Nuclear Energy, Risk, and Emotions

 By Prof.dr. Sabine Roeser *

The pictures of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima are in our minds and are updated daily. People from around the world feel compassion for the Japanese, who have had to cope with a triple disaster: earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident. At the moment of writing this piece, it is far from clear how the latter of this apocalyptic triad will end. In the meantime, the debate about nuclear energy has taken an unexpected turn. In the last few years, there was a growing consensus that nuclear energy would be the solution to generate energy without CO2 emissions. The probability of an accident was said to be negligible. However, now that an accident has occurred, many people wonder whether nuclear energy is a really wise option (cf., e.g., Macilwain 2011). Germany immediately shut down several nuclear reactors, and the German Green Party achieved unprecedented results in the local elections due to its anti-nuclear position.

Nevertheless, there seems to be one constant factor in the debate about nuclear energy: proponents call opponents badly informed, emotional, and irrational, using these notions more or less as synonyms. However, such rhetoric denigrates and hinders a real debate about nuclear energy. In addition, it is simply wrong to equate emotions with irrationality, as they can be a source of practical rationality. I will argue that rather than being an obstacle to a meaningful debate about nuclear energy, emotions can be an important source of ethical insight that should be taken seriously.

Often when a new technology is introduced, a typical pattern can be observed: society is alarmed and worried about its risky aspects, whereas experts assure them that the risks are negligible. Policy makers typically respond to this in two ways: either they ignore the emotions of the public or they take them as a reason to prohibit or restrict a technology, as is the case with genetic modification in many European countries. Let me call these responses the technocratic pitfall and the populist pitfall, respectively. Experts and policy makers emphasize that a dialogue with the public is impossible as it is supposedly ill-informed and so emotional about certain risks that they are immune to rational, objective, scientific information. This pattern has occurred in regard to nuclear energy, cloning, genetic modification, carbon capture and storage, and vaccination, to mention just a few of many hotly debated, controversial, technological developments. Stalemates such as these may seem unavoidable. At least as long as we take it for granted that emotions are irrational and impenetrable by rational information. However, there are developments in the psychological and philosophical study of emotions that can shed an entirely new light on these issues.  Read more >

* S. Roeser, Philosophy Department, University of Twente, Enschede, The Netherlands & Philosophy Department, Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management, Delft University of Technology, Jaffalaan 5, 2628 BX Delft, The Netherlands e-mail: S.Roeser@tudelft.nl

 

Europe debates risk to bees

By Daniel Cressey for Nature

“Across the globe, hives of honeybees are dying off in a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder. Among the proposed culprits are pesticides called neonicotinoids, which are supposed to be less harmful to beneficial insects and mammals than the previous generation of chemicals.

Debate over neonicotinoids has become fierce. Conservation groups and politicians in the United Kingdom and Europe have called for a ban on their use, but agricultural organizations have said that farmers will face hardship if that happens. Next Monday, European governments will take a crucial vote on whether to severely restrict or ban three neonicotinoids.” Read more >

Global Risks Report 2013

World Economic Forum

The report analyses 50 global risks in terms of impact, likelihood and interconnections, based on a survey of over 1000 experts from industry, government and academia.

This year’s findings show that the world is more at risk as persistent economic weakness saps our ability to tackle environmental challenges. The report highlights wealth gaps (severe income disparity) followed by unsustainable government debt (chronic fiscal imbalances) as the top two most prevalent global risks. Following a year scarred by extreme weather, from Hurricane Sandy to flooding in China, respondents rated rising greenhouse gas emissions as the third most likely global risk overall.

The findings of the survey fed into an analysis of three major risk cases: Testing Economic and Environmental Resilience, Digital Wildfires in a Hyperconnected World and The Dangers of Hubris on Human Health. In a special report on national resilience, the groundwork is laid for a new country resilience rating, which would allow leaders to benchmark their progress. The report also highlights “X Factors” – emerging concerns which warrant more research, including the rogue deployment of geoengineering and brain-altering technologies.

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Global Risks Report 2013

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