Nuclear Power: A Techno-ethical Perspective

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A Techno-ethical Perspective

Chapter 2 Nuclear Power: A Techno-ethical Perspective Raji C. Steineck

Introduction The generation of electricity through nuclear power is one of the emblematic technologies of the modern age: As a practical application of the theory of relativity, it exemplifies the link between science, technology, and industry. It follows the pattern of concentration and homogenisation that is typical of what is known as the Fordist paradigm of industrial production and social relations.1 To its proponents, it appears to be the one technology to date that has provided the answer to the ever-growing needs of capitalist societies for steady, affordable energy supplies. It is also increasingly promoted as an option against dependence on fossil fuels and, by the same token, as the one and only way to procure sufficient amounts of electricity without producing massive side effects, accelerating global warming, and depleting organic natural resources (Ritch 2008; Brand 2010). In a form that proved adaptable to changing circumstances, nuclear power has thus overwhelmingly been presented by its proponents as an option that is rational in a scientific, economical and societal sense, and therefore, a reasonable and responsible option. That has drawn opponents into the role of those standing against the very forms of rationality that are said to speak in favour of nuclear power, a role that many (although by no means all) have willingly accepted. The anti-nuclear side has thus rarely staged itself as the proponent of societal, scientific or technological rationality, and this has been a rallying point for anti-modernists from various sides.


For a succinct description of Fordism, see Roobeek (1987: 131–132).


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The present paper is based on the observation that this paradigm, while serving the interests of nuclear power generation, is in itself not based on unquestionable facts. On the contrary, its basic axioms well deserve critical scrutiny. I shall undertake such scrutiny here from the vantage point of techno-ethics. Based mainly on an analysis of the time-scale of nuclear energy production, I will argue that there are no available agents who can take on the responsibility for the utilisation of this technology. In the absence of responsible agents, nuclear energy utilisation takes on the form of organised irresponsibility. Because this is not accidental but inevitable, the choice in favour of nuclear energy is intrinsically irrational. My argument moves from the general to the specific, from observations on the very nature of technology and the fundamental ethical issues related to it, to their application in nuclear power generation. A necessary qualification to my argument is that it looks at nuclear power in absolute terms. In other words, there may be alternatives to this technology that are equally ethically inadequate, or come out even worse. That seems, in fact, to be the position of some of the supporters of nuclear energy, such as the famous ecological activist Stewart Brand, who especially highlights the vices of utilising fossil fuels such as coal. While a comparative study is outside the scope of this paper, it seems at first glance highly possible that many of the ethical disadvantages of nuclear energy also apply to the utilisation of fossil fuels. If this is true, rational reflection demands that we direct our intellectual, societal and material resources away from such technologies that exploit the past and the future, and towards a mode of production that is self-sustaining and re-creates the means for the re-production for future generations. This may well make another “industrial revolution” necessary, one that bases production on the principle that its results should be resources for further production, instead of waste, pollution and concomitant social disintegration (Braungart, McDonough and Bollinger 2007). But a sustained argument on this scale is outside of the scope of this paper. Suffice to say that I believe that the method of argumentation presented here applies to other technologies as well. If so applied, it may thus provide for general direction as well as for differential criteria with respect to available choices between technologies.

A Techno-ethical Perspective


Furthermore, a few remarks on the choice of sources may be necessary. In the course of elaborating my argument, I shall give special, albeit by no means exclusive, attention to critical concepts presented by Japanese philosophers and ethicists, and I shall rely on the example of nuclear energy utilisation in Japan for empirical evidence. My intention in highlighting Japanese philosophy of technology and techno-ethics is to provide a window into this under-explored discourse. From Miki Kiyoshi (1897–1945) to Murata Jun’ichi (b. 1948), Japan has a strong tradition of the philosophical appreciation of technology. Furthermore, prominent mainstream Japanese ethicists such as Katô Hisatake of Kyoto University (b. 1937) have taken a clear stance against nuclear power. While their position, like other anti-nuclear interventions, went unheeded in Japanese politics for a long time, I think it is important to note that such arguments had been around for more than a decade in Japan before the Fukushima nuclear accident, and that, if there ever was a pro-nuclear consensus in mainstream Japanese society, it has been a thing of the past for some time. On a different note, I also want to show that the ideas endorsed by the Japanese philosophers and ethicists I present here tie in well with reflections on the philosophy and ethics of technology developed in the West. This is, on the one hand, no surprise given the strong erudition Japanese philosophers and ethicists generally have in Western philosophical traditions. On the other hand, the conversation so far has been one-sided in that modern Japanese philosophy, with the exception of the “Japanist” ideas of the Kyoto School, has received little attention in Europe and North America. In my view, discussing the global problem of the ethics of nuclear power provides a good opportunity to remedy that situation and to de-provincialise the Western discourse.

