resources whilst also respecting the environment[3]. High-ranking Church authorities in the Vatican also recognise the challenges connected with developing safe nuclear energy. There is also the problem of when things go wrong with nuclear energy. The Bishops’ Conference in Japan, after the Fukushima disaster in 2011, called for the Japanese Government to close all nuclear stations. Bishops’ conferences in other parts of the world have made similar official statements against nuclear power. It is unclear what can be said of an official Church teaching on nuclear energy, other than the highest Church authorities do not oppose civil nuclear power in principle, provided the facilities are well-designed and operated safely. What is clear is that a supply of reliable electricity enables economic growth in developing nations, and nuclear power might be attractive in meeting energy demand without increasing ‘carbon emissions’. It is ultimately up to individual nation states to decide if nuclear power should be part of ‘authentic development’ of peoples.

It is my own view that in the United Kingdom we should develop new nuclear facilities in order to meet our energy demands. From a moral perspective, if more nuclear stations are to be approved, we need to also come up with a longer term solution of dealing with a toxic legacy, which means finding a site for the deep geological disposal of the high-level waste that will be produced. There are many differing opinions on the issue, so for the moment we will need to get used to more newspaper headlines on an issue which overlaps with Catholic stewardship of the created world.

Luke Doherty O.P.

Fr Luke Doherty is assistant priest at Holy Cross, Leicester, and Catholic Chaplain to HMP Leicester |  luke.doherty@english.op.org

[1] Nuclear waste documentary film, "Into Eternity”. (2010), directed by Michael Madsen.

[2] Paul Younger. Energy: all that matters, pp.50-51

[3] Address by Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for Relations with States of the Holy See, at the 56th General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Vienna, September 2012. Article available from: https://zenit.org/articles/vatican-official-calls-for-peaceful-use-of-nuclear-energy/


Barbara Ren commented on 16-Sep-2016 09:06 AM
Thank you for these thoughts. I am conflicted over the use of nuclear power but I understand that green options will not, at present provide the energy we need. I hope and pray that the ingenuity of man will, in time, find a solution for the safe use or disposal of nuclear waste.

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