Forum Summary: Nuclear Energy and Climate Change
What follows is a summary of the Meridian 180 forum "Nuclear Energy and Climate Change" (December-January 2015).
The Fukushima accident has brought new data and new urgency to the linked debates over the future of nuclear power and the need to decarbonize energy production. Yet five years after the disaster there remains no clear public consensus on either issue. Despite the burgeoning costs of the Fukushima crisis, many governments (including Japan’s) have committed to constructing new nuclear power plants or extending the life of existing ones. At the same time, many prominent environmentalists have embraced nuclear power as a sensible (or even crucial) part of a low-carbon energy mix. In the forum, moderator Rebecca Slayton (assistant professor of science and technology studies at Cornell University) invited Meridian 180 members to identify key issues that could benefit from further analysis.
Most of the 15 participants focused on the risk of nuclear accidents and associated questions of cost, regulation, oversight, and post-disaster management. Several argued for broadening conventional understandings of cost and risk to include emotional, social, cultural, and intangible losses. Others expressed concern about existing political, social, and intellectual capacities to avoid catastrophic events or to manage them when they occur. Several acknowledged the high cost of continued dependence on fossil fuels, but only one expressed optimism in nuclear power as an alternative.
In her summary at the close of the discussion, Rebecca Slayton identified governance as a particularly problematic area. She echoed another participant, Mary Mitchell of the University of Pennsylvania, in calling for a deeper analysis of who benefits and who loses in legal regimes governing the nuclear industry. As for next steps, Slayton suggested that the group consider working “to make visible the hidden social, cultural, and environmental costs of relying on fossil fuels as well as nuclear power… rather than (currently) more expensive but ultimately safer [renewable] sources.”
The four questions
In launching the forum, Slayton provided a brief literature review on “four interrelated debates about nuclear power: its necessity to combat climate change; the prospect of avoiding disasters; its propensity to encourage nuclear weapons proliferation and terrorism; and the role of nuclear power in creating or limiting global interdependencies and justice.” Those debates are presented below in the form of questions; participants’ comments are reorganized according to the questions they address. Additional issues are raised in the section that follows.
Is nuclear power necessary?
Slayton found that “major systematic analyses reach different conclusions” on the necessity of nuclear power as part of a global decarbonization strategy. For example, engineer Mark Jacobson of Stanford University argues that the world’s energy needs can be met entirely with wind, water, and sun, while another engineer, David MacKay of Cambridge University, argues that some nations or regions will need to develop nuclear power if they are unwilling or unable to buy electricity from elsewhere.
Anthropologist Kim Fortun of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the United States wrote that she does not support nuclear power but understands why it is given serious consideration in light of the enormous negative impacts of fossil fuels. She also points out that we don’t have the luxury of simply walking away from nuclear power as we need to maintain and decommission current nuclear facilities (many of which are aging and already beyond their planned life span), and to deal with existing nuclear waste far into the future.
Cheng Ji (vice general manager of Shanghai International Group) also emphasized the dangers of fossil fuels, which cause millions of deaths per year in addition to warming the plant. “People are always impressed with events which happen all of sudden, but indifferent to statistical data,” he wrote. “I wonder why people are much more afraid of nuclear plants than coal or oil.”
Haejoang Cho, a cultural anthropologist at Yonsei University in Korea, questioned whether more electrical power generation is really necessary for human development. “I have always argued that once a country's per capita GDP exceeds $20,000 it must wean itself of the paradigm of growth,” she wrote.
Is nuclear power too dangerous?
The discussion of the risk of nuclear power focused on (1) the probability of catastrophic accidents, (2) the true costs of those accidents, and (3) the technical and political capacity to prevent accidents and to manage them when they occur. There was also some discussion of the cost of the technology itself, and the social costs for producers of uranium and for communities where nuclear power plants operate.
In her introduction, Slayton discussed the concept of technological risk and the possibility of reducing risk over time. She cited sociologist Charles Perrow’s view that accidents are inevitable in all sociotechnical systems which are both complex and tightly-coupled, as nuclear reactors are; the question is whether a particular system’s risk is acceptable in light of its perceived benefits. In contrast, she wrote, social scientist Gene Rochlin argues that accidents can be avoided in “high reliability organizations,” which use appropriate management and technology.
In a later comment on this point, Slayton compared the nuclear industry to the airplane industry, citing work by sociologist John Downer. Aeronautics engineers have been able to learn from millions of airplane flights and thousands of accidents; changes have been incremental and relatively inexpensive to design and test. With nuclear plants, there is far less data and design changes are more difficult and expensive to make. Still, she wrote, “nuclear reactors may be safer than the fossil fuels that kill many people every year.”
Cheng Ji asserted that “the risks associated with nuclear power are likely to be less serious than those associated with the burning of fossil fuels…. I conclude that the safety issue of nuclear energy is a technological and managerial one.” In the end, he wrote, cost, not the fear of disaster, will likely determine whether nuclear power is widely adopted.
Vincent Ialenti (doctoral candidate in anthropology at Cornell) concurred on the importance of cost, and concluded that “the chances of a nuclear renaissance occurring in North America or Western Europe on a scale large enough to significantly mitigate climate change currently seems low.” Nuclear plants are expensive, slow to build, and hard to staff; when accidents occur, they are extremely costly. Gabrielle Hecht (professor of history at the University of Michigan) agreed that nuclear power is too expensive to be competitive, and suggested that governments focus on developing decentralized energy systems.
