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Ethical Approach to Nuclear Energy Systems


Nowadays much attention is paid to analysis of application of various sources of energy. Nuclear power represents rather beneficial source of electric power because it enables to obtain relatively safe and cheap electricity. However, its usage poses enormous threats to current and future generations. The performance of nuclear power stations will be analyzed from the standpoint of ethics of science since these plants are considered to constitute a menace due to overestimation of potential benefits and underestimation of potential risks, rather than any issues in engineering. The analysis will be made by taking into account such notions as intrinsic and extrinsic values, utilitarianism and ethics of justice to contemporary and succeeding generations. The precise examination of the use of nuclear energy from the perspective of different concepts will contribute to understanding whether it is ethical or not.

Ethics in Science and Ethics in Engineering

The ethical approach to nuclear energy can be discussed from the viewpoint of science and engineering. Ethical norms in science create the framework of aims of scientific research represented by searching for truth and avoidance of errors. In the context of this work, one of the major goals of development of scientific energy can be determined as the pursuit of safe and cheap sources of energy. Moreover, ethics in science undermines promotion of the values which assure smooth cooperation among researchers, accountability to society, formation of public support to the study, as well as other moral and social values (for example, social responsibility).

In contrast to ethics in science, ethics in engineering represents the set of moral norms and principles connected with the very process of engineering, i.e. applied knowledge. Engineers should draw attention to the paramount importance of safety and welfare of the community during fulfillment of their tasks. Any mistake or misconduct can cause significant threats to the environment and humanity.

The present paper will focus on ethics in science and its application to nuclear energy systems. The major emphasis will be made on the aims and development of this source of energy and their ethical reflections. Thus, the issue of nuclear energy production is strongly considered to concern overestimation of its potential benefits and underestimation of dangers with regard to the nature and humankind instead of errors of engineers.

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Ethical Approach to Nuclear Energy Systems

Relevance of the Discussion

Currently nuclear power development receives rather high attention from the society. On the one hand, it serves as an alternative sources of energy based on carbon. However, on the other hand, nuclear energy seriously jeopardizes people and the wildlife. The debate with respect to ethics of application of this power source covers various topics, which will be introduced in this essay.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Values of Nuclear Power

There are two types of values: extrinsic and intrinsic. The first one “arises from the relationships between the valued object as the valuing observer”. Nature conservation is vital for the survival of humanity. Thus, the environment and its protection have enormous extrinsic value for people: “nature should be protected only so far as it concerns humans’ well-being, since nature only has a value for the sake of humans according to this tradition”. Consequently, there should exist some limitations in exploitation of natural resources in order to eliminate excessive harm.

From one perspective, development and use of nuclear energy can be regarded as an immense extrinsic value for the society and surroundings because of numerous benefits provided by this source of power. However, closer consideration of each advantage gives a precise understanding that any saving has its dangerous side that causes far greater harm to the environment as well as the public. One of the most compelling arguments for the advancement of nuclear energy is its potential safety of electricity generation. In addition, this power does not emit toxic substances into the atmosphere, namely carbon dioxide. Absence of greenhouse gas emission entails no negative contribution to global warming. Nevertheless, even without catastrophic events, such as earthquakes and tsunamis, which lead to calamities in nuclear power stations and spread of radiation, the usage of nuclear energy cannot be considered totally safe because it is closely connected with the production of nuclear wastes. The latter are represented by solids, liquids and gases, which are generated during the production of the discussed source of power. The huge amount of these remains will still be hazardous for thousands of years and will poison the entire living world. For example, during the process of milling, the major portion of radioactivity was left undissolved in the mill tailings. The process of mining “brings to the surface the natural radioactivity in uranium-bearing rocks”. The negative impact on the environment is represented by “contamination of soil, water and air through mine waste and uranium tailings”. Consequently, even without taking into account the enormous harm from the freed radiation after accidents at nuclear power plants, generation of this source of energy does not eliminate hazard to the Earth. Thus, its application can be viewed unethical with respect to the extrinsic value.

Intrinsic value is related to the set of beliefs widely known as ecocentrism. Ecocentrists undermine the idea that humanity is an integral part of nature. Thus, people are obliged to manage usage of resources as well as waste production and pay additional attention to the appropriateness of science and technologies for the avoidance of significant long-term damage with the aim to resolve short-term issues.

