Is the use of nuclear energy ethically justifiable?

Is the use of nuclear energy ethically justifiable? Outcomes of the ECEN consultation process

     1. Background

The question of the use of nuclear energy has resonated within the ecumenical community for a considerably long period of time. Some churches entered into the discussion as long ago as the 1970ies; but nuclear disasters in Chernobyl and Fukushima were followed by decisions in a number of countries around the world to close down their nuclear facilities. This provided an additional impetus for building up a position arguing against nuclear power stations shared by a number of churches.

The 10th ECEN Assembly in 2014 focused thematically on the link between climate change and energy. The assembly did not come to a specific conclusion on the issue of nuclear energy. While acknowledging the relevance of the question, the Assembly committed ECEN to outline a process for an intensive and informed discussion. The aim of the process was:

  • To map the situation and collect churches’ positions and arguments shaping the discussion.
  • To bring different points of view into a fruitful debate through organising a specific consultation for European churches which should offer a space for clarifying concerns and different views.
  • To propose future steps.

     2. The workshop

The consultation took place on 17-18 April 2015 in Heidelberg. At the meeting 20 representatives of churches gathered from different parts of the continent and of different ecclesial background: Protestant, Orthodox, Roman-Catholic. The meeting offered a space for an intensive discussion and sharing of views.

     3. Arguments, concerns, positions

Some churches in Europe as well as a number of individual Christians across the continent views and positions on nuclear energy have are clearly negative to any use of nuclear energy. Some other churches are intensively involved in the discussion, or offer a space for an exchange of arguments and positions.  

Nuclear power needs to be considered in the context of overall energy use. Nuclear energy provides about 20% share on the total energy supply. The exact composition of the energy mix is unique in each country.

The advantage of nuclear energy is the low fuel costs and especially the fact that it is a low carbon energy source.

Critical negative factors are:

  • large initial and decommissioning costs
  • nuclear waste
  • danger of nuclear proliferation
  • safety
  • centralised nature of the process

NE in context of climate change:

  • It is difficult to replace coal and nuclear power at the same time
  • Climate change is a much more dangerous factor than nuclear power

Nuclear safety - accidents such as Chernobyl, Fukushima need to be taken seriously, however, it is possible to run nuclear power safely, if safety conditions are met

Nuclear energy and ethics

Questions which need to be seriously considered are:

  • An overall evaluation of nuclear technology and risk calculation needs to be revised
  • Save storage of nuclear waste
  • True costs of NE;  high external costs need to be calculated and not intentionally pushed out of calculations
  • Climate change: NE might be a bridge technology for a certain period of time, however, its use may come too late to have a positive effect on climate change
  • Danger of a sever accident is always present, technology is very much vulnerable and dependent on public opinion

In taking into consideration climate change and the current need of energy supply, we should not say strict no to nuclear energy. Nuclear power can be used as a transitory measure in the transition from fossil fuel use to renewable resources.

     4. Summary and conclusions

The ECEN Leadership team in evaluating the outcomes of the consultation at its meeting in October 2015 stated that:

  • For a number of churches in Europe the question of the use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes as a supply of energy a deep concern which is being seriously considered.  A number of churches have developed upon the issue of their clear positions formulated in documents or expressed in statements; in a number of them discussion continues in different fora.    
  • In their assessment of the use of nuclear energy churches in Europe present a variety of positions. Although sharing most of the presented points, and expressing a number of shared concerns, in which special attention is given to broader ethical questions, to the use of amount of energy which is needed and to the context of economy of enough, there are some points in which positions differ. Two most significant issues of difference are: different assessment of negative effects of fossil fuels and nuclear energy, and different assessment of an acceptable risk. In taking the arguments seriously as presented in this discussion and reflecting on this variety, ECEN is at the moment is not in a position to express a clear stand on the use of nuclear energy which would reflect all articulated concerns and avoid being simplistic.
  • ECEN will continue to offer a frame for a discussion with the aim to further clarify and deepen arguments, as well as for clarifying the reasons which lead to different positions.