Technics and Ethics Technology seems, at first glance, to be a matter of material objects and their impact on the human and natural environment. Specific technologies, from the hand-axe to the nuclear power plant, are after all produced in order to effect material changes in the human and natural environment. Their use may have social and psychological effects, but


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these tend to be seen as secondary. This popular view results in the conviction that technologies in themselves are ethically neutral; they can be used in a good or in a bad way, for good and bad purposes. This view makes sense if one sees in a technological system nothing other than an arrangement of physical matter, organised to effect further re-arrangements of such matter. Since matter belongs, according to the modern positivistic world view, to the realm of nature, and nature’s laws do not follow moral imperatives, technology, as “second nature”, belongs to a morally neutral realm. One may name this conception of technology as “technological naturalism”. As a consequence of technological naturalism, ethical considerations of technology must appear as something imposed from the outside. Consequently, the ethicist would be a stranger intruding on the pristineness of the technosphere. This, in fact, is a paradigm that is often invoked by technologists. And it is the standard paradigm socially realised in institutions such as institutional review boards, technological assessment centres and the like: Technology is invented, plans for its implementations are prepared by the specialists, and then everybody is made to wait for the approving nod from those obnoxious outsiders, the ethicists. Practical issues aside, the theoretical problem with this dualistic paradigm is that it disregards the social and cultural constitution of technology – an aspect that has been emphasised in Japanese philosophy of technology since Miki Kiyoshi’s (1897–1945) seminal work Gijutsu tetsugaku (Philosophy of Technology) (Miki 1966: 264–270).2 Any artefact is dead matter without a social and cultural system to support its production, maintenance, use, and decommission. Artefacts are “renaturalised” at once when this correlation and the social support behind it cease to function. They are technically viable only through their embeddedness in a technosphere, a human environment providing the concomitant technosystems, institutions, competence, and regulations guiding its use. That means that there is an ethics, in the narrow sense of a specific code of conduct, but also in the broader sense of a socially accepted way of life, behind the technological use of any given artefact. 2 Miki drew on his reading both of Marx and of the fledgling German philosophy of technology of the 1920s to 1930s. On Miki, see Townsend (2009).

A Techno-ethical Perspective


What is important is that this relationship of necessity works both ways: Technosystems come with requirements for certain codes of conduct, and they impact on the social fabric in which they are used. New technologies change technosystems, the technosphere, and therefore human culture. There can be considerable latitude concerning the actual ethical “framing” that supports the use of a given technosystem, which may translate to different codes of use. However, Murata Jun’ichi of Tokyo University, a leading Japanese philosopher of technology, pointed out that some technosystems, such as nuclear power generation, are so strongly tied to a distinctive socio-political fabric that they are “inherently political” (Murata 1998: 160–162; Murata 1999: 154–156; Murata draws on an example from Winner 1986). In any case, the “neutrality” of technology proposed by technological naturalism is a fiction exaggerating the independence of technosystems from the social matrix supporting their invention, production, and use. The practical interdependence of technology and culture (and therefore ethics) indicated above is, in the last analysis, more than a matter of empirical conditions: it is a sign of an intrinsic, essential relationship that works both ways. This relationship can be conceptualised clearly through following Ernst Cassirer’s (1875–1945) treatment of technology as a symbolic form. Cassirer, whose work has gained renewed attention in recent years3, sketched his theory of technology, which continues ideas elaborated in his main work on the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, in an article on Technology and Freedom (Cassirer 1985, first published in 1930). In terms of context, it deserves to be noted that he reacted to conservative reservations against technological rationality (specifically, to a publication by Hans Freyer, an important proponent of “Conservative Revolution”; Freyer 1929/30, but his dispute with Heidegger may also have been in the background). Cassirer conceived of technology as a symbolic form sui generis. This means that he attributed it with a normativity of its own, in contradistinction to that of science, art, ethics, law, or religion. Technology and ethics were thus clearly separated. But Cassirer also emphasised the relationship of technology and human freedom. As he saw it, technology is the one way in which human beings can make 3 For example see the special volume of Synthese 179-1 dedicated to discussions of Cassirer.


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nature serve their ends. It does so by accepting the objectivity of nature, and by creatively relating nature’s laws to human needs and ends. This makes the symbolic form of technology a pre-eminent realisation of human freedom. What this means in terms of ethics is that specific technosystems create spaces of discretion for human action. Without such spaces of discretion, there would be few things for human beings to decide: man would, in the words of Nitta Takahiko’s introduction to a standard volume on technoethics, be a “slave of nature”.4 It is therefore true that technology creates ethical problems, but this does not mean that it is in itself morally dubious. It creates the possibility of actions and decisions in a space of events that had hitherto been simply following the course of nature. The sphere of ethics is thus circumscribed through the range of technological possibilities, as becomes clear in the following statement by the eminent Japanese ethicist Katô Hisatake (b. 1937): “The object of ethical judgements are ‘possible actions’. The pertinent definition of ‘possibility’ is […] that it means the actions that can by and large be realised by a person of average capacity within our present human environment, including those technologies that could be developed in the near future” (Katô 1999: 313).

