Across the world, the contentious debate over the future of nuclear power
continues apace. In East Asia, for instance, it emerged earlier this month that
a nuclear plant in Taiwan may have been leaking radioactive water for three
years. Meanwhile, Japan is still struggling to contain radioactive water from
Fukushima, and in South Korea prosecutors are conducting a huge investigation
into forged nuclear safety certificates.
The old controversies over
nuclear reactors – their dangers, benefits and costs – remain at the fore. But
as politicians, energy experts and the general public weigh the pros and cons,
one key element in harnessing energy from the atom is being
That is, the link between the different methods of producing
nuclear power and the nature – and longevity – of the radioactive waste that
each method leaves behind.
This in turn raises the issue of
intergenerational justice: the technical choices we make today will determine
the extent of the burden humanity will face in containing contaminated
byproducts that can remain radioactive for thousands of years.
increasing number of states are being swayed by the fact that nuclear power can
enhance domestic energy security, produce large amounts of energy, and emit very
low greenhouse gas byproducts, critics nonetheless remain vociferous. They cite
the risk of reactor accidents, the dangers of transporting nuclear fuel and
fears of proliferation, and the vexing problem of how to deal with the
long-lived nuclear waste.
However, what is most striking is the “missing
nuclear debate.” Little is said about the major distinctions between the various
production methods, or nuclear fuel cycles. Rather than reducing nuclear power
to a simple yes/no, good/bad dichotomy, we need to focus first on the advantages
and disadvantages of each nuclear energy production method, including the
burdens and benefits they pose now and in generations to come.
ONE OF the
key differentiating features between the various production methods is the
nature of waste that is produced after irradiating fuel in a reactor. In the
so-called open fuel cycle (common in countries including the United States and
Sweden) spent fuel is generally disposed of as waste that will remain
radioactive for 200,000 years.
In the alternative, known as the closed
fuel cycle, spent fuel is reprocessed in order to extract the redeployable
uranium and plutonium, which are then re-entered into the fuel cycle. In the
closed fuel cycle, the lifetime of radioactive waste is reduced to about 10,000
Approached from the framework of intergenerational justice, there
is a strong case for arguing that people living today should deal with the
burdens of nuclear power because we enjoy the lion’s share of benefits. Thus,
from a moral point of view, if we want to keep developing nuclear power, the
closed fuel cycle is preferable because it reduces radioactive lifetime of waste
and the burdens on future generations.
However, the closed cycle brings
about another intergenerational dilemma. In order to reduce concern for future
generations, we will create short-term safety, security and economic burdens for
people currently alive.
Nuclear reprocessing itself is a complex and
costly chemical process. More importantly, the plutonium separated during
reprocessing in the closed cycle method raises the risk of proliferation of
A nuclear weapon with the yield of the Nagasaki bomb
could be manufactured with a couple of kilograms of plutonium.
though civilian plutonium emanating from energy reactors is not weapongrade and
directly usable for a bomb, it still has some destructive powers.
to ensure that promoting the closed cycle method does not spread even more
nuclear weapons. While new members of the IAEA have the right to pursue the
closed fuel cycle for civil purposes, promoting this cycle poses serious
A notable example here is Iran, which insists
on reprocessing spent fuel of its single reactor in Bushehr. Serious
technological and policy attempts are being made to limit the dangers of
proliferation in reprocessing.
But there is an even better prospect for
easing the future burden: the development of socalled fast reactors capable of
reducing the lifetime of radioactive waste to a couple of hundred years. This
involves the development of extended closed fuel cycles based on multiple
recycling and new reactor technology. This method, referred to as Partitioning
and Transmutation (P&T) has been scientifically proven but may require
decades of development before it can be practically applied. Nonetheless,
P&T represents a potential breakthrough that could genuinely transform the
Several countries that use nuclear power on a large scale,
including China, have decided to build more reactors.
members of the nuclear energy club with longstanding reservations over future
expansion, such as Switzerland, are now re-evaluating their stance. Meanwhile,
there is a growing push elsewhere in the world toward the adoption of nuclear
The IAEA estimates that around 50 countries will have nuclear
reactors by 2030 – up from 29 today. If these projections are borne out, the 432
nuclear reactors currently operable around the world will be joined by more than
500 others within the next few decades.
This trend doesn’t make the
debate about nuclear any less contentious. The polarization of the debate
illustrates why the development of new fuel cycles like P&T technology
should move to the fore of nuclear energy policy considerations, alongside
greater discussion of the pros and cons of the open fuel and closed fuel cycle
The debate needs to become more enlightened and inclusive of
future technological prospects – and more reflective of the quest for
intergenerational justice. It is only on those terms that we can compare nuclear
with other energies, such as coal, which can help us answer the thorny question
of whether nuclear power has a role to play in the future energy mix and
combating climate change.
The writer is an assistant professor of
philosophy at the Delft University of Technology who concentrates on issues of
ethics and nuclear power.