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The Ethics Surrounding Nuclear Energy Politics Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Electricity plays an increasingly important role in our everyday lives. Heating our homes, powering our electronics, and keeping our cities running requires a tremendous amount of electricity. The United States rising demand in electricity paired with their stringent environmental standards have put energy generation efforts in a tight spot. Coal and natural gas energy generation accounted for nearly sixty-eight percent of all electrical transmission in 2012. In contrast, only nineteen percent came from nuclear sources down a third of a percent from 2011 (eia.gov/electricity). I will prove that nuclear generation is a safe, clean, and efficient source of energy with the ethical theories of Kant, Rawls, and Act Utilitarianism and back it up with credible data.

A little background is needed on the subject to fully understand the situation. In 1789, Martin Klaproth discovered the element Uranium, lighting the path towards nuclear generation. For 150 years there was no news on the front of nuclear generation. In 1939, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman demonstrated that nuclear fission would give off incredible amounts of energy. In the future, it will be shown that this energy could be used in great or terrible ways. By 1941, the MAUD Committee, comprised of a group of respected scientists, published two important summaries. They were titled: “Use of Uranium as a Source of Power” and “Use of Uranium for a Bomb” (world-nuclear.org). At the time, a stronger focus was put on the second due to the World War II efforts around the world. In America, interest in the second paper and the creation of the Manhattan Project took place after the events at Pearl Harbor. The Manhattan Project was a government funded project in which scientists took on the task of enrich Uranium into the isotope U-235. In addition to the uses it has for war, it was noted that the isotope could also be used in peaceful ways. In August of 1945, the efforts of the Manhattan Project finally came to fruition. A nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

With World War II effectively over, attention was now directed on the first paper published by the MAUD Committee, “Use of Uranium as a Power Source”. Utilizing the efforts of the Manhattan Project, America would have a head start developing a process of using the heat created by nuclear fission as a source of power. By 1951, the first prototype of a nuclear reactor was revealed (world-nuclear.org). Although this prototype only produced a small amount of electricity, it demonstrated the potential that was there. In 1953, Eisenhower backed this work with his “Atom’s for Peace” program. This program rerouted funding from nuclear weapons to nuclear power (world-nuclear.org).

Once into the 1960s, the technology was ready to be used commercially. Some of the nuclear reactors designed by General Electric and Westinghouse were in use until the 1990s (world-nuclear.org). The United States has had a constant sixteen to nineteen percent of electrical generation due to nuclear sources since then. During this time, there has been less of an interest in expanding and building new nuclear power plants. Even though there has been improvements made to the design of power plants, there has been no new demand to expand upon the already in place infrastructure. China has overtaken the United States in nuclear energy with plans to expand its nuclear output six times what it is by 2020 (world-nuclear.org). There are other places around the world investing in nuclear energy, including India, Japan, and South Korea.

The question we have to ask ourselves is when the subject of nuclear energy comes up is: Can the research and development of nuclear energy sources be done while maintain an upholding the safety of the people around them? If not, is it then ethically correct to continue even with all the energy it breaks to the numerous communities? I will answer these questions and back it up with the data I have found.

I first decided to run these questions through Kant’s ethical theory. When using the formula of the universal law of nature a generalized maxim can be made: “One shall utilize and develop for an energy source if, and only if, it does not harm the people in the surrounding area and it is beneficial to the nation.” To defend this maxim, one would have to know how a nuclear power plant affects the area it is utilized. In terms of Act Utilitarianism, nuclear power generation would have to have a greater net benefit to be considered ethical. To determine this, we must first analyze the reliability and safety of nuclear energy.

Reliable and safe energy is in high demand nowadays and recently much attention has been put on the environmentally friendliness of the generation of this energy. CO2, or carbon dioxide, emissions have become known as a highly recognized contributor to global warming and have help put the spotlight on safe energy generation. There have only been few noteworthy disasters throughout nuclear power’s history. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima are some of these noteworthy disasters. When mishandled, nuclear power can be incredibly dangerous. In an article written by Head and Hall, compares the risk of radioactive waste or a critical failure of a plant to that of getting struck by lightning. With arduous industry regulation the chance of these failures happening is insignificant. Since the industry is relatively new, it has been more heavily regulated with every failure that occurs.

During the Three Mile Island critical failure of 1974, an irregular amount of radioactive gas was released. The generating unit was also effectively destroyed. Contrary to what most people thought, there were no deaths, injuries, or adverse health effects cause by the failure (world-nuclear.org). Although this failure resulted in no adverse effects, it did put pressure on nuclear power in the United States.

It is important to analyze the impact on the environment from the CO2 emissions due to nuclear power generation. In 2011, there were nearly 2.3 million-thousand metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions due to electrical generation plants (eia.gov). For every kilowatt hour of electricity produced, there were 9 to 21 grams of carbon dioxide emissions (world-nuclear.org). There are no emissions that come directly from the nuclear plants or reactors, but from indirect sources such as the mining and transportation of Uranium. Emissions created by nuclear power generation are equal to between 1 and 3 percent of the emissions produced by typical coal burning plants. As you can see, it is much cleaner, in that sense, than the forms of power generation we currently rely on.

