Liz Baker - Ethically Speaking

Our obligation to the future

The realities of global warming have finally risen over the political horizon, which means the issue of the energy we use so profligately has emerged from the shadows. Ethically speaking there are many interesting things to explore. One is how we generate electricity. Another is how we use both the electricity and the energy resources that provide it.

Id like to share a few thoughts on electricity generation and specifically the ethical issues associated with nuclear energy.

Oh no, you say, not that old chestnut!

Yes! The reason being there is one very important ethical issue being sidelined in the whole debate the responsibilities we owe, if any, to the people of the future.

Put aside the other, and significant, ethical questions of mining uranium, ownership of resources, environmental hazards, costs of nuclear production, location of power stations, use of water, and the dangers associated with generating power from nuclear reactions. All these raise the question of what consideration we owe, both as individuals and as a society, to other people. Usually we think in terms of other people we might know or at least could know. Could we look that person in the eye and honestly say that we considered their needs and did the best we could? But what about people we will never know? Total strangers, people of no relation to us, people who might have such different customs and beliefs that we cannot even communicate with them? People of 2150, of 3000, of 6000, of 100,000 years hence.

Imagine you knew you were going to meet someone who lives 10,000 years in the future and could communicate with them. How would you explain to them the reason why we thought it was okay to choose the one method for generating electricity, (out of the many available), that leaves waste that is lethal for hundreds of thousands of years? Imagine yourself in their position. Would you accept the argument that some people thought it would reduce emissions of greenhouse gases? Or that someone else assumed that one day we would have the technology to render the waste harmless and therefore it was okay to pile it up in the meantime? Or that we assumed the nuclear waste symbol would successfully tell people for tens of thousands of years into the future that the waste was lethal? I wouldnt accept these, would you?

Imagine that we knew that the people of the future could hold us to account for our decisions, in much the same way as a person alive now could. Imagine if the costs of storing the waste were brought forward to be paid for upfront. Would we be so willing to embrace nuclear power?

Quite apart from other issues, just the consideration we owe future generations is sufficient to conclude that nuclear power is not an option we should be continuing to use or to expand. As for why we need so much electricity and what we use that electricity for, well, thats another story ethically speaking.


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