Understandably, the recent weeks have witnessed quite a few debates about the risks and benefits of nuclear energy. Two of them have particularly caught my attention because they lay open more clearly some of the subtle points in the debate, and how some of them are also used to promote own views in other important debates in our societies, like nuclear weapons and climate change.
Taken together they have brought me to pore over the interaction between technology and democracy from the point of view of a hopefully informed lay person trying to understand and disentangle what experts have to say and how the voice of those experts is conveyed to the middle of the societies through the media.
In one of the debates, organized by The Economist, a majority of readers participating in the poll express their support for nuclear energy, albeit not by the broad margin I would have expected from a publication like The Economist: almost one third accept the motion that nuclear energy should be banned as an energy source in the future. What surprised me more in this debate were the arguments of the 'environmentalist proponent'. The most important reasons, according to his opening statement, are not the risks nuclear plants represent for the environment, but the risks that nuclear weapons pose to humanity.
In the second debate, hosted by The Guardian's Alok Jha, George Monbiot discusses against Helen Caldicott on more down-the-Earth-terms, including Chernobyl and the effects of radiation on human health. Monbiot defends the point of view that one does not need to love nuclear plants to accept the fact that they are now to most effective way to forego carbon emissionsand that phasing them out now would much more damaging for the global environment. An interesting point in the debate, which is indirectly related to the role of the IPCC in the realm of climate discussion, is how Monbiot defends the report issued by the UN Scientific Committee on the effects of atomic radiation, equating it to the IPCC Reports on Climate Change.
I must admit that on this issue my view overlaps significantly with Monbiot's. It seems to me that he behaves in a consistent way. He is not an expert on nuclear physics or environmental radiation and he has to rely on reports issued by experts endorsed by the UN. When those reports, like the IPCC's, tell him that the environment is in danger he aligns himself with the environmental movement. But when these reports indicate that the environmental movement is telling an untrue story, like in the case of nuclear radiation, he unswervingly confronts the environmental movement. This underlies the importance of UN Panels to summarize the scientific evidence and interpret it for the broad public, especially on these technically complex issues. But also how essential it is that these panels appear credible to most of us.
The more general thoughts that these polls prompted entail the role of technologies, or rather new technologies, in the behavior of societies. We have now several new technologies that have been developed in the last few decades, which the individuals of the world are mostly enjoying, but which Western democratic societies are still grappling with, either to assimilate them fully or to design legal safeguards to avoid their most nasty consequences if left unchecked. To name a few: the internet, nuclear power, genetically modified crops. In the case of the internet, it seems clear that its benefits vastly outstrip its risks and there has barely been a public discussion about the possibility of forbidding the internet. A very old, but very powerful and also very risky piece of human technology, was incorporated to virtually all modern societies, and it also is a software technology: money. Clearly, money has been the source of immense human suffering but its benefits are so incommensurable that nobody seriously promotes the idea of prohibiting money, although some libertarian societies in the early 20th century did. These technologies, along with automobiles or mobile phones, were simply adopted without much societal discussion. They just sneaked into life, and when vigilantes hurried to point out the risks, everyone else was already enjoying the benefits.
Perhaps the nuclear power lobby adopted the wrong strategy, and instead of building large 1-gigawatt plants to deliver as much energy as possible, nuclear power could have started with small, portable reactors, scattered all over the place. The failure of one of them would not have presented a serious environmental problem and once there, societies would not like to be weaned off cheap and continuous nuclear power even when confronted by a manageable and continuous stream of casualties, as it now happens with oil, coal or road traffic. The benefits of starting small and grow later are clearly that by the time you need political approval you are already too widespread, too necessary. Like money, for instance.