As clean as nuclear power is in terms of emissions, it does encounter some problems when it comes to waste. The treatment and disposal of nuclear waste is another reason why nuclear power has not been fully accepted in the United States. Inaccurate information about nuclear waste is spread by non-governmental organizations, claims Poletti, a professor and power engineer. All cycles in a nuclear fuel life cycle produce radioactive nuclear waste according to the World Nuclear Association, but can be appropriately and safely dealt with if done correctly. There are three types of radioactive waste in a nuclear life cycle: low, intermediate, and high level waste. All forms of waste can be handled with ease, with the exception of high level waste. This type of waste is harder to take care of and requires a great deal of care since it contains used fuel and the other waste products separated from the fuel. To take care of this waste, it is first stored in a reinforced concrete and steel structure. These are then placed in a “cooling pond”. After staying there for five years it is then transported to a “multiple barrier geological disposal” (world-nuclear.org). One of these sites is typically located in a hollowed out mountain-like structure.

These regulations show that waste from all nuclear power plants can be taken care of in a safe manner with little to no risk to the general public and environment. Nuclear waste also accounts for less than one percent of total industrial toxic waste (world-nuclear.org). By analyzing this data, we have found that some aspects of each ethical theory can be satisfied.

The other factor we have to consider is if the development of nuclear power facilities should be prioritized over traditional sources of energy generation. Nuclear power was responsible for almost ten percent of the United States total electrical capacity (“Existing Capacity by Energy Source, 2011). The supply of electricity generated by nuclear power plants accounted for nearly twenty percent of the total electrical supply (“Where Does US Electricity Come From?”). The difference here is that for all the energy used, twenty percent of it came from nuclear sources while only ten percent of our potential capacity of electricity is in nuclear form. The reason for this is that nuclear fission is a continuous process. Once begun, it must continue and can be a source of energy that can constantly be drawn from.

Seventy percent of our energy capacity is in the form of coal and natural gas. Of that seventy percent, sixty-five percent of it is used. To generate that much power it takes a total of 6,925 coal and natural gas generation units. For nuclear energy source to generate twenty percent of our consumed energy, it takes 104 units. If nuclear energy were to generate as much as coal and natural gas combined, it would take a total of 338 nuclear generation units. It takes far less nuclear plants and reactors to generate the same amount of energy, with a fraction of the emissions (world-nuclear).

Many of the nuclear reactors were built in the 1960s and 70s. At this time, many of the generators were generating 250 megawatts. During this time many of the nuclear reactors began to “brown out”, or improve their technology and efficiency while retiring more units than you are producing. The increase in efficiency can be seen across Asia and Europe. Both Japan and France began replacing many of their nuclear reactors in the early 2000s, with new ones as large as 1,650 megawatts (world-nuclear.org). In the last 50 years, the output of nuclear reactors has increased by nearly 7 times. Many of the reactors in the United States have not been improved upon and continue to operate with a lower output than they should be. The Energy Policy Act, enacted in 2005, presented incentives to the industry for building next-generation nuclear reactors.

The technology for nuclear reactors and plants has been advancing ever since it was created. Due to upgrades in technology and a growing demand for energy in the 1980s, the load capacity and output grew tremendously. This can be seen even into today. Research is constantly being done to improve upon this technology. Alternatives to uranium are being researched, a second burning technique to get rid of the nuclear waste is being researched, and much more. An example of this can be seen with Thorium research (world-nuclear.org).

I personally believe that the United States should invest more into the development of more nuclear reactors and plants. There is an ample amount of data supporting this claim. It is very safe for the environment and the people surrounding the plant and it is also more efficient and eco-friendly than our current alternatives.

The question I ask is: Can the research and development of nuclear energy sources be done while maintain an upholding the safety of the people around them? If not, is it then ethically correct to continue even with all the energy it breaks to the numerous communities? I choose to use the ethical theories of Kant and Act Utilitarianism to help answer these questions.

When using Kant’s theory, like I stated above, I created the maxim: “One shall utilize and develop for an energy source if, and only if, it does not harm the people in the surrounding area and it is beneficial to the nation.” Defending this maxim is fairly easy. As we found out above, nuclear energy is far less harmful to the Earth and people in the surrounding area since it has much lower CO2 emissions and its waste can be stored in such a way that does no harm. After knowing this information, it is easy to see that one would want to research, develop, and utilize for nuclear energy since it defends the maxim.

When using Kant’s Formula of Humanity, I believe it is fairly easy to defend as well. The Formula of Humanity states that when deciding on whether or not to commit an action that you shall only commit that action if you use people as an ends and not as means to your end. When it comes to this, I assume that the end is getting the energy from the nuclear plants to the nation. In the end, the people are the ones benefitting, and are not being used to achieve your goal.

Using Act Utilitarianism, a similar result is produced. We can split each consequence of developing and utilizing nuclear power into the two categories of hedons and miserons. Hedons being for the development and utilization and miserons being against it. For the hedons category, a simple list can be shown: cleaner energy for the nation, more efficient production of energy, minimal harm to the environment, creates jobs for surrounding area, causes less harm to atmosphere than other sources of energy. The miserons category would contain the following: possible failure of nuclear reactor causing harmful material to be spread around surrounding area, creates CO2 emissions. Since the chance of a nuclear reactor failing is fairly minimal and the fact the CO2 emissions caused by nuclear power generation are miniscule compared to the other source of energy generation, I conclude that the development and utilization of nuclear power generation would be the correct action to take.

We can see that both theories come to the same conclusion, quite handedly. All the data points to this conclusion as well. I believe that with the outcome of both of these theories that my statement regarding the morality is correct. The development, research, and utilization of nuclear energy sources should be done.


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