A subject of debate in environmental circles revolves around whether the successful 70s opposition to nuclear power was a wise idea. At the time, it was never thought of as a choice between nuclear and coal, it was thought of simply as fear of the dangers of nuclear. Unexpectedly, it ended up being a push for coal, which of course kills far more people and emits more radiation than U.S. nuclear plants ever have.
But today, the big question remains of what to do with the waste. As I wrote earlier, if you accept the most dire global warming predictions, the worst waste predictions are quite tame by comparison.
But here’s another way to examine the question, in terms of moral duty. Nuclear power has a serious waste concern, and it is as yet uncertain how best to deal with it. But now, fossil fuels also have a serious waste concern from both particulates and CO2, and it is also uncertain how to deal with it. However, in many circles, there is very high confidence that there are extreme dangers from CO2.
Here’s the difference: What is done by the CO2 we emit is done to the whole world. The problems caused by it will be borne by the whole world. In fact, there are good arguments that while the USA and developed world produce most of the CO2 emissions, they will suffer a minority of the damage. The problems of nuclear power, however, largely remain within the country. If there is a nuclear waste problem, it’s our problem. If there is a meltdown, it’s our land that is ruined, our people killed. (At least in places like the USA where there are not foreigners living near/downwind from most nuclear reactors.)
Both choices, nuclear and fossil have predicted risks. But very different sets of people who pay the price. This makes it hard to say that the moral choice is fossil fuel over nukes.
Well, of course, the even more moral choice is to cut back on energy use and develop cleaner power. And both of those tasks are being worked hard upon. But it would be foolish to just assume we will reach quick success on this, and not still have to make the nuclear vs. coal/fossil choice for a few decades. Perhaps we won’t, but can we bet on it?
As always, there are some complicating issues. Nuclear power sometimes begets nuclear weapons, so it can’t be used everywhere. And it can certainly be argued that the problems of nuclear waste are visited not upon foreigners, but upon our descendants. But again, they are our descendants, and will still have more right to foist problems on them than we do on remote peoples. This argument could also apply to environmentally destructive hydro power, which again destroys our river valleys and animals, not somebody else’s.
It is, of course, for this very reason that fossil fuels have had some advantages. Almost all pollution has been driven by the fact that you can foist your waste problems off on somebody else. If they lived in the same legal jurisdiction, they eventually got power to stop you, but it always took a while.