Sustainable Nukes?

Filed under: 1sdn,Policy | |

Japan nuclear powerThe nuclear crisis in Japan is a wake up call demonstrating that nuclear power is not the silver bullet against climate change that governments and advocates have claimed. Much more effort, resources and political will has to be directed toward alternative sources of energy: energy saving, renewable, and changing of life styles.

by Andrew Crane, George R. Gardiner Professor of Business Ethics, Schulich School of Business in York University, Toronto and Dirk Matten,  Hewlett Packard Chair in Corporate Social Responsibility, Schulich School of Business in York University, Toronto. You can follow their latest thoughts on the Crane and Matten blog.

This weekend is another proof of the short-lived absurdities of international news cycles. While the revolution in Northern Africa/Libya is still ongoing but features rather low on news sites, academic scandals are forgotten totally, the earthquake plus tsunami in Japan has swept most other stories from the screen.

Fair enough. What we saw from Japan was harrowing. Crane & Matten have taught and worked with many Japanese students over the years and our thoughts have been with them these days. We hope them and their families are all fine and wish them our heartfelt best these days. Let us know how things are going!

One facet of the catastrophe though moves it clearly to a next level of watching some apocalyptic science fiction movie: We are talking about the ongoing news story about the explosion and potential meltdown of so far four nuclear reactors (by the time we write this). The nuclear beast is raising its ugly head again.

We remember when the Chernobyl accident happened in 1986 many western commentators put much of the blame on the allegation that the Soviets had old technology, did not run things properly and anyway, it just went to show that communists are nothing good at anything. Now – this is Japan, one of the high tech capitalist nations of the world. Sure, this was triggered by one of the top 5 earthquakes in history. But in Japan, earthquakes are not what snowstorms are in Britain. The Kobe earthquake which claimed six and a half thousand lives happened just 16 years ago.

The event hits at a time when nuclear power was experiencing a second spring in many industrial countries. [See The Nuclear Power Resurgence: How Safe Are the New Reactors?] As a carbon-free source of energy it seems a good alternative to fossil fuels, which are considered key drivers of climate change. Many countries which have been shying away from nuclear after Chernobyl or the Harrisburg incident in the US are now reconsidering their options. Finland has just built some new reactors, Obama has issued fresh permits for Uranium mining in Colorado, even Germany (which ruled it out 10 years ago) is prolonging the life-cycles of its existing plants – just to name a few examples.

While many experts in environmental politics considered the debate on nuclear power dead by the begin of the last decade, it is amazing to see that it has come back. The disaster unfolding as we speak in Japan though elucidates why a rational discourse on nuclear power is so difficult.

The main threats of this technology are consequences which are mostly uncertain or even unknown. In other words, these ‘risks’ – apart from a few accidents we have seen – entail consequences which humans normally will find difficult to imagine, much less, to calculate. The speculations on TV by ‘experts’ about what happens to Japan in case this really turns bad, just elucidate this. While the probability of nuclear incidents historically has been very low, the potential impact is without boundaries. Geographical boundaries, but also temporary ones: how long will people suffer from the fallouts we have already seen this weekend? Not to think about the worst case scenario…

Nuclear risks are unique. Their probability – from all we know – is rather low and since we have so little incidents, they are hardly calculable (unlike you car insurance, where we have ample data to establish probabilities). At the same time, the potential impact or damage of a nuclear accident goes toward infinity. Thus the normal way of assessing risks is rather difficult: a probability next to zero times a damage next to infinity – what exactly does this risk look like?

It is here where irrationality and ideology often fill a gap in the debate, as rational concepts fail to analyze the problem. This is exacerbated by the problem that nuclear risks are now ‘compared’ to the risks of global warming – which again is a risk which is difficult to calculate. Not many mathematical information exists on how likely the increase in temperature is. And even less information is available on how hard climate change will hit, where, when, who and which parts of the world. So, finding trade-offs between nuclear risks and climate change risks is next to impossible – proving another characteristic of those modern risks: their ‘incommensurability’, meaning, it is impossible to ‘compare’ and weigh these risks against each other.

