The Ethics of Nuclear Energy: What price are we willing to pay to adapt to modern energy demand?

In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripyat, Ukraine contaminated thousands of square miles with radioactive waste, taking many lives and leaving the surrounding lands completely uninhabitable for decades. As one of many instances of radioactive contamination at the hands of poorly maintained nuclear reactors, Chernobyl raised ethical concerns of nuclear energy programs globally.  While the prospect of increasing nuclear energy production as an alternative to fossil fuel usage may be advantageous for long term environmental benefit, it also raises a short term public health and ecological concern due to the possibility of nuclear meltdowns, environmental contamination, and radioactive waste disposal. Diverting from fossil fuels, one of the largest sources of carbon emissions, is an endeavor based in the ethical values of utilitarianism and responsibility to the environment.  In order to maintain this vision and to preserve human and environmental well being, is it crucial to improve risk management in relation to possible radioactive impact, an idea that this presentation thoroughly explores.


On March 11, 2011, an earthquake struck the town of Fukushima Daiichi, Japan followed by a 50 foot tsunami that destroyed a significant portion of the coastline. As a result of such events, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors were destroyed, and all three of the reactors’ cores completely melted down within the first day of the incident. As a result, dangerously high levels of radiation were spread throughout the region, causing over 100,000 inhabitants of the surrounding areas to evacuate their homes in a chaotic search for protection against this obscure threat. There are no recorded fatalities as a direct result of nuclear exposure, although well over 1,000 people died during the unexpected evacuation due to the aftershocks of the earthquake.  Sizeable amounts of residual nuclear fallout were recorded in the following months after the incident, but these figures are disputed due to the lack of available units to record radiation levels after the incident as a result of widespread power outages. While the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) have concluded that there will likely be no discernable radiation-related health issues amongst members of the exposed population, not all experts agree with this conclusion and data is continuing to be gathered. Aside from contention within the scientific community on this matter, it is too early to know what long-term health issues may be the result of exposure in the immediate Fukushima community.

While the recent Fukushima incident often is cited as evidence for the perspective that nuclear energy is dangerous and frightening in nature, it was not an isolated event in terms of the public reaction, as other nuclear energy accidents fuel concerns about nuclear energy.  In 1989 in Chernobyl, Ukraine, a melt down at a nuclear power plant attributable to flawed reactor designs and untrained maintenance personnel left city largely uninhabitable to this day.

Still, an air of fear and distrust continues to surround nuclear energy due to decades of the media’s negative and destructive portrayal of this energy source. To correct preconceived notions of nuclear energy, this paper will discuss the facts relating to its production processes, the benefits of nuclear energy, and the current and future place it holds in domestic sustainable energy production. To encompass all viewpoints on surrounding this topic, the paper will also include an analysis of nuclear energy’s safety, environmental and ethical implications to allow the reader to reach informed conclusion.

Factual Background

The United States is the world’s leading producer of nuclear energy, accounting for over 30% of global production. Nuclear energy also currently accounts for 20% of U.S. energy output from 98 operational nuclear power plants, making it the largest sustainable energy source in the U.S.  The nation’s nuclear energy output has steadily risen in the past few decades, and nearly doubled since 1980.

As suggested by the rise of U.S. nuclear energy production, nuclear energy is attractive to nations and energy corporations alike due to its many benefits. First and foremost, nuclear energy is a sustainable source of energy production as it results in zero carbon emissions due to the fact that no substance is burned to produce the energy, unlike fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas. Further, nuclear reactors can reliably produce energy 24 hours a day, resulting in an efficient and readily available energy source to meet high demand. Despite high startup costs of constructing nuclear power plants, the production process of nuclear energy is relatively cheap. Finally, nuclear energy is a practical method of increasing sustainability in energy production systems. Alternative sustainable energy sources such as solar and wind are intermittent, require massive plots of land, and are in the early stages of integration in energy production systems considering the recency of the technologies. However, hundreds of nuclear plants are already operational, require little land coverage, continuously and reliably produce energy, and already play a large role in the US energy output.

The process of nuclear energy production begins with the mining of Uranium-235, an abundant source of concentrated energy.  At the nuclear reactor, the energy production process begins within the reactor vessel. Through a process called nuclear fission, the unstable isotopes of  Uranium-235 are split, releasing a burst of heat energy from the atom’s nucleus which continues in a chain reaction, ultimately producing large amounts of energy. Similar to other forms of energy production, the heat energy produced converts water into steam which turns turbines to power electricity generators that disperse the produced electricity to the power grid.