On the other hand, technology is dependent on ethics, insofar as it is a social and co-operative endeavour. Without the social coherence created and sustained by ethical standards (in the broadest sense), the distribution of labour that is at the basis of all but the most primitive technologies would be impossible. Parochial ethics, therefore, imply a limitation for the active participation in a technosphere. A society that accepts such ethics confines itself to, at best, the passive import and acceptance of those technologies that would require transborder distribution of labour, information, and goods. Technological progress depends on the development of a system of ethics that transcends the boundaries of communities, nations, or religions. There is thus an 4 Shizen no dorei 自然の奴隷 (Nitta 2005). Nitta (b. 1951) is a professor at Hokkaido University. He was the first Director of its Center for Applied Ethics and Philosophy (founded in 2007), the first center for education in applied ethics at a national university in Japan.

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intrinsic technological interest in a system of ethics that can integrate human beings beyond the limits set by these borders. Secondly, technology, as the creative symbolic form that implements human ends, does not provide a standard of evaluation for those ends. Its objectivity, the validity of its judgements, pertains to the efficiency of means. Again, we can follow Nitta’s explanation which ties in well with a critical reading of Cassirer’s conception of technology as a symbolic form. As Nitta emphasises, technology is dependent on ethics in two more specific ways (apart from ethics securing social cooperation): Firstly, there is a need to evaluate the objective of technological action, that is to answer the question whether the end of such action is justified. If so, a second question arises concerning the relationship between the proposed technological means and this objective: do the means conform to the end, or do they contradict it? (Nitta 2005: 6–7). To summarise, technology and ethics are qualitatively different, but mutually interdependent cultural modes of negotiating human existence. While ethical and technical assessments may in certain cases arrive at conflicting results, this does not mean that they necessarily oppose each other, or even that in such cases the ethical and the technical perspectives are irreconcilable. Quite the contrary, to demonise technology from an ethical point of view, or to ridicule ethics from a technological perspective, are both, in the last analysis, self-defeating strategies.

Fundamental Issues of Techno-ethics Traditionally, techno-ethics (the ethics of technology) has focused firstly on issues of safety, and secondly on issues of freedom. In recent discourse, the term “safety” has been critiqued, because it is conducive to the illusion of a no-risk utilisation of technology, and terms like “risk analysis and management” or, in the specific circumstances of the post-Fukushima situation, the more defensive term of “disaster reduction” have been suggested as alternatives.5 Safety / risk management 5 The term “risk” has of course gained prominence with Ulrich Beck’s concept of “risk society” (messai 減災) (Beck 1992). The concept of “disaster reduction” was introduced by the government-sponsored Higashi Nihon Daishinsai Fukkô Kôsô Kaigi 東日本大震


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concerns pertain to a) the dangers arising from the wrong or wrongful technical use of an artefact, and b) the immanent risks of regular utilisation (Nitta 2005: 9). As for a), the strong link to the social environment is again apparent: these issues include questions about the education of potential and current users (i.e. workers in nuclear power stations, an issue that became salient in the 1999 Tôkaimura incident) and the regulation of the accessibility of a technology (i.e. shielding nuclear power plants from terrorist attacks, regulating access to nuclear fuel). Pertaining to b), the immanent risks of regular utilisation, the German techno-ethicist Günter Ropohl (b. 1939) has highlighted the fact that risk analysis and management need to pay attention to all phases of technical action, starting from the processes of invention and planning, through building and utilisation, up until decommission, dissolution and re-cycling or disposal (Ropohl 1996: 90).6 Ropohl also proposed a useful morphological matrix of the different types of risks that can be correlated with technical actions, analysing them for the scope, determinability, influenceability, causation and acquaintance of possible damages and the determinability and influenceability of their occurrence. His matrix also includes an assessment of the distribution of possible damages between utilisers of a technosystem and “outsiders” (Ropohl 1996: 148). A systematic consideration of risks as suggested by Ropohl will make apparent the intrinsic connection between the technosystem and the social system that it both presupposes and modifies. This leads to questions of freedom which are related to, but not co-extensive with issues of risk management. Nitta summarises an extensive debate of the 20th century to the effect that many complex technosystems require tight regulation of human behaviour in order to operate properly and generate the benefits they promise. In such a techno-socio system, human individuals have to submit to the demands of the machine. They become the means of the tool that was invented to serve human ends. Whether or not they can, at the same time, retain their status of “ends in themselves” is one of the pivotal (and as yet unresolved) questions 災復興構想会議 (Conference for Concepts on Restoration after the Eastern Japan Great Earthquake Disaster, see Higashi Nihon Daishinsai Fukkô Kôsô Kaigi 2011). 6 Ropohl, who studied engineering and philosophy and taught at the Karlsruhe University (now: Karlsruhe Institute of Technology), has been instrumental in establishing and advancing a concept of technology assessment that goes beyond ex-post-evaluations.

