Nuclear Power and Sustainable Development

By Rogner, H. -Holger | Journal of International Affairs, Fall-Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Power and Sustainable Development


Rogner, H. -Holger, Journal of International Affairs


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, this 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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Since the late 1970s, nuclear power has been a particularly controversial topic. After almost two decades of great enthusiasm for the benefits of the technology, the public began to grasp the existence of the other side of the nuclear coin: the associated risks, ranging from plant safety concerns after the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island (TMI) in the United States, to the lack of a solution regarding the disposal of high-level nuclear waste, to economics and nuclear weapons proliferation. The ensuing debates were typically centered on individual issues where no common platform or benchmark was reached.

The publication in the late 1980s of "Our Common Future," also known as the Brundtland Commission Report, provided a platform for this debate as well as a flexible definition of sustainable development, which combined limited carrying capacities of ecosystems, finiteness of resources and human development needs. The Brundtland Commission was set to address concerns about "the accelerating deterioration of the human environment and natural resources and the consequences of that deterioration for economic and social development." (1) The report spawned the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. One outcome of UNCED was Agenda 21, a comprehensive action plan for sustainable development. Essentially, its chapters translate the Brundtland Commission's definition into more specific policy directions. Despite the fact that Agenda 21's forty chapters cover all aspects of sustainable development, almost all of which have a direct link to energy, it has no separate chapter dedicated to energy. (2)

The UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was established to oversee the implementation of Agenda 21. Energy was specifically addressed for the first time at the ninth session of the CSD (CSD-9) in 2001. CSD-9's decision on energy was a dedicated effort by the CSD to further translate the Brundtland Commission's definition of sustainable development into specific policy directions with respect to energy.

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