However, nuclear fission is a highly radioactive process that poses a health risk to surrounding populations. Radiation is the movement of energy in space and comes in multiple forms, including ultraviolet radiation from sunlight, which we control our exposure to in order to prevent skin damage.  Some forms of radiation (such as the radiation produced in Uranium fission) release a high level of energy that is detrimental to live tissue even in small quantities. If a reactor vessel sustains damage or a significant malfunction, it can result in an large-scale spread of radiation into the surrounding environment considering the uncontrollable nature of fission chain reaction.  This intense radiation has the ability to damage DNA molecules, posing a safety risk to individuals as well as the surrounding environment, as seen in prior nuclear disasters. With proper maintenance and regulation of the nuclear plants, however, the chance of a large-scale disaster occurring is extremely low. The majority of modern nuclear reactors are constructed with containment shells, structures with the ability to contain the spread of radiation in the rare instance of an issue occurring. Only three major accidents (Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima) have occured in the 17,000 cumulative reactor years of nuclear plants in 33 countries across the globe. Despite the statistically low threat of an incident, it is a primary concern surrounding nuclear energy usage. In addition to these concerns, nuclear energy is not technically considered to be a renewable energy source considering the finite supply of Uranium. While it is currently readily available, the mining extraction process is expensive, environmentally harmful and labor intensive.  Lastly, a large concern surrounding nuclear energy production is nuclear waste, the residual radioactive material produced as a result of the fission of uranium atoms. Due to the unsafe levels of radiation emitted from this material, it must be transported to and stored in underground depositories to stabilize over extended periods of time. Not only are these transportation and storage processes expensive, but they also pose an environmental and public health concern in regards to the unknown long-terms effects of these practices and the risk of a nuclear accident.

Safety as an Issue

The issue of safety is at the forefront of nuclear energy debates considering the health  threat to the general public due to radioactive nature of Uranium fission that could be released in the instance of an accident.  While the risk is low and only continues to decrease with technological advancement and improved regulatory and maintenance measures within nuclear plants, the chance of devastation is still present and requires acknowledgement. The overarching question that frames this topic is if the possibility of harm could outweigh the multitude of good that can stem from this innovation. While this question can be analyzed from multiple perspectives, the benefits of nuclear energy production and its practicality within the US specifically

While concerns surrounding nuclear energy production are valid, it is also important to consider the safety implications of current modes of energy production that are largely dismissed.

Responsibility as a Necessity

While the general public could potentially be impacted in the instance of a nuclear disaster, they do not have direct say or authority over the maintenance and regulation of nuclear plants to ensure safety and minimize risk. The majority of nuclear plants in the U.S. specifically are commercial, as they are owned and operated by independent power corporations such as Duke Energy and GE-Hitachi.  However, the U.S. government currently plays a large role in the nuclear energy sector through subsidies and regulation (on a federal and state by state basis). With the great corporate and governmental power concerning this energy source comes the great need for their responsibility in ensuring public safety. The assurance of their responsibility is a necessity not only for public safety but also public trust in terms of increased integration of this controversial and largely unknown energy source.

The Role of Corporate and Governmental Transparency

To gain the trust and comfort of the general public, the assurance of responsibility needs to be expanded to providing transparency from the producers to the consumers.  The main factor contributing to apprehensions associated with nuclear energy is the lack of education of the general public regarding its benefits and low accident risk. However, the public is not at fault for this stigma.  In terms of nuclear energy’s media appearance, only negative instances of its existence have been highlighted. These past disasters now frame the perspectives of the public on nuclear energy, resulting in an inability to separate associations of danger from the the energy producer. To change biases on nuclear energy, corporate and governmental forces responsible for its production must engage in efforts to educate and include the public on matters of nuclear plant operations. In the state of New Jersey, the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and the PSEG Nuclear LLC (the operator of the Salem and Hope Creek Generating Stations in southern NJ) have construction a comprehensive education and safety program for NJ residents in close proximity to the generation stations.

Non-Maleficence as an Approach to Energy Production

Idealistically, the concept of producing energy is rooted in the idea of creating the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people. Our modern energy producing systems serve the purpose of improving human lifestyle and raising convenience in daily life. Without the benefits of modern energy production, not only would the the average lifestyle change internationally, but the ability to continue technologically innovating on a large scale would be greatly reduced. While the idealistic purpose of our modern energy systems is the reap the greatest possible benefit and to insight no harm, that is not the current reality. In order to meet the high (and only increasing) energy demand, human and environmental protection has been sacrificed.

Works Cited

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