Hirokazu Miyazaki (professor of anthropology at Cornell) argued for an expansion of the concept of cost. “The social cost of nuclear energy is often invisible, unknown and long-term,” he wrote. “This is not only due to ever-expanding compensation claims for economic, psychological and social damage, but also to the effort invested in managing life after the disaster.”
Regarding society’s capacity to regulate the nuclear industry, Slayton noted that the commission investigating the Fukushima accident blamed the disaster in part on collusion between the nuclear industry and regulators.
Several participants mentioned the lack of public faith in regulatory bodies. Amy Levine, assistant professor in the Department of Global Studies at Pusan National University in Korea, noted that anti-nuclear activists in Korea and Japan have long talked about a “nuclear mafia” that includes both regulators and industry, and now the term and the concept are widely accepted in society.
Kim Fortun wrote of “what seems to me a fundamental lack of political will” to govern industrial risk in general and nuclear risk in particular. Regulation, she argued, is often corrupted by conflicts of interests, or just insufficient in reach. “Until we really invest in governance, and in the research and education needed to reinvent governance for our late industrial times, further investment in nuclear power needs to be off the table.”
Mary X. Mitchell (doctoral candidate in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania) connected the issues of cost and governance by questioning legal regimes that transfer much of the liability for nuclear accidents to the public. “I think it bears asking whether the extreme, long-term, often incalculable risks should be borne by the publics and environments who will suffer when a mishap occurs…. I hope that there might be new possibilities to discuss and reconsider who profits from nuclear energy, who bears the risks, and who pays for long-term, potentially catastrophic harms.”
Does nuclear power pose a security risk?
Slayton found disagreement in the literature about whether civilian and military (both state and non-state) uses of nuclear technology are necessarily linked. Clearly they are in some places (e.g., India and Pakistan), she wrote, but not in others. Although the civilian-military connection is actively debated in Japan, and has been central to the international discussion of Iran’s nuclear program, there were no additional comments on this question
Is nuclear power fundamentally unjust?
Slayton found serious questions in the literature about the fairness of energy systems built on highly expensive technologies, and that rely on resources that are not universally available and are difficult and dangerous to extract.
Gabrielle Hecht argued that poor people rarely benefit from enormous power plants or from uranium mining (which is notoriously dangerous). What is needed, she said, is a commitment to decentralized renewable power generation and to broad access. “I join those who argue that massive investments and rapid deployment of solar, wind, and hydro are the only realistic means of quickly providing energy to those who so desperately need it.”
Ashina Yuki, a lawyer working with victims of the Fukushima disaster, addressed the rights of those immediately affected by disasters. “If a nuclear power plant accident occurs, people’s lives around the plant will be fundamentally and unrecoverably destroyed…. I have seen people in despair, the lives they painstakingly built for themselves completely demolished by this accident.”
Xiaofei Xie (candidate for a master of laws degree at Cornell Law School) also urged participants to consider the people who live near power plants. She wrote that a planned plant in her home city of Qingdao, China, gives the local population nightmares. “Nuclear energy is a fatal weapon and nuclear accidents could destroy my lovely seaside home town once and for all.”
Hope and despair
Hirokazu Miyazaki noted that previous Meridian 180 forums had identified two related crises in the wake of the Fukushima disaster: a crisis of hope and a crisis of expertise. While intellectuals may have expected the Japanese people to reject nuclear power after the failure of experts and officials charged with protecting them, “what has unfolded… is a layering of dissonances of all kinds.” Miyazaki argued that the sense of uncertainty brought on by the crisis was “so profound and unbearable that many citizens just wanted to move on and embrace the excitement about Abenomics and the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.”
Satsuki Takahashi (assistant professor of anthropology at George Mason University), who has researched fishing communities in and near Fukushima, also observed this sense of optimism and excitement in the wake of the disaster. “I hear more stories of hope and the future now than I did 10 years ago,” she wrote.
Haejoang Cho wrote about elderly friend, an educated and respected physicist, whose ancestral region in Korea is being considered for a nuclear plant, “yet he keeps his silence.” She wondered why he was unwilling to speak up.
Weiwei Zhang (associate professor at Kenneth Wang School of Law, Soochow University, China) suggested that the apparently contradictory human response to the crisis reflects the dualistic nature of both western and East Asian culture: love is mixed with hatred, crisis is confronted by goodness. “Frankly,” she wrote, “this is the crisis of the limit of human rationality.”
Questions of scale
Shuhei Kimura (assistant professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Tsukuba) wrote that in Japan, “all discussion about nuclear energy is framed either as approval or disapproval of the Abe administration.” He argued against framing the discussion of nuclear power at a national or global scale, particularly in Japan, where municipalities decide to build nuclear plants. The consequences are local, he said, and local resistance has been successful in some places.
However, Hiroyuki Mori (professor at Ritsumeikan University College of Policy Science in Japan) cautioned that in Fukui Prefecture, “there was a horrible situation in which power companies attempted to conciliate local interested parties with bribes and municipalities put pressure on local residents who were opposed to nuclear power plants.”