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of modern social ethics (Nitta 2005: 10). It should be noted, however, that the practice of subjecting humans to a rigidly fixed and tightly controlled pattern of behaviour is not unique to modern technology. As Lewis Mumford famously argued in his The Myth of the Machine, it has been part and parcel of human culture ever since ancient kingdoms organised large labour forces into “mega-machines” in order to realise grand projects of construction and / or destruction (Mumford 1967: 188–211). Even where a technosystem does not demand a rigid chain of command in order to function, it can still have implications for the socio-political fabric that make its compatibility with political freedom an issue – and some have argued that this is precisely the case with nuclear energy (Jungk 1979; Murata 1999: 156). Yet another kind of question hinges on the issue of reversibility. Establishing the use of a technosystem can put a constraint of varying degrees on future decisions, and therefore on the freedom of a given society and its posterity. Nitta insists that even though the decision to restrict or abolish the use of an already established technology may be hard to accomplish, it would be fallacious to assume an inherent determinism is at work, and he points to historical precedents such as decisions to discontinue the use of certain agrochemicals, food additives, or, in certain countries, nuclear power (Nitta 2005: 12). This freedom is, however, constrained in principle by those technologies that, in the words of Katô Hisatake, destroy the identity-preserving mechanisms of nature, such as genetic engineering and nuclear fission. In these cases, the status quo ante cannot be restored, and human society has assumed, for all posterity, the responsibility to regulate the affected segment of nature (Katô 2001: 85). On a more general note, Nitta argues that there is an ethical responsibility to keep the horizon for future decision-making open; he especially emphasises that it would be unethical to depict a specific technological solution as inevitable, or to present technological progress as a natural process that follows a pre-determined trajectory (Nitta 2005: 12). Katô (2001: 64–70) also formulated three general principles of environmental ethics that, in his opinion, should function as general restrictions on individual and social discretion in a world where human


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behaviour, with the help of sophisticated technosystems, can impact the social and natural environment on a global scale: 1. All decisions involving grand-scale effects have to take into account the limitedness of global resources and the global connectedness of the ecosphere. Once the impact of a decision has repercussions on a global scale, it would be unethical to simply externalise the effects. 2. In the temporal dimension, the present generation has a strict responsibility to secure the continuability of the human race. It is furthermore obliged to refrain from shifting the burdens implicated with its behaviour on to future generations. 3. Katô strongly favours reviving the Kantian concept of “incomplete rights” and applying it to non-human nature. This would mean restricting the “egotism of mankind” and protecting the existence of non-human species wherever possible.

Nuclear Power: A Techno-ethical Appreciation So far, I have surveyed some basic concepts and tenets from the ethics of technology, paying special attention to the Japanese literature on the subject. This has also served to show that there is a fairly broad accord between Japanese and much of European and American literature. While not all that has been said above is uncontested, it seems fair to say that most of it represents common sense, and is independent of specific meta-ethical choices (e.g. Kantian versus Utilitarian legitimations of ethics). In the following pages I shall apply the concepts explained above to the issue of nuclear power generation, and attempt to probe the ethical rationality of this technology within the current reality of a globalised capitalist world. That is, I will leave out, for the time being, larger questions pertaining to the viability of capitalism and the social and moral choices it entails, including the choice to substitute “manpower” with “machine power” on a grand scale.7 Furthermore, I will focus on questions of the responsibility of “normal” and “peaceful” utilisation 7

A thought-provoking piece on this issue is Ivan Illich’s Energy and Equity (1974).

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of nuclear power generation. This is not to downplay the connection between the military and the peaceful use of nuclear power. These connections are a historical and social reality. Still, it seems meaningful to ask whether an entirely peaceful use of nuclear power generation, if possible, would also be ethically responsible and socially viable. My answer will be negative. 1. Based on an analysis of the temporality of nuclear power generation, I will argue that there is not, and never has been, a subject that could reasonably assume responsibility for managing the utilisation of nuclear power generation in an equitable manner. In the absence of such a subject, the choice of nuclear power is, and has always been, a choice for organised irresponsibility. 2. The agents that support, manage and utilise nuclear power have made a conscious decision to appropriate its perceived benefits while externalising substantial parts of its concomitant damages and risks to known and unknown third parties. 3. In light of this fundamental decision, and the consequent creation of social structures that sustain the inequitable distribution of benefits and risks, one should not be surprised to see the utilisation of nuclear energy accompanied by an assortment of associated vices, such as deception, corruption, strong-arm tactics and the like. 4. As we have learned yet again from the recent incidents in the TEPCO Fukushima-1 power plant, these associated vices in turn enhance the dangers inherent in the use of nuclear power, because they favour the existence of insufficient security measures, facility failures, accidents and the like. There is thus a vicious cycle inherent in nuclear power technology: the irresponsibility of the decision to utilise it translates, in so many ways, into irresponsible forms of utilisation, magnifying its detrimental effects.8

8 As readers familiar with anti-nuclear literature may note, this argument resembles ideas presented in the 1970s by Robert Jungk (1977, 1979), and taken up by Richter (2012: 105-109 and in the present volume). I developed my argument indepently from Jungk and avoid relying on him because of his emotional and polemical style, and the concomitant exaggerations in his writing. For some problems in Jungk, see the thoughtful review by Klaus Traube (1977), a former manager in the nuclear industry who was subject to harrassment by German national security agencies.