So what hope is there after this wake-up call about the fact that nuclear is not the silver bullet against climate change? We have to accept that climate change is real (even though we can say little certain about how exactly it will hit us) and nuclear power is not a safe option either. We would argue that much more effort, resources and political will has to be directed toward alternative sources of energy: energy saving (by many accounts our largest resource), renewable, and life style changes. If the disaster in Japan would trigger that debate there is at least a glimmer of hope coming out of this unfolding catastrophe.


Andrew Crane and Dirk Matten are business school professors, both at the Schulich School of Business in York University, Toronto, who teach, research and write about corporate responsibility issues. They’ve published several popular books on business ethics and CSR, and between them have written hundreds of journal articles, conference papers and other assorted scribblings in this area. You can follow their latest thoughts on the Crane and Matten blog.

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Author: GEP- Admin (11 Articles)

  • Tom Mallard

    Nuclear plants are built near rivers and large bodies of water to cool the steam back down, emitting 60% of the original watt as heat-pollution directly into the world, the overheats the planet as good as anything and alone will continue to pollute this way.

    Nearly all power plants use steam so take two watts of power to put a watt on the wire, regardless of fuel, so nuclear advocates must show where their plants use co-generation (a few do but it’s costly so not done at all in a significant way). They know better … so it was done this way to save even more on the outrageous price tag of putting in a nuclear plant.

  • Arno A. Evers

    Tom, you are so right. But nobody, unfortenately, does want to hear this, though.
    And nobody wants to talk about it. Amnd nobody even wants to question this state-of-the-art.
    We are, in fact living in a very strange woprld. which allows us all to afford things like this…

  • daniel maris

    Having read up on this on the web, I am pretty convinced that the excess heat from nuclear power is not v. relevant to global warming. It is greenhouse gas chemicals that really contribute to global warming on a permanent basis by in effect making the “blanket” around the planet thicker.
    Excess heat will eventually get dispersed into outer space. There might be some miniscule short term effects.

    The arguments against nuclear power centre on the capacity for it to cause long lasting environmental disasters on a grand scale, as we now see in Japan. This risk can result from natural events such as earthquakes, human incompetence and deliberate acts of terrorism.

    I also argue against it on the basis that it is not really compatible with a free society, since it must be produced in conditions of secrecy.

  • Andrew Crane

    Thanks for the comments.
    As a follow-up, we were interested to read George Monbiot’s latest piece on this today. Always a staunch advocate of renewables, it’s interesting that he’s actually seeing the situation in Japan as a sign that nuclear should play a continued role in our energy mix:

  • daniel maris

    Monbiot is the worst sort of carbonista – the type who flies around the world in gas guzzling jets to tell the rest of the world to wear a hairshirt.

    Clearly if there is a definite feed-through from carbon to global warming, there will be problems for us. But hardly insurmountable ones, given the planet has often been 2-5 degrees warmer than now. Overall, potential food production should increase.

    I think Monbiot just wants to scare us into lower energy consumption. And he knows that telling greens they have to consider nuclear power certainly has shock value.

    Personally I am not a hairshirt green like Monbiot. I think we should press on with developing green energy solutions and increase our energy consumption, because that way lies the good life. We just have to accept we can’t do it on the cheap. It will cost a little more than relying on coal and gas (but will probably end up cheaper than nuclear).

    One thing is for sure, no true green can ever advocate nuclear power. We have been reminded by Japan’s experience it has the potential to lead to forced evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people (it could have been millions had it hit elsewhere), to cause direct deaths and deaths from radiation, to create a culture of secrecy, to poison the food supply and to wreck an economy (through delivery failure and knock on effects on sectors like tourism). Contrast that with say solar and wind. Also, I have read that the wind turbines in Japan have all survived the quake and tsunami very well.

  • Daniel Serrano

    This article is opportunistic and bombastic. The assertions made lack any kind scientific support. Some of the sentences are just frivolous: “At the same time, the potential impact or damage of a nuclear accident goes toward infinity.” Do the authors claim that the whole planet can melt down as a result of the accident in Japan? How do they define infinity? “Not many mathematical information exists on how likely the increase in temperature is.” I guess that the mathematical information will reach infinity growing asymptotically in a n-dimensional space. That reminds me a quote by Albert Einstein: “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” I concur.