Building new nuclear reactors is an ethical duty (for countries like Germany)

Is there a wind of change in Germany? The country has one of the strongest anti-nuclear movements in Europe, and the Atomausstieg (nuclear phase-out) was supported by a broad political consensus. But today, more and more German people, including political and business personalities, support the idea of extending the lifetime of the last three nuclear power plants in their country.

In response to growing international pressure, the German government has finally decided to keep two nuclear power plants in reserve for a few months, to prevent energy shortages this winter. Some are calling for the plants’ lifetimes to be extended for a few years beyond that, or even for the three reactors most recently shut down to be put back into operation, in order to reduce the country’s dependence on Russian gas. The president of TÜV has confirmed that this is technically possible and that the reactors are in excellent condition.

Others, especially the Green Party base, are already resisting the very limited lifetime extension that is now planned.

Traditionally, opposition against nuclear energy has an ethical dimension: nuclear power plants are regarded as uniquely vulnerable to momentous accidents; the energy source places an incalculable burden on future generations in the form of nuclear waste; and the underlying physics overlaps with that of nuclear weapons, meaning that expertise and infrastructure in this field can be misused.

Concerns of this kind seem to have also influenced the German Ethics Commission in 2011 when it claimed, without citing any specific evidence: ‘Nearly all scientific studies conclude that renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements pose lower health and environmental risks than nuclear energy.’

Amazingly, the Commission also gave preference to fossil fuels over nuclear energy, recommending – grotesquely from today’s perspective – more reliance on natural gas, despite the fact that fossil fuels contribute to 8 million deaths per year from air pollution and are the main drivers of climate change.

And this is not even to mention the fact that increasing reliance on gas has made Germany more dependent on Russia for energy.

In our own research, recently published in Philosophy and Technology, we have drawn on what scientists have actually found in terms of solid evidence on the climate, safety, and the economic aspects of nuclear energy. Our conclusion is that it is not only ethically justifiable to use nuclear energy, but for some countries even ethically required. Germany, too, should not just extend the lifetimes of the existing reactors, but build new ones if it can establish a democratic consensus to do so.

There are two main reasons for this conclusion, linked to two profound challenges facing humanity this century: the problem of dangerous global warming, and the problem of energy poverty, which is less prominent in people’s consciousness. Energy and human prosperity are closely linked. Even today, billions of people do not have sufficient access to cheap and reliable energy to escape poverty.

No energy source is perfect, but nuclear energy has a uniquely promising profile to help solve both problems, alongside solar and wind power. First, fission of uranium nuclei produces no emissions of greenhouse gases or pollutants, making the CO2 emissions per kilowatt-hour of nuclear energy among the lowest of all energy sources.

Secondly, uranium has an extremely high energy density; even today’s ‘inefficient’ reactors extract about 15,000 times more energy from one kilogramme of uranium than coal-fired power plants get from one kilogramme of coal. As a result, nuclear energy uses few material resources, takes up little space, produces only small amounts of waste, and has a very low overall environmental impact.

On New Year’s Eve 2021, the Brokdorf Nuclear Power Plant was closed down. (Photo: Alois Staudacher/Wikimedia Commons)

For all these reasons, it came as no surprise to us when the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) concluded in 2021 that, given these characteristics, nuclear energy should be included in the EU Taxonomy of Sustainable Activities, as there is ‘no scientifically sound evidence that nuclear energy is more harmful to human health or the environment than other power generation technologies already included in the EU Taxonomy’, such as wind and solar energy.

Thirdly, nuclear reactors, when maintained as well as those in Germany, are highly reliable and largely weather-independent sources of electricity. As a result, they reduce the need for infrastructure in the energy system, i.e. transmission lines, storage facilities and reserve capacities. The reactors still running in Germany could continue to safely produce cheap and clean electricity for several decades.

Moreover, if we can gradually make new reactors cheaper again (e.g. by providing cheap capital and ensuring an efficient and stable regulatory framework), these can be very helpful in preventing future increases in energy costs, which – as we are currently seeing – can be devastating for consumers and industry.

Put another way, if we rely solely on variable renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, we significantly increase the likelihood that we will miss our climate targets, because we risk continued reliance on fossil fuels as a backup and because people simply will not accept high energy costs beyond a certain point.

The risks posed by nuclear accidents and nuclear waste are tiny compared to the risks of climate change and energy scarcity. Systematic comparisons between different energy sources – inexcusably ignored by the Ethics Commission in 2011 – have long shown that, all in all, nuclear energy causes about as much damage to health per unit of energy produced as wind and solar energy, and far less than fossil fuels.

Nor is this expected to change. Even if unexpected leaks occur in a nuclear waste repository, it is extremely unlikely that fatalities or significant pollution will occur. The fears fuelled by Die Wolke, a catastrophist bestseller for young Germans which suggests that a nuclear accident could render large parts of Germany uninhabitable, are completely unfounded. The accident in Fukushima, which prompted the Merkel government to immediately shut down eight reactors and accelerate the nuclear phase-out, may not have caused a single radiation-related death.

In fact, the life expectancy of evacuated people was reduced when they were relocated to places like Tokyo, simply because air pollution in big cities is a much greater health risk than low levels of radiation (which abounds everywhere in nature). Not to mention the stress of the unnecessary evacuation itself, which cost the lives of hundreds of people, mostly elderly Japanese.

If Western countries like the US, France and Germany reinvest in nuclear energy, they will not only reduce their own emissions. More crucially, by rekindling a competitive and exportable nuclear industry, they can facilitate emissions cuts in other countries.

After all, if developing countries have no access to reliable clean energy, they will just build reliable fossil fuel power plants instead. Or Russian nuclear reactors, as Bangladesh and Turkey are currently doing. Is it wise to leave the leading role in an energy technology that is so important and so useful for climate protection to non-democratic countries like Russia and China?

Nuclear energy, due to its inherent physical attractiveness, will probably be gradually used by more and more countries anyway, albeit possibly more slowly than is desirable for climate protection. If we want it to happen more quickly and in a responsible way, with huge benefits for the climate and environment, we should help shape this development and not leave it to authoritarian regimes.

In particular, countries like Germany should build new reactors – preferably many of them.

Simon Friederich is Associate Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and a member of RePlanet’s Advisory Board and chair of RePlanet D-A-CH. Maarten Boudry is the current holder of the ‘Etienne Vermeersch’ Chair at Ghent University. He is the author of dozens of academic papers and a handful of popular books on science and philosophy. Together, they have authored the article ‘Ethics of Nuclear Energy in Times of Climate Change: Escaping the Collective Action Problem’, published in Philosophy & Technology. This is a translation of our opinion piece in the German newspaper Die Welt.