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Nuclear Power Generation: A Technosystem and its Temporality The following table gives an overview of the actions that comprise the utilisation of nuclear energy, according to the matrix of technological actions developed by Ropohl (1996: 90), modified for our case. For the sake of simplicity, I have included only those actions / facilities that are essential and specific to nuclear energy generation, from the mining of nuclear fuel to nuclear waste disposal, while leaving aside actions and facilities that are generic to electricity production and use, such as the establishment and maintenance of a power grid. I have added an estimated time-frame, as can be derived from historical experience and current planning, to each rubric, based on nuclear energy-friendly sources. Where applicable, I have used sources pertinent to Japanese facilities. Together, this will provide us with an idea of the time-span inherent in the normal and peaceful use of nuclear energy. In terms of time, the most prolonged phase of nuclear energy generation is the dissolution phase, which includes the management of highly radioactive waste with long decay periods. The time-span of a nuclear power plant in itself, however, is also much longer than the time of its actual utilisation for power generation, which usually amounts to up to five decades. To this, planning and building as well as decommissioning have to be added. Since planning involves the political processing of a contested issue, the length of this phase is highly variable, but rarely shorter than five years. The decommissioning phase regularly spans several decades: at the Tôkaimura plant in eastern Japan, it started in 1999 with a ten-year containment period in which radioactivity was allowed to naturally decline to a level where actual dismantling became possible. This second sub-phase started in 2001, and is scheduled to continue until 2020 (The Japan Atomic Power Company 2011). Spent nuclear fuel needs to be cooled and stored for several years before further processing, re-use or final disposal is possible. Mid-term storage facilities have to isolate nuclear waste for several decades. The safety of disposal for the most stable and highly radioactive materials has then to be ensured for a time-span in the order of tens of thousands of years (Sugiyama et al. 2002: 7).


A Techno-ethical Perspective

Table 1: Overview of actions that comprise the utilisation of nuclear energy Phase element Action Years Uranium procurement planning 5–10 - development - construction - testing production Nuclear power plants

Nuclear waste management and deposits

sale and transport planning


construction testing

? ?

utilisation: waste >10,000 processing and storage Source: Ropohl (1996: 90), modified

Assuming that all technical problems are solved, the utilisation of nuclear energy would therefore require an agent who could claim to be willing and able to guarantee proper management of the relevant facilities over the span of – at least – one century for uranium mines and nuclear power plants, and to ensure, as a minimum requirement, the keeping of records and the protection of sites for up to tens of thousands of years for nuclear waste management facilities. Who could be such an agent? Corporations in a free market do not qualify, because they are subject to bankruptcy on a short-term basis unless they receive some sort of guarantee against such failure from a third party. Such a guarantee, in turn, would, according to the theory and practice of the free market, be a license for mismanagement – a license that, all experience considered, would be used, and would result in the haphazard handling of facilities. And who could be the guarantor? In


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practice, states have assumed that part of the liability and responsibility for nuclear facilities that has been factored in (and has not been systematically externalised to temporal, spatial or social outsiders) and cannot be borne by corporations. However, there are only few states that have even a centennial record of stability. Among the major states that have endorsed nuclear energy, Canada and the United States have maintained territorial integrity and political stability over the past century (although Canada only received full legislatory independence from the United Kingdom in 1931). China, France, Japan, and Russia have all experienced invasion and partial occupation by enemy countries. In addition, revolution and civil wars raged in China and Russia in the 20th century. While in all instances those ruptures happened before the employment of nuclear power, there is no guarantee that they could not happen again – unless one counts the nuclear threat as such a guarantee. That, however, would couple the “peaceful” use of nuclear energy with the reliance on nuclear arms. Furthermore, as we have learned from the events of September 11, 2001, even the United States are not immune to violent infringements on their territory. As we are learning from the current financial crisis, the financial ability of states to fulfil their responsibilities is furthermore far from being guaranteed even in the absence of war. If the time-span in which management of nuclear facilities is required extends beyond the conservative estimate of 100 years, the absence of candidates that can reasonably assume responsibility for the relevant technosystems becomes even more salient. Even with such conservative estimates, the time-spans involved in nuclear power generation imply that the generation that actually utilises and benefits from a nuclear power plant for electricity generation, shifts the burden of managing the decommission of the plant and the processing and disposal of nuclear waste to another generation, that will not profit from, or be otherwise compensated for, this burden. Furthermore, once nuclear facilities are installed, future generations are duty bound to organise themselves in a way that makes management of these facilities (which no longer produce any useful output) possible. This is even more true if current planning includes future use of nuclear energy. For example, the Japanese official blueprint of 2006 demanded the maintenance of the current structure of the electricity