The matter of intrinsic value provides understanding why the use of nuclear energy is regarded as unacceptable. Despite the fact that this source of electricity can resolve some short-term problems, such as lowering carbon dioxide emission and decreasing operational costs, it still presents significant threat to the surroundings in the long-term perspective. Hence, this menace is demonstrated by the above-mentioned radiation in the form of waste, radiation from catastrophes, and enormous financial burden on the society caused by the necessity of manufacturing of nuclear power stations, their maintenance, and operating.

Utilitarianism, Ethics of Justice and Nuclear Energy Systems

The topic can be described from the standpoint of two ethical theories: utilitarianism and ethics of justice. The term utilitarianism refers to the morality and usefulness of act, i.e. the deed or event is viewed to be good when it is beneficial. People consider usefulness in respect of themselves and others. Furthermore, it is closely connected with happiness and joy. With regard to energy generation, it may be seen as having as much power as possible for the greatest number of people with the minimum extent of evil, i.e. sufferings.

On perfunctory consideration, the desire to produce energy with the help of nuclear power has to be examined. Many people obtain the ability to receive cheap and safe electricity within short period and pay little for its production. However, closer exploration of the discussed topic grades all these benefits. The construction of nuclear power plants is a rather costly process because it requires complex technological solutions and high preciseness for minimization of possibilities of any catastrophes and elimination of radiation spreading. Furthermore, the operation of these industrial units is rather expensive, as it requires large infrastructure for mining and transportation of uranium and radioactive wastes. Time required for performance of all necessary calculations, arrangement of formalities, planning and construction of new nuclear power stations is rather long. It may range from 20 to 30 years. Therefore, generation of electricity by nuclear power stations is quite an extensive process. Additional attention should be paid to serious harm from radioactive remains and potential accidents. Prior to designation and realization of effective and efficient methods of storage of radioactive waste, the negative consequences of nuclear energy systems will be far greater than potential advantages.

Moreover, the emphasis should be put on the unequal distribution of social wealth and threats from the generation of nuclear electricity. The financial benefits from the cheap energy are obtained by the citizens of the state where nuclear power plant is located, while radiation from wastes and catastrophes spreads far beyond the borders of this country. Hence, this statement is based on understanding that radioactive pollution has transboundary effect and can easily transmit from one location to another in gaseous phase or by means of water. Thus, the nations, which are situated next to the one that uses nuclear power, are also in great danger, while they do not receive no any financial refurbishments from this situation.

Consequently, peril and benefits of nuclear energy systems provide the precise realizing that from the utilitarian perspective, production of energy in regards to this approach is unethical enactment.

The ethics of justice is based on the following concepts: do not inflict harm to anyone, help others, and comply with rules of cooperation. Moreover, according to the universal and egalitarian concept of ethics, one should not use other people and means in order to earn profit. Thus, everyone has equal rights and duties. In assessment of the ethnicity of nuclear energy usage, ethics of justice can be applied both to the present and future generations.

For the contemporary humankind justice refers to the potential advantages and risks associated with the nuclear power at the moment. Benefits can include the concept of assisting people and nature in acquiring cheaper and safer energy. However, such power entails significant extent of jeopardy that cannot be totally eliminated, even while disregarding the catastrophes.

The example of the existing controversy in ethics of application of nuclear energy can be seen in geographical justice even within the borders of one country. In the majority of cases, nuclear waste storage facilities are located in rural areas far away from densely populated regions. On the one hand, such an approach has been designed for protection of the larger number of population from the harmful effect of radiation. However, on the other hand, it significantly affects citizens of the countryside. In such a manner, a particular group of people benefits from the nuclear energy, while another one carriers the burden. In the context of geographical justice of nuclear energy application and radioactive waste storage, there exist the following dilemmas: consent, decision-making, and standards of protection. All the persons directly or indirectly involved in the process of generation of nuclear energy and those whose lives can be harmed by negative consequences of this kind of power should be properly informed about all the threats. Thus, these individuals should provide their conscious consent that they understand and accept all the advantages and perils. However, it is obvious that it would be rather difficult to inform and obtain such a confirmation from thousands of people potentially engaged in the process of nuclear energy production. Moreover, currently, this consent is not gained from the members of the society. The decisions concerning building nuclear power stations are not discussed with the community. Therefore, the dilemma of consent is closely connected with the dilemma of decision-making namely: should the local authorities or the citizens have the right to veto construction and work of nuclear power plants, even if researchers and government indicate that the location is the best in the state?. On the one hand, people should take an active part in controlling formation of their living environment and facilities, which can jeopardize their life. On the other hand, scientists and politicians may have better awareness of the most suitable location of the plants that would have minimum negative impact on the greater number of residents. However, it is evident, that total elimination of harm from radioactive wastes and threats of spreading radiation to catastrophes is impossible. The special research performed in Yucca Mountain provides the evidence that one does not support the initiative to store radioactive remains nearby the place of living even after granting sufficient financial compensation in the form of tax reduction, because the burdens are greater than benefits. Notably, nowadays the governments do not even discuss their decision to locate nuclear power stations and storage facilities in some particular areas. That means that human rights are violated. Furthermore, this aspect makes it clear that the usage of nuclear energy systems can be considered unethical.

