Nuclear Power and Sustainable Development

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

A central goal of sustainable development is to maintain or increase the overall assets (natural, man-made, human and social) available to future generations while minimizing depletion of finite resources and without exceeding the carrying capacities of ecosystems. The essence of the Brundtland Report’s definition of sustainable development is expanding possibilities and keeping options open, not foreclosing them for future generations. The selection of technologies to advance sustainable energy development in any given country is a sovereign choice, and each country will need a mix of technologies suited to its situation and needs. As there exists no absolute yardstick for sustainable energy development and there is no technology without risk, wastes or interaction with the environment, nuclear energy’s compatibility with sustainable development objectives cannot be judged in isolation but only in comparison with available alternatives. This paper will provide such comparative assessments and specifically address concerns about nuclear power, such as the longevity of radioactive wastes, operating safety, weapons proliferation as well public and political acceptance. Based on the concept of weak sustainability’ and by applying a set of criteria for sustainable development, the paper will argue that the further development of nuclear power broadens the natural resource base for meeting growing global energy needs, increases technological and human capital, and, when safely handled, has little impact on human health and ecosystems along the full nuclear source-to-service energy chain. However, societies compare the benefits and risks of technologies from the menu of options available to them. As long as the real benefits exceed the risks of nuclear power, societies tend to accept the technology. The recent renaissance of interest in nuclear power is the result of changes in the risks and benefits of its key alternatives.
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