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industry, including its alignment with the government, for at least the next four generations (Yoshioka 2011: 340–341). The problem of time is intricately linked to the problem of scale. The building of a nuclear power plant alone (the essential technosystem that transforms nuclear fuel into nuclear energy) demands financial investment in the dimension of several billion USD. One of the Japanese operators, Kyûshû Denryoku, gives the cost for its most recent reactors, Genkai 3 and 4, built in the 1990s, as 399 and 324 billion Yen (approx. 3–4 billion USD) (Kyûshû Denryoku 2011). The total cost for the processing and storage of spent nuclear fuels for Japan is currently being calculated to amount to something in between 4 and 7 trillion Japanese Yen (approx. 60 to 86 billion USD) (Abe 2012). The decision of a society to adopt nuclear energy, that is to invest in the development, construction, operation and consecutive dissolution of nuclear power facilities (from uranium mines to long-term waste storage sites) thus means that a significant portion of material and immaterial resources will be tied up in this sector. Consequently, this society will have fewer resources available to develop other technologies. When Japan embarked upon nuclear power, a supplementary science budget of 3 billion Yen was approved by the diet for the fiscal year of 1954, of which 2.6 billion were earmarked for nuclear power (Yoshioka 2011: 70). When its government relied on proposals from the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) to meet the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol through increasing the share of nuclear power generation, this meant that no particular capital or intellectual investment was made to explore renewable energies and other alternative measures (Yoshioka 2011: 301–302). The financial burden can increase dramatically depending on the assessment of risks associated with the running of nuclear facilities. It is significant that the assessment of the total of risks from nuclear energy has never been put to the market for example by requiring electricity corporations to acquire insurance policies from private companies with complete coverage of all estimated risks. In most countries, nuclear facilities run with only limited insurance against the consequences of accidents; a substantial part of the burden of risk from nuclear accidents is shouldered by the state. The following statement from the World Nuclear Association is instructive:


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“Limitation of liability protects individual nuclear operators and thus is often controversial. By limiting the amount that operators would have to pay, the risks of an accident are effectively socialized. Beyond a certain level of damage, responsibility is passed from the individual operator either on to the State or a mutual collective of nuclear operators, or indeed both. In essence this limitation recognizes the benefits of nuclear power and the tacit acceptance of the risks a State takes by permitting power plant construction and operation, as with other major infrastructure” (World Nuclear Association 2012).

This effectively means that electricity companies that run nuclear power plants can privatise the profit, while socialising the burden for taxpayers in the case of accidents. That is also the case in Japan, where the state was not officially responsible for compensation in the case of accidents, but had to step in, paying 1 trillion Yen after the TEPCO / Fukushima Daiichi disaster, because the scale of damage and necessary compensations exceeded the financial capacity of the operator (Tôkyô Shimbun 2012). Accidents, by definition extraordinary, only epitomise a regular structure of risk distribution associated with nuclear energy. This structure is asymmetrical: the recipients of the main benefits of nuclear energy are regularly not those who also face the main risks. This is not accidental, but a result of the imbalance of power created by a technology that demands the pooling of huge amounts of capital and an alliance of state and industry in order to be operative. In Japan, the asymmetric risk distribution is especially salient. As has been vividly illustrated in a recent case study by Dusinberre and Aldrich, nuclear power plants are typically placed in remote, economically challenged areas with weak social institutions (Dusinberre and Aldrich 2011). The wealthy metropolitan areas thus thrive on electricity produced in nuclear power plants in the peripheries. While the host communities do receive financial subsidies that make acceptance of a nuclear power plant attractive, these are structured in a way that does not foster long-term economic self-sustenance of the host community. Instead, it induces fiscal and economic dependency on nuclear power generation, and even an incentive to apply for new power plants to be built in addition to the existing ones, because both the subsidies and

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the income from fix capital tax decrease over time once a power plant has started to operate (Itô 2011: 178–180). The power imbalance inherent in nuclear power also translates into unequal distribution of health risks: the highest burden, with the least concomitant compensation, goes to subcontracted workers in nuclear facilities, and to children living in the vicinity of the facilities’ sites. The situation of subcontracted workers received some attention after the TEPCO-Fukushima Daiichi incident, where they are the ones doing the work with the most dangerous exposure to radiation. But, as was made clear by a background report from journalist Y. Fuse in the June 2011 issue of Sekai, this is again only the epitome of a situation that extends well into the normal operation of nuclear power plants (Fuse 2011: 103–106). It seems obvious that the effects of the said power imbalance inherent in nuclear energy will vary depending on the social and political environment. Significantly, many of the world’s uranium mines are situated in countries like Kazakhstan, Namibia or Uzbekistan (World Nuclear Association 2011) without stable democratic systems and with dubitable human rights records. Japan, for example, relies substantially on uranium from Kazakhstan, which is known for its “quiet repression” and exploitation of workers (Berg 2008). Furthermore, in uranium-mining democratic nations like Australia (the largest source of uranium for Japan), Canada or the United States, the immediate environmental impact is on population groups that have historically been subject to discriminatory measures and are still fighting for equal social and political rights. The record of discrimination includes forced relocation for the sake of uranium mining, and exposure to hazardous amounts of radioactivity (Chartrand 1981; Stöcklin and Nyberg 2001; Lovelace 2009; Theprisma 2012). In any case, the decision to utilise nuclear power is inevitably a decision to concentrate resources and capital in the hands of large-scale corporations, and to back these corporations up with state guarantees (if they are not state-run companies anyway). This creates a conglo­ merate of power – known in the Japanese case as the “nuclear power village” (genshiryoku mura 原子力村) – that can, and in all experience will, use its might to twist public opinion and administrative action (Onishi and Belson 2011). In the wake of the Fukushima-1 catastrophe,