The last dilemma concerns standards of acceptable risks. In the context of the current essay, it will be defined as the seriousness of danger posed by the undesirable course of events. In the modern world, the necessity and dependency from technologies rapidly increased and entailed rise of possibilities of their failure. On the one hand, the society should deal with the negative outcome of energy sources and should develop the new means of energy production, one of which is nuclear stations. From one perspective, the work of these plants jeopardizes humanity and the environment. In analysis of nuclear risks, one should place the emphasis not only on the calculation of the probability of occurrence of any dangerous situation, but also on threatening odds of losing control and significant catastrophe with fatal outcome. The nuclear energy puts people and nature in danger more than other sources of damage, such as alcohol. Thus, this hazard should be reduced to the greatest extent by imposing sharp regulations.

The risk judgement of nuclear energy systems should be performed by accounting for the following risk factors: likelihood of serious disasters, distribution in time, and chances to avoid peril. As it was mentioned above, the risk with little chances of happening but with severe consequences should be estimated as rather serious. Moreover, despite the preciseness of modern predictions and numerous precautions, scientists cannot regard all possible issues, which may contribute to risk development. The additional attention should be paid to the delay between making predictions and its actual realization. At that time, new aspects, which may induce the occurrence of accident, may arise. Furthermore, the influence of radiation (either produced by waste or a result of catastrophe) on future generations is another important matter. The possibility to avoid risk plays a significant role in discussion of ethics of nuclear energy use. One person that lives nearby the nuclear power station has no possibility to avoid or even decrease harm of radiation on his/her own.

Justification of nuclear power exploitation should be also considered from the viewpoint of benefits and threats to future generations. Hence, this is reflected in the statement that human descendants should not have worse environmental situation than modern people because of contemporary activities. At the same time, the modern generation “might be able to asymmetrically influence their [future generations’] interests” and “exploit its temporal position and to visit costs on future generations”. Therefore, now humanity should think not only about obtaining short-term bonuses, but also about preservation of current state of the nature for those who will live on the Earth within the nearest hundreds of years. Consequently, justice to future generations implies responsible actions today, i.e. taking responsibility for the expected and possible outcome of handling of certain operations. In the context of the paper that means that modern humans should be held accountable for potential dangers posed by radiation from nuclear wastes and calamities.

On the one hand, this source of energy enables to preserve non-renewable power sources (such as coal), decrease the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and sharpening of greenhouse effect. However, similar advantages can be obtained by using other alternative sources of energy, namely power of the sun and wind. On the other hand, the nuclear power is connected with the enormous threat of radiation that has significant long-lasting effect. The negative consequences (for example, cancer from low radiation doses) may continue for hundreds of years. Hence, it may be concluded that a long-term burden of nuclear power spreads over generations and is far greater than potential benefits. Therefore, it is considered to be highly unethical.


To summarize, the ethics of science of application of nuclear energy systems plays the key role in consideration of the ethicity of such usage. Hence, this statement is based on realizing that the greatest threat of source of power lies in overestimation of potential benefits and underestimation of risks, i.e. the misunderstanding of the real cost of power utilization. The major part of the work is devoted to disclosure of dangers of nuclear power with making the emphasis that these hazards are on the extremely high level even in the absence of catastrophic events. The nuclear energy generation is associated with production of great amount of radioactive waste that harms people and environment. Thus, nuclear energy is not safe. Moreover, it is rather costly and time-consuming. Therefore, these aspects grade the potential conveniances from application of this source of power. The precise exploration of intrinsic and extrinsic values maintained that the utilization of nuclear energy is unethical. The radioactivity issue remains unresolved in mill tailings and can easily spread in the air, water and soil. Hence, it is rather dangerous for the living world. Additionally, this radioactivity causes significant long-term damage. Unethicity of nuclear energy systems is supported by utilitarian concept. The advantages that can be granted to the society for production of nuclear power and holding of nuclear wastes do not cover the extent of potential threats. The concept of ethics of justice also shows that the use of such power poses more risks to the current and future generations, than merits.

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