The PhAct Collective is invited to make an intervention at another classical nuclear science and technology conference (the International Youth Nuclear Conference, 6 – 10 August 2012), this time in Charlotte (US). The intervention will consist of a lecture and a moderated discussion with young professionals. The topic will be the politics and ethics of nuclear technology applications, with a special focus on the muddy waters between peaceful and military applications. Contact us for more information on this event.
Due to the specific character of its associated risk, the societal justification of nuclear energy technology is troubled by moral pluralism. That is: even if we would all agree on the scientific knowledge base for the assessment of the risk, opinions would still differ on its acceptability. Science may thus inform us about the technical and societal aspects of options, it cannot instruct or clarify the choice to make.
The matter becomes even more complex if we take into account the fact that science can only deliver evidence to a certain extent. Today no one will deny that nuclear science & engineering have reached significant levels of maturity. Despite this, the existence of inherent uncertainties, unknowns and unknowables puts fundamental limits to understanding and forecasting technological, biological and social phenomena. And in addition, scientific insight or not, we cannot but to accept that three important factors remain to a large degree beyond control. These are human behaviour, nature and time…
On the other hand, public and political acceptance of nuclear – as a proof of societal trust – is nowadays regarded as an essential element for any energy policy that envisages the future use of nuclear as an energy technology option. Today, the nuclear option has to comply to a triple standard in this sense. It shares the criterion of economics with fossil fuels and renewables, and it shares the need to control a technological risk with fossil fuels (although their risks are essentially incomparable). And, compared with the other energy options, it stands alone with its responsibility to prevent misuse in contexts of military deterrence or conflict. On top of that, the global social and environmental agenda requires all energy options to comply with the criterion of sustainable development, however without a consensus among science, politics or civil society on how that compliance should be assessed or evaluated…
Looking at this deconstructed ‘picture of evidence’, one can wonder if and how it is still possible to rationalise the justification (or rejection) of nuclear as an energy technology. Can we only be cynical and claim that societal trust is something you should buy, mediate or declare through tactical communication and strategic political alliances? Or could societal trust be generated by an intellectual inclusive, reflexive and transparent societal debate? And, if so, how can this debate deliver practice-oriented consensus?
The interactive roundtable will explore the science, politics and ethics of nuclear technology assessment by starting from an analysis of the complexity of nuclear risk governance and by linking these insights to questions on knowledge use and decision making formats that characterise the ‘political act of justification’. The objective is obviously not to undermine the credibility of science or politics with regard to this act of justification as such. Rather, the aim is to provide better insight into the complexity of nuclear risk governance and to discuss as well its ethical foundations as the possible role of the nuclear scientist, engineer and manager in the social and political act of justification.