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the Japanese media started to expose the close personal and financial ties between industry, political parties, regulatory authorities, and the academy. It became clear that these connections had been used to manufacture societal consent for nuclear power, and to influence politics and regulations in favour of nuclear energy and the operators of nuclear power plants (Gendai bijinesu 2011; Ôshika 2011a; Satô 2011). Apart from influencing regulation and defusing supervision, the distortion of information and the twisting of public opinion has been an important result of such collusion. An example that received considerable attention in Japan was the funnelling, by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, of large amounts of taxpayers’ money (13.8 billion yen in the fiscal year 2008) into monitoring the press and the Internet for news and opinions unfavourable to nuclear energy with the aim of countering them with “correct” information, and the soliciting of public statements in favour of nuclear power (Ôshika 2011b). There were also reports about the harassment of opponents to nuclear power by the authorities (Kokita 2011), and the case of actor Yamamoto Tarô, who allegedly lost his part in a TV drama due to outspoken comments against nuclear power, started discussions on the influence of the nuclear industry on the media (Asahi Shimbun Dejitaru 2011).9 It is my hypothesis that such distortion, collusion and corruption are not accidental scandals, but an inherent feature of nuclear energy as a technosystem, because this technosystem requires the massive pooling of resources and the close co-operation and alignment of the interest of large corporations and national and regional authorities. The tendency for collusion and corruption can be partly remedied by conscious societal efforts for independent monitoring and supervision. Nuclear energy has, at least in recent decades, been more transparent in Germany than it was in Japan. It is, however, hard to see how truly independent supervision can be instituted under the extant sociopolitical conditions; and even if possible, this would mean tying even more social resources in with nuclear power. Because of the scale of investment necessary to build a nuclear power plant and the time frame involved, any impediment to its uti9 For a more in-depth account of the structure of collusion and oppression connected to nuclear power in Japan, see the recent study by Berndt (2012). Richter (2012: 105–113) recounts in some more detail criticisms recently voiced against this structure.

A Techno-ethical Perspective


lisation for electricity production means a huge economic loss. That produces a large incentive to lobby for lax regulation, delay testing and maintenance procedures, downplay accidents, and so on. In other words, there is negative feedback from the political structure of the nuclear technosystem on the security aspects of the technology. This starts with the planning of security measures and goes all the way to their implementation, supervision and adaptation to new findings. Historically speaking, security measures have been modelled on worst-case scenarios. While that sounds like reasonable and responsible behaviour, we have learned that incidents beyond the assumed worst-case do actually occur on a fairly regular basis, the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima being the most notorious examples. As it turns out, security measures have been tailored to political needs and profit expectations. The Fukushima power plant was again a case in point: both the company and presumably the supervising authority chose to neglect information about the effects of strong earthquakes and the possibility of tsunami waves of up to 40 meters in height when planning and revising security measures, as they did in respect to other nuclear power plants (Soeda 2011; Watanabe, Nakata and Suzuki 2012). Nuclear power companies even discouraged the production of robots able to operate under conditions of high radioactivity, because they denied there would be a demand for such machinery, which is now highly needed in the damaged Fukushima plant (Tamura 2011). In addition to insufficient planning of security measures, the Japanese nuclear industry has a sorry record of patchy implementation and insufficient supervision. Yoshioka (2011: 245–361) gives a detailed account of incidents and failures in nuclear power facilities resulting from an unwillingness to openly admit, and consequently address, security issues, and overall inadequate risk management. Again, the Japanese example only indicates how the structural cohesion between regulating authorities and regulated industry produces incentives that negatively impact handling the risks of nuclear power. It seems significant that the first case in which the German administration used strong words and strict measures against a nuclear power company was that of the 2007 and 2009 incidents in Krümmel, where the operator in question was not German, but the Swedish company Vattenfall (Spiegel Online 2007; Spiegel Online 2009).


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Conclusion To sum up the argument above, in the absence of a subject that qualifies as the responsible agent of nuclear energy utilisation, the implementation of this technology takes the form of organised irresponsibility. Moreover, the amount of resources that have to be pooled and concentrated in the hands of a few agents regularly leads to a concentration of power and structures of collusion that adversely impact the social and political environment. This again results in the enhanced potential for inadequate risk management, supported by structural incentives that work against the proper tailoring and implementation of security measures. In light of this mortal coil of irresponsibility, the ethically rational decision is to avoid nuclear energy, and to abolish it where it exists. As I have already mentioned in the introduction, a necessary qualification to this argument is that it has only looked at nuclear power in absolute terms. Some alternatives to this technology may be equally ethically inadequate, or come out even worse. In a situation where demand for energy can neither be met with ethically viable technologies, nor reduced immediately, one will have to choose between larger and lesser vices. There is, however, a clear direction that humanity has to take if it wants to meet the proud self-description of the human as “animal rationale” (and also, it seems, if it wants to survive the next two centuries): we need to direct our intellectual, societal and material resources away from technologies based on exploitation, and towards a mode of production that is self-sustaining and re-creates the means for the re-production for future generations. This will probably make a radical reorientation of the modes of production and reproduction necessary. Opposition to such reorientation may be powerful, but it is not rational.

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About the Authors


and modern identities, “Cool Japan”, historical revisionism and intellectual history. Selected publications: (ed.) Contested Views of a Common Past: Revisions of History in Contemporary East Asia. Frankfurt am Main, New York: Campus-Verlag, 2008; (co-ed.) J-Culture. Japan-Lesebuch IV. Tübingen: konkursbuch Verlag Claudia Gehrke 2008; since spring 2011 co-organiser of a website providing translations of Japanese texts related to the 3/11 triple disaster ( Astrid Sahm (Dortmund) Astrid Sahm currently runs the Berlin representative office of the International Center for Education and Exchange (IBB) in Dortmund. She graduated from Goethe University Frankfurt as a political scientist and wrote her doctoral dissertation on environmental and energy policy in Belarus and the Ukraine (published 1999). From 1995 to 2005 she worked as a research fellow at the Mannheim Center for European Social Research and as an assistant professor at the Chair of Political Science and Contemporary History at the University of Mannheim. From 2006 to 2011 she was the German Director of the Johannes Rau International Center for Education and Exchange in Minsk. In recent years she has been involved in several Chernobyl-related projects. She has published many articles on the processes of integration, transformation and national identity building in the Western CIS countries, as well as on environmental and energetic topics, peace and conflict research. Raji C. Steineck (Zürich) Raji C. Steineck is a Professor of Japanology at the University of Zurich and is director of its Institute for Asian and Oriental Studies. After graduating from Bonn University’s Department of Japanese Studies with a Master thesis on the philosophy of Nishida Kitarô, he went on to carry out doctoral studies in philosophy in Bonn and Kyôto, writing his doctoral dissertation on mystical thought (published 2000). In his post-doc phase, he turned to issues of technology and ethics. From 2002 to 2006 he worked with the German Research Foundation’s research group on “Cross-cultural bioethics”. The results were presented in a monograph on Notions of the Body in Japanese Bioethics (Würzburg 2007) and a study on “Research on the Human Embryo in China, Japan, and


About the Authors

Korea” (Munich 2008), co-written with Ole Doering and Phillan Joung, plus various contributions to journals and essay collections. Since 2008 he has held his present position in Zurich. He is currently working on the rhetoric of classical Buddhist texts and on issues of science, technology and ethics. Arata Takeda (Tôkyô / Chicago) Arata Takeda studied Humanities, German Studies, Romance Studies, and Comparative Literature at the International Christian University (Tôkyô), the University of Tübingen, and the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. He earned his PhD in Modern German Literature and Comparative Literature from the University of Tübingen. His dissertation Aesthetics of Self-Destruction: Suicide Attackers in Western Literature (2010) challenged the popular view of suicide terrorism as a non-Western phenomenon and caught the attention of the German media. He has been Lecturer in the German Department at the University of Tübingen (2008–2011) and Research Fellow at the International Research Center for Cultural Studies in Vienna (Oct 2011–Jan 2012). He currently works as a Feodor Lynen Research Fellow in the Department of Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago. He has published articles on cultural conflicts, intercultural understanding, literary translation, suicide terrorism, and transcultural education. Cosima Wagner (Frankfurt / Berlin) Cosima Wagner studied Japanese Studies and History in Marburg, Kyôto and Berlin. From 2003 to 2013 she has been lecturer and research fellow at the Japanese Studies dept. of Goethe University in Frankfurt, where she also received her PhD in 2008 with a dissertation on Robotopia Nipponica – Research on the Acceptance of Robots in Japan (published at Tectum Verlag in 2013). Her research and teaching activities take a cultural sciences approach to the analysis of the development and use of technology in Japan, a history of consumption and everyday life in Japan after 1945 as well as Japanese histories of objects since the early 20th century and on the discourse of the global boom of Japanese popular culture. Since September 2013 she has been Scientific Coordinator of the Cluster East Asia at the University Library Project “24 in 1” at Freie Universität Berlin.

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